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Pianist Stephen Siek on Rachmaninoff and Ayn Rand

New Romanticist: Who is Stephen Siek?
Stephen Siek: 
I still consider myself primarily a pianist, and I think this is essential for anyone who desires to achieve the full range of musical expression possible at the instrument.

The physical skill demanded to interpret the works of Chopin, Rachmaninoff or other masters is so great that only constant, unrelenting work can enable you to meet those challenges. At various times in my life, I’ve sought to focus exclusively on the piano, pursuing a performance career where the opportunities presented themselves, and I’ve also done a great deal of teaching. I have played the instrument since I was very young, and I began to study it quite seriously when I was in high school, but I didn’t develop an interest in the scholarly side of music until I was in graduate school.

I was fortunate at the University of Maryland to have some excellent music history professors, and by then my interest in Objectivism had convinced me that anyone who neglects the intellectual questions posed by his discipline is at a serious disadvantage, so my enthusiasm to address more abstract, scholarly questions was piqued. When it came time to pursue a doctorate at the University of Cincinnati, I reasoned that since I already had two degrees in piano, I might do myself more good if I chose a Ph.D. in music history, rather than another performance degree. Although it was a lot of work, I’ve never regretted that choice. Today, I enjoy being involved in both areas, but it’s often a tremendous challenge to remain competitive, because both fields are dominated by hyper-specialists.

New Romanticist: How did you get interested in Ayn Rand?
Stephen Siek: 
When I was in high school, I purchased a copy of–and partially read–The Virtue of Selfishness, which had just been published, so that by the time I got to college, I knew the name Ayn Rand. At the time, I don’t remember being totally resistant to her ideas, but I didn’t understand them very well. Unfortunately, through most of my freshman year, I was still fascinated by many leftist, and even mystical, intellectuals. By the spring, I was getting more and more depressed and unhappy–it was becoming painfully clear to me that they were not offering satisfactory answers to any of life’s questions.

Oddly (and fortunately) enough, there were several music students at Maryland who were quite interested in Objectivism, and at the urging of one with whom I became very close, I finally agreed to read Atlas Shrugged. I finished it some time in the early summer, and I went through a fairly intense period of soul-searching and self-examination, but by the fall of my sophomore year, I was committed to Objectivist ideas. I think I knew, even then, that that was to be a permanent commitment because I had finally found the answers which had always eluded me.

New Romanticist: How did you get interested in Rachmaninoff?
Stephen Siek: From the time I was about 16, I was very serious about the piano, and Rachmaninoff was a natural extension of that interest since he wrote so much piano music. About that time, I remember buying an LP of the Second Piano Concerto, and I marveled at it, but I also wondered if I could ever become accomplished enough to play it, since it was obviously such a difficult work.

Shortly after that, I bought a recording of the Third Concerto, and I remember playing it again and again. I didn’t know that music could sound like this-that it could ever mean this much or make me feel so much. To this day, I think I owe a great deal of my decision to remain in music all these years to Rachmaninoff since his work spoke with such an emotional power and intensity that it pointed, like a beacon, to a world that I always wanted to reach.

New Romanticist: What is the relationship between Rachmaninoff and Ayn Rand?
Stephen Siek: Like many people, shortly after I became interested in Objectivism, I became somewhat curious about the person who had originated the ideas to which I wished to commit my life. Decades before it was possible to do internet searches, I remember going to the library and for hours poring over the Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature in hopes of finding occasional magazine articles about Miss Rand. I was always filled with glee when I found one–even though they were generally uncomplimentary.

One evening–I must have been about 19–I stumbled on a lengthy piece in an old Saturday Evening Post, and read with interest about her enjoyment of Hugo and Spillane. But since, at that time, I had read neither author, the discussion remained a bit abstract. However, I could scarcely believe my eyes when I read that her favorite composer was Rachmaninoff.

I still remember feeling, at that moment, one of the deepest senses of satisfaction I’ve ever experienced, and all I could do was smile and say to myself, “Of course.”

At that time, I don’t think I even knew the term “sense of life,” but on some level I think I knew that we were questing after the same universe and since I also knew that she did not allow contradictions in her thinking, I took away an unprecedented confidence that my kind of universe was obtainable. If that confidence one day becomes conviction, I think there are few values in life that can be greater.

New Romanticist: What is the value of your course on Rachmaninoff to Objectivists?
Stephen Siek: Over the past decade, I’ve been privileged to give a number of courses for Objectivist audiences on music and musicians, but the course I’m most often asked to repeat is a course I gave some years ago on the music of Rachmaninoff.

I’m delighted that this time I not only have an expanded format of 6 hours, but also the opportunity to offer a full-length piano recital of some of Rachmaninoff’s most wonderful solo works. It’s my hope that people will feel that the experience of hearing this magnificent music is an end in itself–an indispensable end–for it provides the kind of emotional fuel required to achieve one’s values.

But an intellectual examination of Rachmaninoff’s personal and musical development achieves several important additional values: 1) it offers a portrait of the last great Romantic composer, and places his work in a meaningful historical context; 2) it surveys the intellectuals’ resistance to Romanticism and provides intellectual ammunition for those who may find their deepest, most personal values attacked in today’s world; and 3) whether or not one embraces Rachmaninoff as his favorite composer, this course provides an insight into the music which most consistently reflected Miss Rand’s sense of life. Within the limits of what is possible without a comprehensive aesthetics of music, we will examine some of the elements that give Rachmaninoff’s music its distinctive emotional power.

New Romanticist: Thank you Stephen. I look forward to your conference lectures and courses at the Summer 2002 Objectivist Conferences.

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