O’Brian’s game of composers

Paul Bettany as Maturin and Russell Crowe as Aubrey in Master and Commander. (20th Century Fox)

Having just had a capital meal of lasagna to celebrate a removal of sutures from the gap left by an extracted tooth, I am reminded of a passage I marked years ago in Patrick O’Brian’s The Nutmeg of Consolation, 1991, fourteenth in his series of Napoleonic era sea novels, which I am rereading. In the margin near the passage are the scrawled names of Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, actors who played Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin, so I had probably just heard of the movie patched awkwardly from several books in the series, and thus I probably read Nutmeg in in 2003. The movie was called Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Though beautifully filmed, it was something of a disappointment.

Anyhow, this passage opens after Aubrey suggests to Maturin that they continue a musical game they often played (after meals on board) as amateurs on violin and cello. Here is O’Brian’s description of the game:

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.”

The game’s last round the captain claims to have won.

“Winning, for all love: how your aging memory does betray you, my poor friend,” said Stephen, fetching his ‘cello. They tuned, and at no great distance Killick [Aubrey’s manservant] 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 t’other from one [one tune from another]. Never nothing a man could sing to, even as drunk as Davy’s sow.”

“I remember them in the Lively: 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.”

Killick’s reaction to the kind, forgiving sentiment of his mate Grimshaw puts me in mind of my feelings toward … well, I will not go there. But the game Aubrey and Maturin played I find intriguing. As a non-musician who loves classical music (as readers of this blog are well aware), the game strikes me as well beyond the level of playing that might be practiced in moments of leisure by amateur musicians today. I hope I am wrong, but in reading passages like this (and many others in the 21 volumes of the Aubrey-Maturin series), I am persuaded that all the endeavors of Western civilization (and maybe others, as are often described in the exploits of these historical novels) have today reached levels perishingly low. That is certainly true of architecture.

Aubrey and Maturin played their game in around 1814. As I say, I imagine that today’s young musicians – amateur or professional, and surely among the most civilized of people – would hardly be capable of such an erudite musical game. Again, I hope someone will tell me I am wrong. But all you need is eyes to know I’m right about one of civilization’s highest achievements: architecture. As with music generally, architecture achieves beauty (and with it, towering intellect) only by building upon and learning from the achievements of the past.

(Here is an interesting post from 2012 about Aubrey and Maturin as musicians on the website Boston Musical Intelligencer.)

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, dbrussat@gmail.com, 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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5 Responses to O’Brian’s game of composers

  1. Pingback: O’Brian’s recreation of composers - Zbout

  2. John the First says:

    “The game they played was that one should improvise in the manner of some eminent composer”

    “As I say, I imagine that today’s young musicians – amateur or professional, and surely among the most civilized of people – would hardly be capable of such an erudite musical game.”

    I have not actually lived in these historical times.., but as a far as I know, improvisation has been part of classical music culture, even on stage. Classical music culture is now focussed on conservation, even to the point that they do not dare to touch on the ‘sacred’ notes on the score.
    Improvisation requires an alive music culture (all what that means), there being no alive classical music culture in that sense (culturally, culture-spiritually), let alone that there can be improvisation in the ‘manner of a composer’. It’s not ‘erudition’, which is academic…, but the difference of a culture which is alive in spirit, or a culture which is based on ‘conservation’.


    • John the First says:

      In the ‘manner of a composer’, imitation based on erudition would produce a spiritual travesty, so, ‘in the spirit of a composer’? (which requires skill and knowledge of course).
      Try doing that today, the composers being dead isn’t the problem, the cultural spirit being next to dead. You could drill modern classical musicians until they beg for mercy, stuff them with knowledge until their heads explode, it’s of no use.


    • Regarding your first comment: You forget, John, about that vital part of music culture which is the virtuosity of playing that denotes the quality of a performance by the collective of an orchestra and its individual musicians. Even when playing the “sacred” notes of a composer, virtuosity is a living part of music culture (classical and otherwise), whether it is improvisational or conservational.


  3. LazyReader says:

    Modern public intellectuals will always attribute differential outcomes in society to Oppression, rather than behavior. As with music, architecture, science……..it’s a byproduct of respect for intellect and cultural behavior. Germans living in eastern Europe; had MUCH higher incomes and prosperity than the indigenous of eastern Europe. Intellectuals attribute that to Oppression. But Economists attribute it to Work Ethic. Anyone with any historical knowledge, knows even oppressed people can climb up the social/economic ladder. German’s did it, Polish did it, Americans did, Japanese did it, Chinese did. Blacks in Germany raised post WWII, share near equivalent grades/progress of their white peers? Unlike what happened in America post WWII? Why, Because there was no ingrained black subculture that forced them to pick perception over progress.

    Members of lagging groups like it or not; Assimilate into the values of larger society in order to get ahead. There’s various reasons certain people accumulate wealth……. But extolling those virtues eliminates the role of intellectuals. They would have to do what Scottish philosopher David Hume did, which is Urge his fellow 18th century Scots, To learn the english language. Because it would open up the whole world to them…..not available otherwise. Seldom is attention paid this day and age; to illustrate the differences in culture and behavior among the economically successful and economically challenged. Nor how they can improve themselves by availing themselves to culture around them.

    The Scots were the best example. They were once one of the poorest, least educated group in all of Europe. Once they began to educate themselves and learn the English language.
    And in a mere century; Britains’ leading intellectuals WERE SCOTS.
    – David Hume in Philosophy
    – Adam Smith in Economics
    – Joseph Black and William Cullen in chemistry

    A rare circumstance for intellectuals to admit. Most intellectuals today would rather argue about dragging the successful down and clinging to culture. Insurgencies throughout history always face uphill battle. Where whites in he South Came to the city they largely gave up Ghetto Culture cuz it didn’t do them anygood, Blacks In America turned it into “The Authentic”.Sure rap and hip hop culture served as an artistic outlet and voice for an underprivileged community; it turned a lucky few into millionaires/billionaires; but overall it also helped popularize and spread a lifestyle that no one should be envious of that put so many black lives 6 feet under.


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