Don't call me Ishmael.
Like Melville's character, I did feel called to the sea, but I'm afraid I won't be shipping out anytime soon.
When I was a lad, books like Captains Courageous and Two Years Before the Mast, The Sea Wolf and later, Moby Dick, all gave me dreams of being a sailor. But after several Channel crossings and a sailing weekend on Lake Superior, I've found I don't have the stomach for it. It seems I'll have to keep my sailing adventures to the printed page, and the silver screen.
Fortunately, a writer-friend of mine, Kij Johnson, loaned me a copy of Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian, and I joined the club devoted to "the best writer you never heard of" (as Kenneth Ringle called him in The Washington Post).
With Peter Weir's new movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" opening on November 14th, I expect the audience for O'Brian will be growing.
I could go on for pages singing the praises of O'Brian's prose, the depth and humanity of his characters, his incredibly rich language, the texture of his historical settings, and, of course, all of the sailing lore. Others have done this better before me, however.
But as a classical music broadcaster, I have to give O'Brian especially good marks for the way he treats music in his novels. How could you not love a writer who ends a rollicking sea adventure, The Letter of Marque, with everyone on deck singing an aria from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte!
In the very first novel of the series, Master and Commander, we're introduced to Jack Aubrey in a music room scene worthy of Jane Austen (no surprise, since she was a favorite author of Patrick O'Brian). An Italian string quartet is playing "Locatelli's C major"—a bit of poet license, perhaps, since Locatelli doesn't seem to have written any quartets (in The Hundred Days there is a reference to Locatelli's C major TRIO, however).
Sitting on one of the little gilt chairs is our very human hero, in his best Navy uniform, staring intently at the bow of the first violin.
At the end of the program, Jack Aubrey is still offended enough with his neighbor's condescending remark and attitude that he's ready to "snatch up his little gilt chair and beat the white-faced man down with it." But he chooses to be civil, instead, and we discover that his aloof neighbor is Maturin, the man who will accompany Jack Aubrey not only on his many adventures to come, but in many an evening of chamber music—Jack on the violin and Stephen Maturin playing the cello, flute, or piano.
And so, in the space of four pages, we meet our two heroes—yin and yang, or chalk and cheese—and we find ourselves in Patrick O'Brian's world. A world where serious music is taken seriously, and, where people don't take their music vicariously—they make it themselves.
Patrick O'Brian obviously had a great love of, and sensitivity to, music. In The Ionian Mission we learn that even though Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey were very different,
In the same novel, Aubrey asks Maturin if he has ever met Bach. When Maturin asks him which one, Aubrey says the "London Bach," i.e. Johann Christian Bach, to distinguish him from Johann Sebastian Bach, whom Aubrey calls "old Bach."
In a scene in the second novel of the series, Post Captain, we are treated to the parallel between the wind that drives a sail, and the wind that brings life to music:
Jack wanders into a chapel
When Jack tells the organist of his disappointment, the elderly parson/organist replies
Is it strange for a man of war to be a man of music? Not a bit. Frederick the Great of Prussia would take his flute into battle with him. He concertized nightly, after dinner, with C. P. E. Bach providing keyboard accompaniment and his teacher, J. J. Quantz, looking on and saying, "Bravo," after every movement (there are worse gigs!).
In his notes to the CD "Musical Evenings with the Captain, Volume I" Patrick O'Brian speculates that many an 18th century naval officer, once on board ship, would attempt to master the German flute "with the help of a manual adapted to the meanest intelligence." Mozart wrote his first flute quartets for a naval surgeon with the Dutch East Indies company. In The Yellow Admiral Mozart's Oboe Quartet even figures into the plot!
O'Brian says the tastes of most musical amateurs in the navy at the time of the Napoleonic Wars were conservative. Mozart at the most modern, with "occasional stragglers like Clementi and Hummel."
Yet even so, what vast expanses of joy and delight lie between these limits: quite apart from men of the rank of Handel, Gluck or Haydn there were many, many admirable composers of charming music—Avison, the lesser Bachs, Paisiello, Albinoni, Molter, Fasch, the Zelenkas, Locatelli, even Arne—to name only a few—and it is in these wide plains, this great wealth of talent that Aubrey and Maturin wandered at large whenever duty, the dangers of the sea and the violence of the enemy allowed them to do so.
Peter Weir’s new film is adapted from the novel The Far Side of the World. Together with Master and Commander and The Letter of Marque they have nearly thirty smart musical references ranging from "a great deep roaring Dies Irae" (from the Mass for the Dead) that startles the quarterdeck, to an "often-played yet ever-fresh" sonata of Corelli.
I was happy to hear filmmaker Peter Weir say in a recent interview that he listened to "hundreds of CDs" while planning and directing his new movie "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." Russell Crowe, who plays Jack Aubrey in the film, is a musician himself; however, his band, 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts, probably doesn't play a lot of Locatelli and Mozart.
If you want to explore the musical side of Patrick O'Brian's world further, "Musical Evenings with the Captain" Volume I & Volume II offer a selection of the kinds of pieces that would have been a part of the Aubrey/Maturin world.
The soundtrack recording from Peter Weir's new film, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" has a nice chamber arrangement of part of a Mozart violin voncerto that would have been well suited to the gathering in the Captain's cabin. It also has some Bach, Corelli, and Boccherini pieces that fit the mood of the novels.
For a more detailed look at the theme of music in the Aubrey-Maturin novels, a good resource online is at www.io.com/gibbonsb/reper mtoire.html .