As anyone who’s read even the first sentence of our beloved series knows, music plays an important part throughout. In a way, it’s the only thing our two protagonists have in common, the thing that unites them and the foundation of their friendship. Therefore it is unsurprising that the man responsible for the creation of those protagonists and their unique and beautiful friendship had strong and well-informed views on the music of the late 18th/early 19th century. The following is from the liner notes of Musical Evenings with the Captain: Music from the Aubrey/Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian.
Canned music has been with us for so long that scarcely anyone living can remember a time without at least gramophone records, to say nothing of radio, television, cassettes or CDs: and it is not at all easy to realize how much music people made for themselves in former years. ‘We were a nest of singing birds,’ said Dr. Johnson, telling Boswell of his time at Pembroke College; but now, if the young gentlemen at Oxford sing at all, it is probable that they do so by proxy. To be sure, there is no ceile in Ireland without a fiddle and sometimes pipes or a noson lawen in Wales without lovely singing and perhaps a harp; but for the immense majority of people music is something made by others and very often reproduced mechanically.
How entirely different it was in Nelson’s time. He and nearly all his officers and men came from what was still a largely agricultural country studded with well-attended parish churches: and in these churches the instrumental music was very often supplied by villagers stationed in a gallery at the west end and playing violins, flutes of various kinds, oboes, sometimes clarinets, and not infrequently that fine strong-voiced woodwind the serpent. The importance of these musicians can scarcely be exaggerated: their presence, both in the gallery and on secular occasions—ale-house, weddings, or dancing on the green—meant that a young man joining the Navy came from a community in which the playing of a musical instrument was an everyday matter. In most villages he was almost sure to have a cousin, uncle or closer relative who was a tolerable performer, and he was quite likely to have some knowledge of an instrument and a score himself.
It is scarcely surprising therefore that in his letters home Collingwood should so often speak of the fo’c'sle concerts on quiet evenings in the Mediterranean when the hands, piped up to dance and sing, would provide remarkably good entertainment.
The officers and midshipmen who walked the quarterdeck were unlikely to have played in the church gallery or to have sung in the choir; but they necessarily attended and absorbed live music, joining in for the hymns and psalms in the old, tuneful, metrical, rhyming Sternhold and Hopkins versions; and their musical culture was continued at home, if only by the custom that required a dinner-party to end with piano or harp playing by the young ladies, and song. Where cultivation proved inadequate once they were on board, the unfortunates tried to bring themselves up to the level of their betters, often by learning to play the German flute with the help of a manual adapted to the meanest intelligence. Naval memoirs and correspondence frequently refer to these pertinacious efforts as one of the graver miseries of life in a man-of-war.
Yet upon the whole it is probably fair to say that the sea-officers of that time knew more about music, serious music, than their modern counterparts, above all in the matter of playing themselves, improvising and even composing; for at that period the cult of Philistinism, so general in this century, had not yet invaded the fighting services. And it is certain that they attended concerts and the opera, above all in Lisbon and the Mediterranean ports, in remarkably large numbers.
Even so, although many were musically literate, they still belonged to the Royal Navy, that deeply conservative body in which tradition counted, and still counts, for so much; and I have the impression that only a very few of the most advanced would have had anything to say to the early Romantics. For the majority, and certainly for the people I write about, music would for most purposes have come to an end with Mozart, apart from some occasional stragglers like Clementi and Hummel.
Few, except for the devotees of the Academy of Ancient Music, would have gone back much farther than Corelli, some very great names were therefore unknown to them except by hearsay or the odd chance-found score.
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, Paisello, 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.
Written by Patrick O’Brian for the liner notes of Musical Evenings with the Captain: Music from the Aubrey/Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian, performed by Philharmonia Virtuosi. Copyright 1996 S.A.Publishing Co., Inc. Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company.
Image: Shipmates Carousing on Shipboard by William Henry Pyne. Courtesy of the NMM.