Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Locatelli's C major quartet

I recently started reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. I became interested in them when I heard that a potto plays a prominent role in some of the novels. Haven't got to the potto yet, but I'm hooked: I read the first two books in as many weeks, and the next two are waiting on my shelf.

Today I've been pondering an oddity in the opening sentence of the first book, Master and Commander:


The music-room in the governor's house at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli's C major quartet.


After reading the book, I became the latest in a long line of readers to try to track down a recording of this quartet -- only to discover that it doesn't exist. Oh, Pietro Locatelli was real, all right (though not particularly well-known today -- I'd never heard of him before), but so far as anyone knows he never wrote any quartets, in C major or any other key.

Readers have been wondering for a long time why O'Brian attributed a fictional work to a real composer. He certainly wasn't ignorant about music; the web page of one fan, Gibbons Burke, includes a long
list of all musical compositions mentioned in the books, all except this one apparently genuine. So could this really be a simple error?

Some readers have suggested that the piece is another composition of Locatelli's that has been transcribed for a quartet. Others point out that many classical works have been lost over time, and propose that O'Brian intended the quartet to be one of the missing. These scenarios certainly aren't impossible, but I think the most plausible explanation is that it's a joke. A participant in
this discussion recalls:


I remember this M&C passage being read by Richard Kapp, musical director of Philharmonia Virtuosi and producer of the Musical Evenings with the Captain series. ... It seems like I almost recall him saying that he mentioned the fabricated C major quartet to O'Brian and got a small smile in response - but I could be fabricating that myself!


Personally, I think O'Brian is hazing us. We're the greenhorns on his ship, and he's sent us looking for the musical equivalent of the key of the keelson. As one victim recounts:


It took me quite a number of searches, and some very confused music store salespeople before I found it out!


'... And one of them told me he thought the gunner's daughter might have it, but when I asked Mr Rolfe, he said he was sorry, he was not a married man. ...'

For lots more Aubrey-Maturin discussion, see
The Gunroom of HMS Surprise.

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