Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin, the series' protagonists, are amateur musicians. In keeping with the film's period detail, Master and Commander's soundtrack features many pieces whose composers are also mentioned prominently in the novels.
The Prelude from J. S. Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major (BWV 1007) is one such piece. Its inclusion on the Master and Commander soundtrack seems anachronistic, as baroque music was out of fashion by 1805, when the film is set.
But Aubrey and Maturin discuss and play a J. S. Bach piece at the beginning of The Ionian Mission (1981). Aubrey asks Maturin whether he has ever met "London Bach" (Johann Christian Bach), then goes on to talk about his father, Johann Sebastian Bach. Aubrey describes one of Bach's pieces:
"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."
The Adagio from Arcangelo Corelli's Concerto Grosso in G Minor, or "Christmas Concerto," can also be heard in Master and Commander. Corelli is a favorite of Aubrey and Maturin, and the early-eighteenth-century composer is mentioned in many Aubrey-Maturin books.
Although Patrick O'Brian never includes the Christmas Concerto, Aubrey and Maturin do have a favorite Corelli piece in C major in their repertoire.
It may be what Aubrey refers to in the fifth chapter of The Mauritius Command (1977) when he says to Maturin, "While you were away I transposed the Corelli for violin and 'cello," and "their often-played yet ever-fresh Corelli in C major" recurs in Desolation Island (1978), The Ionian Mission, and The Far Side of the World (1984).
Aubrey and Maturin close the film with a duet based on Luigi Boccherini's "Night Music in the Streets of Madrid" – fitting, considering Dr. Maturin's Spanish heritage. But Boccherini is another eighteenth-century composer whom Patrick O'Brian mentions often.
When the pair first meet in Chapter One of Master and Commander (1969), O'Brian writes how Aubrey and Maturin "talked about Boccherini, bows and rosin, copyists, the care of strings, with great satisfaction." Boccherini pieces are played later in the novel, as well as in the next two Aubrey-Maturin adventures, Post-Captain (1972) and HMS Surprise (1973).
Non-Period Music on the Master and Commander Soundtrack
Yet not all the source music on the Master and Commander soundtrack is authentic to the period. In addition to the original score, by Ira Davies, Christopher Gordon, and Richard Tognetti, there is a piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
"Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" is based on a sixteenth-century melody, but Vaughan Williams' famous version is from 1910, over a century after the events of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
Regardless, the Master and Commander soundtrack's use of Bach, Corelli, and Boccherini is certainly in the spirit of the time, and has ample precedent in the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian.