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The Patrick O'Brian Newsletter: Volume 5, Issue 1

October 1996


Editor's Column

The many fans of Patrick O'Brian have much to look forward to this autumn, beginning with the release of the long-awaited eighteenth volume in the Aubrey/Maturin series, The Yellow Admiral, on October 21, which is, of course, Trafalgar Day. On that same day, both The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore, rollicking precursors to Aubrey/Maturin, will be published in paperback editions.

Yellow Admiral Cap

To celebrate The Yellow Admiral, we have commissioned a handsome blue cap—baseball or yachting, depending on how you see yourself—with the title in gold stitching. Order the cap by calling our order department during business hours: (800) 233-4830.

A recent release of related interest is a CD recording of the music mentioned in the series, performed by the Philharmonia Virtuosi under the direction of Richard Kapp. It is entitled "Musical Evenings with the Captain." (See the piece in this Newsletter entitled "Patrick O'Brian on Music" for details.)

Next year we hope to have two particularly pleasing and important books, both scheduled for fall publication. First is The Patrick O'Brian Companion, which will have information on every conceivable aspect of the novels and their historical background, and including many handsome illustrations. It will be compiled by a panel of experts in various fields under the watchful eye of David Lyon of the National Maritime Museum, and with the blessing of the author himself. In the meantime, beware of imitations. Lobscouse and Spotted Dog will be a cookbook with lively commentary on virtually every "wittle" mentioned in the novels. I can report on the basis of firsthand experience that these dishes, painstakingly researched for authenticity, are simply delicious. In August, authors Anne Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas hosted a party on Long Island that featured Clam Chowder, Roast Suckling Pig, Roast Lamb stuffed with a Pudding of Yellow Rice, and a dazzling spread of those other puddings that so fascinate and torment O'Brian enthusiasts: Plum Duff, Spotted Dog, Jam Roly-Poly, Treacle Pudding, Treacle-Dowdy and Seed Cake. The list itself seems fattening.


Patrick O'Brian on Music

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.

From 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. Reprinted by permission of ESS.A.Y Recordings.

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