After enjoying the first couple of Patrick O'Brian's famous sea stories I paused, with minimal desire to read onward. But when The Ionian Mission materialized in a "free, take it" box outside a McLean thrift store? Who am I to resist the magic of "free"? Alas, #8 in the series follows the formula rather too predictably. O'Brian writes wonderfully of Napoleonic era naval technology, but overall there's quite a sameness, a lack of variety in plot and character and atmosphere and theme that sadly withers and stales.
But the sparkles in The Ionian Mission, as in its predecessors, are the sporadic flashes of brilliant prose combined with the the love and banter between co-protagonists Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. And in the course of that, most delightfully, O'Brian winks and offers a glimpse of Johann Sebastian Bach, that greatest of all composers! From Chapter 2, an exchange that begins like a Derek and Clive comic routine:
'Oh well,' said Jack: and then, 'Did you ever meet Bach?'
'I did. He wrote some pieces for my uncle Fisher, and his young man copied them out fair. But they were lost years and years ago, so last time I was in town I went to see whether I could find the originals: the young man has set up on his own, having inherited his master's music-library. We searched through the papers — such a disorder you would hardly credit, and I had always supposed publishers were as neat as bees — we searched for hours, and no uncle's pieces did we find. But the whole point is this: Bach had a father.'
'Heavens, Jack, what things you tell me. Yet upon recollection I seem to have known other men in much the same case.'
'And this father, this old Bach, you understand me, had written piles and piles of musical scores in the pantry.'
'A whimsical place to compose in, perhaps; but then birds sing in trees, do they not? Why not antediluvian Germans in a pantry?'
'I mean the piles were kept in the pantry. Mice and blackbeetles and cook-maids had played Old Harry with some cantatas and a vast great passion according to St Mark, in High Dutch; but lower down all was well, and I brought away several pieces, 'cello for you, fiddle for me, and some for both together. It is strange stuff, fugues and suites of the last age, crabbed and knotted sometimes and not at all in the modern taste, but I do assure you, Stephen, there is meat in it. I have tried this partita in C a good many times, and the argument goes so deep, so close and deep, that I scarcely follow it yet, let alone make it sing. How I should love to hear it played really well — to hear Viotti dashing away.'
So Aubrey has seen bits of the lost St Mark Passion of J. S. Bach! And he's bought some other long-lost Papa Bach compositions, and thinks nothing of it. It inevitably reminds me of Bilbo's mithril armor in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings:
'... Bilbo had a corslet of mithril-rings that Thorin gave him. I wonder what has become of it? Gathering dust still in Michel Delving Mathom-house, I suppose.'
'What?' cried Gimli, startled out of his silence. 'A corslet of Moria-silver? That was a kingly gift!'
'Yes,' said Gandalf. 'I never told him, but its worth was greater than the value of the whole Shire and everything in it.'
Frodo said nothing, but he put his hand under his tunic and touched the rings of his mail-shirt. He felt staggered to think that he had been walking about with the price of the Shire under his jacket. Had Bilbo known? He felt no doubt that Bilbo knew quite well. It was indeed a kingly gift. ...
A hundred pages later in Ionian Mission O'Brian describes Jack's attempt to practice playing one of those extraordinary Bach pieces. The magic of JSB's counterpoint is brilliantly, mysteriously suggested:
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 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.
That's wonderful writing. Maybe I do need to keep reading. The "free" box at the thrift store did have a couple of other Patrick O'Brian stories in the series, and I did snag them too ...