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.)