The resurgence of piracy off the coasts of Africa in recent years has been a serious and shocking development, both for the owners of large, commercial vessels and smaller, private craft. The mix of cargo thefts and ransoms for hostages has provided much headline drama; images of gun-toting assailants have made their graphic impact.
But what is your own mental reaction at the mention of the word ‘pirates’? If you’re like me, the frontal lobe’s first move is to call up fluffier images, such as Johnny Depp as a Pirate of the Caribbean, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta The Pirates of Penzance, and the barely-terrifying figure of Long John Silver from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, complete with crutch and parrot on the shoulder. Remembering Robert Newton’s portrayal of the character in the 1950s television series brings more of a smile to the face than a shudder to the core.
How have composers perceived pirates? I had high expectations of reaching a colourful conclusion before a trawl through the Naxos catalogue. But was I duly rewarded?
What follows is a selection of works based on this alternative naval profession. Which way did the cutlass slice in composers’ imaginations? Often surprisingly on the gentle side and with the incongruous swish of dancing, although Khachaturian’s Dance of the Pirates from his ballet Spartacus (8.550801) does have a swashbuckling edge to it.
The 1948 movie The Pirate had songs by Cole Porter in addition to the film track score by Lennie Hayton. Set in the Caribbean, the leading lady mistakenly believes the leading man to be an infamous pirate. The latter thinks he will win the former’s heart only if he lives up to that reputation, but his efforts only succeed in getting him a noose around his neck. Hayton’s music for the scene Pirate Ballet (8.120845) is certainly more menacing than Khachaturian’s. And maybe that’s a token clash of swords one can hear in the cymbal crashes?
The pirate at the centre of Byron’s tale in verse The Corsair was the inspiration for several other works, including Verdi’s opera Il corsaro (8.553018), which was first performed in 1848. Verdi had showed relatively little immediate interest in the project; the opera was coolly received and soon disappeared from the repertoire. The short overture, or ‘prelude’ as it’s styled, leads into a pirates’ chorus, but there’s little by way of a skull-and-crossbones atmosphere here.
Byron’s work may have also inspired Berlioz’s overture Le corsaire (8.572886) which he composed in Nice after the break-up of his marriage, staying in a tower above the sea and recovering from jaundice. The work is more romp than buccaneering, having undergone several revisions between 1844 (when it was titled La tour de Nice) and 1851 when it was renamed Le Corsaire Rouge, finally becoming Le corsaire in 1852. Here’s the closing stretch.
So far, then, our pirates have been remarkably reserved and nowhere near as frightening as the mere name of Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, a composer who is probably more recognisable when referred to as Lord Berners (1883-1950). He was a British eccentric who dyed the doves on his estate different colours, owned a giraffe as a pet, and had a clavichord installed into his Rolls-Royce for when inspiration hit while on the move; he also wrote the score for a ballet, The Triumph of Neptune (8.223711), that was produced by Diaghalev and choreographed by Balanchine. Surely, he could be relied on to think outside the box for a musical pirate portrait, viz his song Theodore, or the Pirate King (8.557559-60)?:
They sacked the ships of London Town,
They burned the ships of Rye and Cadiz,
They burned full many a city down;
A bloody trade a pirate’s trade is,
Though dripping gore,
Was always courteous to the Ladies.
It would seem not.
Ravel’s score for the ballet Daphnis et Chloé (8.570992) is required to underpin scenes of marauding pirates (yes, dancing again), and so it’s to this master of orchestration that we turn next. I think you’ll agree he comes closer to the expected level of depiction for this mise en scène:
There is a dull light and the pirate camp is seen, set on a rocky shore. The pirates busy themselves with their plunder. Torches bring more light on the scene. The pirates dance, at first to a rough accompaniment. A quieter interlude is followed by a dance of greater excitement, after which the men fall, exhausted.
I expect readers will have their own recommendations for best musical pirate in the parade. Meanwhile, I’m taking down the Jolly Roger and raising a white flag of surrender, whilst deferring to Jack Sparrow, Captain of the Black Pearl and legendary pirate of the Seven Seas. Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt together worked out the main themes for Pirates of the Caribbean, before it fell to Badelt to flesh out the full score, taking care to include lots of hints of jigs and sea shanties. Here’s part of an arrangement of the film’s main title theme (8.572111). Avast and away!