Musical skyscrapers afloat

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Painting by Geoff Hunt, artist for many O’Brian covers. (

Here is a passage from The Nutmeg of Consolation, the 14th volume of Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume naval novel, set in the Napoleonic era. Capt. Jack Aubrey and his surgeon friend Dr. Stephen Maturin, one evening in the South China Sea, are playing on their violin and ‘cello as they often do, this time enjoying a musical game that, it seems to me, can be compared to aspects of structure and creativity in classical architecture. (A skyscraper is a high triangular sail lofted to take advantage of a light wind.) Aubrey and Maturin are overheard on the other side of the bulkhead by the captain’s steward and his mate:

They tuned, and at no great distance Killick said to his mate, “There they are, at it again. Squeak, squeak, boom, boom. And when they do start a-playing, it’s no better. You can’t tell the one from t’other. Never nothing a man could sing to, even as drunk as Davy’s sow.”

“I remember them in the Lively [replies William Grimshaw]; but it is not as chronic as a wardroom full of gents with German flutes, bellyaching night and day, like we had in Thunderer. No. Live and let live, I say.”

“Fuck you, William Grimshaw.”

The game they played was that one should improvise in the manner of some eminent composer (or as nearly as indifferent skill and a want of inspiration allowed), that the other, having detected the composer, should then join in, accompanying him with a suitable continuo until some given point understood by both, when the second should take over, either with the same composer or with another. They, at least, took great pleasure in this exercise, and now they played on into the darkness with only a pause at the end of the first dog-watch, when Jack went on deck to take his readings of temperature and salinity with Adams and to reduce sail for the night.

They were still playing when the watch was set, and Killick, laying the table in the dining-cabin, said “This will stop their gob for a while, thank God. Keep your great greasy thumbs off the plates, Bill, do: put your white gloves on. Snuff the candles close, and don’t get any wax or soot on the goddam snuffers – no, no, give it here.” Killick loved to see his silver set out, gleaming and splendid; but he hated seeing it used, except in so far as use allowed him to polish it again: moderate, very moderate use.

He opened the door into the moonlit, music-filled great cabin and stood there severely until the very first pause, when he said “Supper’s on the table, sir, if you please.”

O’Brian’s ability to milk the quirks of class differences is well illustrated. That, along with what parallels may be drawn on innovation in classical design, exemplify the sort of literary dance that plays merrily (or otherwise) in the widest variety of keys throughout this series. O’Brian’s subtle weaving of contemporary prose with period inflection conveys the tone of Regency period English usage without (modernists will love this) any affectation of “copying the past”: the joy of the sound and the feel of history without the difficulty. The writing of this Englishman who pretended through most of his life to be Irish (at age 30 he changed his surname from Russ in 1945; he died in 2000) has been compared by respectable critics with that of Jane Austen and others of equal renown.

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Dr. Maturin and Capt. Aubrey (Paul Bettany, Russell Crowe) in the 2003 film “Master and Commander,” a disappointment to many Patrick O’Brian fans. (Warner Bros.)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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1 Response to Musical skyscrapers afloat

  1. says:

    How are you?

    Sent from my Sprint phone.


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