Thursday, August 30, 2012

Music and the Sea

No, this isn't going to be a post about Debussy's La Mer. I've been re-reading some of my favourite novels by Patrick O'Brian about the Royal Navy. A few years ago the director Peter Weir filmed one (actually a composite of different novels) starring Russell Crowe entitled Master and Commander. It had a great ending, that I think I have mentioned before. As the Captain and his physician play a jaunty duet for cello and violin, the camera slowly rises up and up, high above the ship, until you can glimpse in the distance the ship they are chasing.

But music plays a very large role in the novels themselves, of which there are twenty. The very beginning of the first novel is set in the music-room of the Governor's House at Port Mahon on the island of Minorca, at the time a Royal Navy base. The novels take place during the Napoleonic Wars and as both main characters, Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend Steven Maturin, are avid players, music is a constant theme in the books. A C major quartet by Locatelli is on the program at the concert in the music-room which is also the occasion of the two characters' first meeting. They while away many hours at sea playing music of the time by Boccherini, Mozart and even Bach.

Among other things, the novels illustrate in sound historical fashion, some of the roles music played at a time before the mechanical reproduction of music. People played instead of listening to their iPod. Here is an example: Steven has just told Jack some very good news that eases his mind considerably and in response:
He threw aside the pen he had been chewing, walked across the cabin, took up his fiddle and played a wild series of very rapid ascending trills that vanished quite out of hearing.
 On another occasion Steven has learned that his wife, whom he loved deeply, has been killed in a carriage accident and composes a pavane. Jack, looking it over exclaims that it is terribly sad, then shocked that he said it aloud asks for forgiveness. Steven pauses for a moment and merely says that he believes that all music is sad (echoing something Schubert once said).

There are also other functions of music in the novel: work songs used by the sailors when hauling in the anchor or dance music for their free hours played by fife and drum.

The novels are a marvelous story of a friendship and a realistic historical picture, one facet of which shows the social aspects of music. It enabled the instant expression of emotions too pure for words, an outlet for sorrow, the easing of hard work and the delight of dance.

The question in my mind is regarding the difference between actually making music, which might involve an entirely different part of the brain than just listening to music. See this post for some reasons why. In our present day society by being mostly mere consumers of music made by others, are we short-changing ourselves by not developing this musical side of the brain?

Here is the ending to the film with music by Boccherini:

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