Richard Halley (born 1965), in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, was a composer of music who became the fifth person to join the strike of the men of the mind called by John Galt. His disappearance was a mystery to everyone except those who came to know him.
Of the early life of Richard Halley, the novel says nothing, except that he was composing concerti and even an opera at a very young age. Halley composed in what might have been called a "neo-classical" style. Like nearly all such composers, Halley struggled to earn his living, because he refused to compromise or "prostitute" his art for the sake of popular taste. He wanted to celebrate the best that man could be in all his music. Sadly, his listeners had begun to believe that man was "no good," and therefore most of them did not appreciate his music.
The details of Richard Halley's story come mainly from Dagny Taggart's recollection of the mystery surrounding his disappearance, and from an interview that Halley granted to Miss Taggart after she became an uninvited guest of the valley in June 2019, the last year of the strike.
Richard Halley wrote four concerti for piano and orchestra. He also wrote a full-length opera, Phaëthon, based on the Greek mythic figure who tried to drive the chariot of the sun and nearly wrecked it, forcing Zeus to kill him out-of-hand. But in Halley's version, Phaethon kept control of the chariot and drove it successfully across the sky.
Halley premiered Phaëthon in 1989, at the age of 24. Audiences howled with rage. How dare he rewrite the classics! He would spend the next nineteen years in abject poverty, scraping for a living wherever he could. This was one of the most tumultuous eras in American history up to that time, with the initial impeachment of Mr. Thompson, and then a runaway Constitutional convention that destroyed the government and put in place a new government of which Mr. Thompson was now Head of State for close to life. But Halley paid no attention.
He premiered his fourth concerto to very good critical reviews and box-office receipts. Yet his overwhelming sense was that he had won a hollow victory. The critics said that his music was great only because he had suffered much in the creating of it. Halley considered that the critics missed the message. Worse yet, he strongly sensed that the critics would never accept the message even if they understood. Nor did he imagine that his audience understood his music any better than had the critics. His audience, in short, offered him pity, and pity was a thing he found patronizing, and even insulting.
His final insight into what he called "the looter in spirit" came when he revived Phaëthon in April 2008. Now audiences cheered. But they were cheering the struggling artist, with absolutely no appreciation for the work itself. He sensed also that his listeners expected him to acknowledge their value, specifically by virtue of his own achievement. Then and there he formed a resolution that his listeners would "never hear a note of [his] again."
He was last to leave the concert hall that night. As he walked the deserted streets, a young man waited for him, under a lamp. This man impressed Halley immediately, because he not only understood the message of his music, but gave every indication of appreciating it. But he did not spoil the interview by saying that "the people" somehow "needed" his music. Instead he told him, quite simply, that his listeners clearly did not deserve to hear it!
The young man's rather striking message captivated Halley. The composer then asked the young man his name. The visitor was, of course, John Galt.
Halley canceled all his concert engagements and moved to a never-disclosed location, intending to live on his box-office purse, and after that to "take the lowest job [he] could find," at John Galt's suggestion. He sold outright the rights to all his work, for whatever he could get. Now he was back in the garret apartments and eating at the cheap delis—only now he accepted his situation with a pride he had never felt before.
Three years later (2011) came the news of the sudden and surprisingly orderly liquidation of Midas Mulligan's bank in Chicago, Illinois. In the fall of that year, John Galt reached Halley and passed along an interesting invitation. According to Galt, Mulligan had systematically bought out the old twice-stricken ghost town of Ouray, Colorado, and several miles of the river valley that ran through it. After liquidating his bank, Mulligan had built a house among the trees on the eastern slope of the valley, and stocked it copiously with supplies. Galt had shared Halley's story with Mulligan, and Mulligan had said that he would be very pleased to have Richard Halley as a tenant in his valley.
Halley enthusiastically accepted Mulligan's offer, came to the place now known as Galt's Gulch, and built his own modest house there. Halley grew fruit trees on the large leasehold that Midas offered him, and in his spare time composed a fifth concerto (The Concerto of Deliverance, dedicated to John Galt) and several other works. The novel says of the motifs of this concerto that "they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself." He played regularly, primarily in "command performances" before Midas, but also in annual concerts held every June during the strike period, as other strikers would gather in the valley to rest and compare notes. These engagements, such as they were, brought him a fairly comfortable living.
Then, in November 2017, Ellis Wyatt joined this commuity and led a large number of businessmen who came to the valley to reorganize their businesses within its confines. With those relocations, the strikers who had once been content to hear his concerts one month out of the year, now lived in the valley full-time. That allowed Halley to run a much-expanded annual concert season and play to much larger audiences.
Richard Halley no doubt heard that certain popular "composers," who actually were not worthy of the name, stole some of his motifs from his fourth concerto and used them, without attribution, in their work, usually for motion picture scores. But he gave no indication of caring about that, probably because John Galt gave him every reason to believe that those plagiarists would lose everything in the coming collapse of the "outside" society.
On May 31, 2019, Dagny Taggart dropped in—literally, from a height of 700 feet above ground level—for a visit. Halley had heard often from John Galt that Miss Taggart loved his music more than anything else except the great railroad she ran. He granted her a privilege that he had offered to few people in the valley: a private concert, during which he played his Fifth Concerto.
Like all the other prominent men of Galt's Gulch, Halley was disappointed to see Dagny Taggart depart the valley at the end of June. He little guessed when she would be back, nor under what circumstances.
Whether Halley was part of Ragnar Danneskjöld's hastily organized militia that rescued John Galt from his torturers at the State Science Institute, the novel never makes clear. With that rescue came the final collapse of the "looters'" society. In April 2020, John Galt announced that the strike was settled by default and that the men of the mind could return to the world. Presumably Halley appeared on a re-established concert circuit with a world premiere of his fifth concerto for piano and orchestra, and yet another revival of the opera Phaëthon.
Spoilers end here.
Richard Halley is a type of any composing artist having a vision that goes beyond what most of the public might have a taste for. He seeks to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit, but the people in the society in which he lives don't consider the human spirit to be "triumphant" at all. Most artists in that position would simply create for the public whatever they or some "marketing expert" might say that the public wants. Yet such artists rarely, if ever, achieve any fame that endures beyond their particular era. Richard Halley sought to be another Ludwig van Beethoven, or another Igor Stravinsky, and create works that men would remember long after he had died, because those were uplifting works that celebrated the best that man could be.
Remarkably, Richard Halley survives, and even thrives, because he finds a wealthy patron, i.e., Midas Mulligan. Most classical composers had such a patron-client relationship, either with royalty or with nobility. Those who did not, very often lived and died poor. Yet their music endures despite that, and is no greater, nor less great, for having been written in a context of suffering.
Actual music style
The actual music style that Ayn Rand had in mind as the style in which Richard Halley composed is never described in the novel. But Barbara Branden's biography of Rand contains multiple hints. Early in her life back in Russia, Rand once heard a marching tune that she fell in love with, almost to the point of obsession. To anyone who asked her about it, she gave it the name "tiddlywink music," and never once tried to describe, in the context of her philosophy, why she appreciated it.
- Williams, Anne. SparkNote on Atlas Shrugged. 9 Jul. 2009 <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/atlasshrugged/characters.html>
- Branden B, The Passion of Ayn Rand