A Pirate's Life for Me!
Back in 1995 two men from Oregon invented “International Talk Like a Pirate Day”after one of them got hurt playing and screamed “Aaarr” in pain. "Celebrated" on September 19, it’s not a “real” holiday, but as “International days” go, it’s plenty of fun!
The romantic, evil, or even comic sides of pirate life have been immortalized in history books, novels, and music for centuries. From the real pirates such as the Englishmen “Blackbeard,” (Edward Teach) and John “Calico Jack” Rackham, to Scotland’s Captain William Kidd, and Irish pirate Anne Bonny, to the fictional Long John Silver, Captain Pugwash, Jack Sparrow, and Captain Hook, stories abound of thievery, ruthlessness, and rum guzzling. So, “Ahoy, Matey!” Here’s a small treasure chest of pieces to inspire your inner “Yo ho ho!”
Vincenzo Bellini’s 1827 opera Il Pirata, was an instant success. It was based on Charles Maturin’s 5-act tragedy called Bertram, or the Castle of St. Aldobrand. In Act II of the opera, the pirate Gualtiero, a former Count, tries to assure his lady love Imogene, who is the wife of his mortal enemy, the evil Duke Ernesto, that all will be well if she will only accompany him to his awaiting ships. “For us the vast sea will have a calm port.” In this performance, Bernabé Marti plays the doomed Pirate, and Imogene is sung by Monserrat Caballé.
But all does not end well. Ernesto overhears the passions expressed, and when he comes out of the shadows, the two men decide the only way to settle things is with a duel. The pirate kills the Duke and then surrenders himself honorably to the Duke’s knights, who sentence him to death. The pirate sings his belief that he will not be hated forever, especially once the story is known that the Duke was evil and forced Imogene into marrying him to spare the life of her father.
A second-century love story, Daphnis et Chloé, by the Greek writer Longus, inspired a ballet of that title by Maurice Ravel. While the story went through a number of iterations over the centuries, it is, at its core, a pastoral romance. Two young people, Daphnis and Chloé, tend the sheep of their foster parents. As they grow up together, they start to fall in love. The story gets muddled with nymphs (who try to seduce Daphnis), the god who creates a bit of chaos, Pan (from whom we get the word “panic”), and pirates who kidnap Chloé. Here’s the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Munch, playing the “Orgiastic Dance of the Pirates.”
Despite the drama, Daphnis and Chloé do end up with each other, and live happily ever after.
The one-hour ballet was Ravel’s longest work. While it is still performed by dance companies occasionally, the music is most often performed in the form of one of two orchestral suites that the composer extracted from the ballet.
Two vacation experiences influenced a pirate piece by Hector Berlioz. First, to get out of the heat while in Rome, Berlioz wrote that he would often just sit in the cool quiet of St. Peter’s Basilica and read Lord Byron’s epic poem The Corsair. Later, while on vacation in the beautiful coastal city of Nice, Berlioz was inspired by the impressive clock tower in that city to compose an overture describing it. Although he called his original overture La tour de Nice, it’s said that gazing out at the harbor and the boats inspired a name change to Le Corsair. I think you’ll see for yourself that this exciting music definitely conjures up clearer images of pirates than clock towers! Sir Colin Davis conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in this performance.
Berlioz also knew a novel by James Fennimore Cooper, The Red Rover, which was about the adventures of an American patriot-turned-pirate. It is possible that it also inspired Berlioz’s name change.
The comic operetta writing team of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan also had pirates on their minds when they wrote The Pirates of Penzance. It tells the story of a young man who will be set free from servitude to the pirates upon reaching his 21st birthday. But then the pirates find a “work-around!” Since Frederic was born on leap day, February 29th, he won’t actually be eligible for freedom until he turns 84! Whatever will he do? Especially since he has now fallen in love with the Major-General’s daughter, Mabel?
Early on in Act 1 the Pirate King sings “Oh, far better to live and die” a pirate! This is a recording by the Plymouth (England) Gilbert & Sullivan Fellowship with the Band of HM Royal Marines. The soloist is not identified.
And yes, young Frederic is released from servitude into the loving arms of Mabel.
There also have been some great pieces of music from pirate movies.
This is a nice overview of the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, performed by the Cinematic Symphony Orchestra.
And we must include John Williams’s music for the movie Hook. Williams was tasked with composing music that was both swashbuckling (for the pirates) and sympathetic for Peter Banning, an American attorney who has a lovely wife and children, but who has lost the sense of childhood wonder from the time he was Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up. Here is a suite from the soundtrack with John Williams conducting the Hollywood Studio Symphony:
And finally, how about pirate music without a story attached? In 1962, Cambridge, Massachusetts-born composer Leroy Anderson, wrote Pirate Dance. No backstory, no drama. Leroy Anderson conducts his own orchestra:
CODA: Ahoy, Matey! Shiver me timbers! Ye scurvy dog! Are ye ready for International Talk Like a Pirate Day?
I’ve searched many bookstores but haven’t found an actual Pirate Dictionary for you. I did find an online resource called Pirate Lingo, however, and it provides you with all the right phrases so you can fit right in if you should happen to bump into Jack Sparrow or Captain Hook.