The sound of friendship

foremastToday Mrs. T and I are vacationing on the coast of Maine. We’re also in the pleasant and singularly appropriate process of jointly rereading Patrick O’Brian’s twenty Aubrey-Maturin novels, which tell the fictional tale of how Jack Aubrey, a Royal Navy captain, and Stephen Maturin, his ship’s doctor and best friend, fought alongside one another in the Napoleonic Wars.

I paid tribute to these marvelous books when I reviewed The Yellow Admiral, the eighteenth title in the series, for the New York Times Book Review in 1996:

O’Brian’s present popularity is to some extent a fad, but it is also justified. To say that his books are a cut above the average historical novel is to miss the point: Aubrey and Maturin are to Capt. Horatio Hornblower what Philip Marlowe is to Perry Mason. Nor is his superiority merely a function of his ability to tell good stories in stylish prose. Having read the entire cycle more than once, I continue to be astonished by the breadth of O’Brian’s cultural awareness—among many other things, he writes about music with the knowledge and gusto of a highly cultivated amateur—and while he wears his learning lightly, it is central to the effect these wonderfully civilized books make. In The Letter of Marque (1990), for instance, Stephen Maturin and his wayward wife, Diana, reconcile in a scene modeled on the finale of The Marriage of Figaro, and the reference is not gratuitous: rather, it adds immeasurably to the richness of the novel’s emotional texture.

In the end, what makes the Aubrey-Maturin novels memorable is their moral gravity: rarely does one encounter in nominally popular fiction so Trollopian an understanding—and acceptance—of the divided nature of men’s souls. O’Brian does not deal in cardboard heroes, which is why the acts of heroism he describes make so powerful an impression. We read him for his plots; we reread him for his philosophy.

(By the way, I wonder to this day whether reading the last part of this review might possibly have inspired O’Brian to kill off Diana in The Hundred Days, the next installment in the series. Perhaps some future biographer will enlighten me!)

As I mentioned above, one of the aspects of the Aubrey-Maturin novels that I find especially diverting is the intelligence and sympathy with which O’Brian portrays the amateur musicianship of Jack and Stephen, whose intimacy is rooted in part in their passion for playing the violin and cello together during their long ocean cruises. It also figures prominently in Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a 2003 film that is based on several of O’Brian’s novels, and adds much to that film’s excellence.

Most of the pieces that Jack and Stephen play in the novels are identified only by the composer’s name and, occasionally, their key signature, as in the case of their “often-played yet ever-fresh Corelli in C major.” In The Ionian Mission, though, O’Brian tells how Jack discovered a sheaf of forgotten manuscripts by Johann Sebastian Bach, among them the great D Minor Partita for unaccompanied violin, whose towering finale he describes with a penetration worthy of a first-class music critic.

I posted this passage as an almanac entry last year, but it’s worth repeating here:

Now when the fiddle sang at all it sang alone: but since Stephen’s departure he had rarely been in a mood for music and in any case the partita that he was now engaged upon, one of the manuscript works that he had bought in London, grew more and more strange the deeper he went into it. The opening movements were full of technical difficulties and he doubted he would ever be able to do them anything like justice, but it was the great chaconne which followed that really disturbed him. On the face of it the statements made in the beginning were clear enough: their closely argued variations, though complex, could certainly be followed with full acceptation, and they were not particularly hard to play; yet at one point, after a curiously insistent repetition of the second theme, the rhythm changed and with it the whole logic of the discourse. There was something dangerous about what followed, something not unlike the edge of madness or at least of a nightmare; and although Jack recognized that the whole sonata and particularly the chaconne was a most impressive composition he felt that if he were to go on playing it with all his heart it might lead him to very strange regions indeed.

6a01348660b2b3970c0133f34e2d39970b-800wiIn addition, Jack and Stephen play a “D Minor double sonata” which is quite obviously a transcription for violin and cello of the Two-Violin Concerto, and once again O’Brian describes its finale so perceptively that those who know the piece will instantly recognize the passage he has in mind:

After a particularly difficult, severe and abstract passage the last movement ended with a triumphant summing-up and resolution that they could both play at first sight and that they repeated again and again; and the grave happiness of the music was still with Captain Aubrey when he walked on to his quarterdeck in the bright morning.

It happens that George Balanchine and Paul Taylor, the two greatest choreographers of the twentieth century, both made dances that were set to this movement, Balanchine in Concerto Barocco and Taylor in Esplanade. What’s more, Taylor is an O’Brian fan (he was, in fact, the “famous choreographer” to whom I referred in the first paragaph of my review of The Yellow Admiral).

I wish I’d thought to ask Taylor about this sentence from The Ionian Mission on one of the various occasions in the past when I interviewed him. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he’d found the phrase “grave happiness” to be perfectly suited to much of Bach’s music, the finale of the Two-Violin Concerto most definitely included. I know I do.

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The finale of Paul Taylor’s Esplanade, set to the third movement of Bach’s Two-Violin Concerto and performed on PBS’ Dance in America by the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1977. The passage described by Patrick O’Brian in The Ionian Mission starts at 3:40:

A scene from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. The piece “played” by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany is an excerpt from the finale of Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto, K. 215:

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Just because: Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Mozart

TV CAMERASir Thomas Beecham leads the Montreal Symphony in a 1956 performance of the finale of Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: Edward Rothstein on the human context of classical music

INK BOTTLE“If music is treated as if it had no grounding in the concrete world of persons and politics, if it is treated as purely a formal construction, music risks becoming a novel without characters, using words without meaning. Education becomes focused on execution and analysis. Listening becomes focused on mere pleasure or cultish devotion. This is one reason why so much music has become relatively unimportant today, despite its plenitude: we have filtered out the aspects of music that connect it to creator and culture on any level deeper than ‘music appreciation.’ So we hear Mozart’s music not as an intricate commentary on the relationship between manners and natural passion so important to his time but as, simply, ‘great,’ ‘magical,’ ‘sublime, ‘holy.’”

Edward Rothstein, “Karajan: The Nazi Recordings” (The New Republic, Nov. 7, 1988)

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Bourgeois blues

In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I file the first of two reports from Ontario’s Shaw Festival. This week I discuss a rare North American revival of J.B. Priestley’s When We Are Married and a new production of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. Here’s an excerpt.

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When a popular playwright stops being performed, there’s usually a reason—though not always a good one. Take J.B. Priestley, whose comedies and dramas were immensely successful in England in the ‘30s and ‘40s and continue to be performed there with fair frequency, but are almost completely forgotten in the U.S. Indeed, Remy Bumppo Theatre Company’s galvanizing 2013 Chicago revival of “An Inspector Calls” was the first time I’d ever seen a live performance of a Priestley play. Now Canada’s Shaw Festival is mounting “When We Are Married,” his biggest hit, and it turns out to be a consummately crafted 1938 farce that’s as funny as anything by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and even more stageworthy than “An Inspector Calls.” So why haven’t you heard of it?

The answer is two-fold. Not only is “When We Are Married” a “well-made” three-act play of the kind that went out of style in the ‘50s, but it requires, like the Kaufman-Hart comedies, a large cast—eight men, seven women—making it prohibitively hard for cash-strapped companies to mount. But it’s still well within the reach of community theaters and the bigger summer festivals, and the Shaw Festival’s production, staged with exhilaratingly exact comic timing by Joseph Ziegler and performed by the strongest ensemble cast I’ve seen so far this year, is ideal in every way.

1297569336942_ORIGINAL“When We Are Married” is a farce about three long-married, impenetrably smug bourgeois couples who pride themselves on being “respectable folk” but discover midway through the first act—as do their cheeky servants—that they’re not quite as “respectable” as they supposed. All manner of humiliating hell immediately breaks loose…

You can always count on seeing the plays of George Bernard Shaw produced at the Shaw Festival with great skill and imagination. Morris Panych, who did a splendid job with Somerset Maugham’s “Our Betters” last summer, has done equally well and even more imaginatively by “Arms and the Man,” Shaw’s 1894 “anti-romantic comedy” (his phrase) about Captain Bluntschli (Graeme Somerville), a thoroughly cynical Swiss mercenary who falls in love with Raina (Kate Besworth), a fluttery young maiden from Bulgaria who believes, unlike her beau, that war is great and glorious….

Shaw’s purpose in writing “Arms and the Man” was to use his sharp wit to poke holes in the “heroic ideals” to which Raina naïvely subscribes. Accordingly, Mr. Panych has staged the play as a deliberately artificial comedy of manners, and he and Ken MacDonald, the set designer, have also had the ingenious conceit of setting the action inside a giant cuckoo clock…

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To read my review of When We Are Married, go here.

To read my review of Arms and the Man, go here.

“Personalities: J.B. Priestley,” a 1944 British Pathé newsreel feature:

“Britain at Bay,” a 1940 British war propaganda film written and narrated by J.B. Priestley and based on one of his BBC “Postscript” broadcast talks:

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So you want to see a show?

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

Bullets Over Broadway (musical, PG-13, closes Aug. 24, reviewed here)
Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, nearly all performances sold out last week, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)

The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

The Liar (verse comedy, PG-13, closes Aug. 31, reviewed here)
Othello (Shakespearean tragedy, PG-13, closes Aug. 30, reviewed here)
Two Gentlemen of Verona (Shakespearean comedy, PG-13, closes Aug. 29, reviewed here)

Rocky (musical, G/PG-13, closes Aug, 17, reviewed here)

When We Were Young and Unafraid (drama, PG-13, closes Aug. 10, reviewed here)

The Dance of Death (drama, PG-13, closes Aug. 3, reviewed here)

Marya-Grandy-and-Emily-Glick-in-Juno-at-TimeLine-Theatre-Chicago_thumbCLOSING SUNDAY IN CHICAGO:
Juno (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)

Days Like Today (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)

The Devil’s Disciple (serious comedy, G/PG-13, reviewed here)

Of Mice and Men (drama, PG-13, virtually all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)

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Snapshot: P.G. Wodehouse talks to the BBC

TV CAMERAP.G. Wodehouse, filmed and interviewed by the BBC at various times in the later part of his life. The final interview took place shortly before his death in 1975:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Lookback: the embarrassments of reading in public

LOOKBACKFrom 2004, why I don’t like to talk about the books I’m seen reading in restaurants:

Even as a child, my reading habits were fairly advanced, and I got kidded mercilessly for toting around such triple-decker novels as Moby-Dick and Les Miserables. The teasing of my peers had an aggressive edge (“Hey, man, Teachout reads the encyclopedia!”), whereas my elders were merely puzzled, but the net result was to make me self-conscious whenever anyone asked what I was reading. Nearly four decades later, that question still makes me tighten up a bit, fully expecting to be razzed, and though it rarely happens nowadays, the resulting exchanges nonetheless tend to leave me feeling like a lifetime member of the awkward squad….

Read the whole thing here.

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