I just read an article with the title “Patrick O’Brian Does the Near Impossible: Describing Music in Prose” that included a sample of O’Brian’s writing about music in a way that the author felt was excellent:

They spread their scores, and as they did so Stephen remembered with some concern that in the F major quartet the opening notes were played by the oboe alone: but when, after the necessary squeaking and grunting as the stringed instruments tuned themselves, Jack smiled at Geoghegan and nodded, these same critical notes came out clear and pure, with no over-emphasis–a beautiful round tone in which the strings joined almost at once. And almost at once they were a quartet, playing happily along with as nearly perfect an understanding as was possible on so short an acquaintance.

With scarcely a pause they swam through the elegant melancholy of the adagio, Jack Aubrey particularly distinguishing himself and Stephen booming nobly; but it was in the rondo that the oboe came wholly into its own, singing away with an exquisite gay delicacy infinitely enjoyed by all four. And to all four, in spite of the music before them, it seemed to last for an indefinite space before coming to the perfect simplicity of its end.

Okay … let’s begin, shall we? What F major oboe quartet begins with opening notes by oboe alone? Well, the Mozart Oboe Quartet has one note by the oboe before the strings join in. I’m assuming he meant that quartet, although I guess I’ll now have to read the book to find out. He does mention the Adagio and the Rondo (really Rondeau), which fits.)

Then there’s the “necessary squeaking and gruntingas the stringed instruments tuned themselves”. Um. Really?

And of course … just sitting down and nailing the oboe quartet. Yeah, that happens all the time with folks on a sailing ship.

Okay. Snark over ‘n out. I just grow weary of people thinking a book, movie or tv show really gets it right when it comes to music when, for the most part, it just doesn’t seem to happen very often. I do appreciate music appearing in books, and I am delighted if reading that book will get people to investigate some of my kind of music. I should really just lighten up … right?

Besides, it does make me want to read the O’Brian book!


  1. I’ve been enjoying your site for several years now, and I’m a big fan of yours. For most of my life I’ve been happily involved in the struggle to play oboe (I started in sixth grade and I’m now 70), so I deeply understand what you say.

    I’m also a fan of the O’Brian series. The protagonists, Captain Jack Aubrey and Surgeon Stephen Maturin, meet at a concert in the opening book, “Master and Commander.” They often while away quiet evening hours playing together, and they understand and appreciate opera and chamber music.

    The books have been described as “the greatest historical novels ever written.” The series of 20 novels can be read as a single novel, and it is superb. One can learn a great deal about all aspects of life in the early nineteenth century–not just what sailing ships were like. Great literature!

    I remember clearly the passage you quote, and you are right that it is not all technically correct. The general description is accurate enough, though, and you develop an appreciation for the musicianship of this young (about 16 or 17 year old) musician, and this enhances the sadness you feel when he is killed a few pages later.

    I cannot recommend the series highly enough!

    Stuart Mitchell

  2. Thanks so much for your comment and for filling me in about the books. Congratulations on your pursuits with oboe, too!

    I’ll write more later … opera tonight is telling me NAP NOW! 🙂