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Classical Music’s Pirate Pieces

For International Talk Like A Pirate Day, here's Ether Game's pirate-themed playlist

Avast, me hearties! Ether Game be explorin' some pirate-themed shanties this week. Arrr!

Ahoy, Mateys, and avast ye landlubbers! Ether Game be settin’ sail aboard the good ship Jolly Roger in honor of International Talk Like A Pirate Day, and explorin’ some pirate shanties from the world of classical music. Here’s our playlist, sure to make you say “Arrr!”

  • W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, The Pirates Of Penzance – This pirate-themed operetta proves that pirates can be clever sticklers to the rules. In the show, a young lad is set to be freed of his indentured servitude to the pirates on his 21st birthday. But since his birthday falls on a leap day, they try to extend his servitude for 84 years! The work premiered in New York City instead (not London), and the reason, oddly enough, had to do with pirates. Not peg-legged, parrot-donning swashbucklers of the high seas, but rather pirates of the unauthorized copyright kind. Pirated versions of their previous success H.M.S. Pinafore were so rampant in America, that Gilbert and Sullivan decided to circumvent the intellectual property plunderers and premiere the work in the states instead.


  • Hector Berlioz, Le Corsaire Overture – Berlioz composed his Le Corsaire overture in 1845 while vacationing at Nice, France’s most popular coastal city. Originally he titled the work La Tour de Nice after a famous clock tower in the area. While watching boats sail up and down the Mediterranean however, Berlioz gained a lifelong love of the sea, and he quickly re-titled his overture with a nautical theme. Le Corsaire references two literary works that were popular with Romantic era readers: James Fenimore Cooper’s historical fiction The Red Rover and Byron’s poem The Corsair. Both works feature pirates. Copper’s title character is a rogue American patriot who goes by the name Red Rover and captains a ship called The Dolphin. Byron’s corsair might actually have been based on the real French pirate Jean Lafitte, who operated in the Gulf of Mexico during the early 19th century.


  • Vincenzo Bellini, Il Pirata One of Bellini’s first operas, Il Pirata or “The Pirate” is often considered the first Italian romantic opera. The story concerns two rivals—Gualtiero and Ernesto—who fight over the love of a woman, Imogene. Gualtiero, Imogene’s true love, has been exiled, and has spent years becoming a pirate on the open seas. Ernesto meanwhile has forced Imogene to marry him, and they have a son together. When Gualtiero’s pirate ship wrecks on the shore of Ernesto’s land, the two duel, and Gualtiero kills Ernesto. When Gualtiero is sent to death for murder, Imogene despairs at having lost both her lover and her husband. She sings a famous “mad scene,” which had a profound influence on the more famous mad scene from Lucia Di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti a few years later.


  • Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt, Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse of The Black PearlDisney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is probably the only film based on a theme park ride. It was an unlikely success, and widely acknowledged as the film that resurrected Hollywood pirate-themed movies. Disney’s last significant pirate movie before 2003 had been released in 1950, when the studio produced its first completely live-action version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The Curse of the Black Pearl had only a three-week production period, and composer Hans Zimmer has stated that he composed all the major themes of the soundtrack in only one night. The success of his soundtrack matched the enormous popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and over a decade later, Zimmer still tours with an orchestra performing the soundtrack live.


  • Richard Wagner, The Flying Dutchman – The maritime lore of the “Flying Dutchman” goes back to the 17th century. By the time Wagner had gotten his hands on it in 1840, the story was the stuff of romantic myth—a weirdly luminous ship doomed to sail the seas forever, or at least in Wagner’s version, until its captain wins the love of a virtuous woman named Senta. While the opera uses a variety of sources, including a satirical telling of the tale by Heinrich Heine, the love story of the ghost ship’s captain takes inspiration from Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Pirate.


  • Erich Wolfgang Korngold, The Sea HawkErich Korngold produced masterful scores for Hollywood’s Golden Age, including a number of Errol Flynn films like Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk. The Sea Hawk is a 1940 swashbuckler film about an English privateer (which is essentially a state-commissioned pirate) who fights for Queen and country. Years later, Korngold’s colorful late-Romantic style would posthumously influence a resurgence of symphonic film music. Seeking to avoid a standard reliance on “modern-sounding” music for science fiction, young director George Lucas stumbled upon the 1970 re-issued vinyl soundtrack to The Sea Hawk, and informed John Williams that this was the sound he wanted in his film Star Wars.


  • Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, and Marc Blitzstein – The Threepenny Opera, “Pirate Jenny” – This song from Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera has the lead character Jenny (played in the original by Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya) imagining a pirate ship coming to her corrupt town, destroying all the people and buildings, and taking her away. The dark subject matter of the opera was adapted from an 18th century ballad opera called The Beggar’s Opera by English composer John Gay, a groundbreaking opera about the lower-class poor. Brecht and his partner Elisabeth Hauptmann especially admired the seedy, low-life female characters in Gay’s original opera, and began adapting it for the German audiences, bringing in Weill to write the score (Blitzstein did the English translation). In making this show, Brecht himself was guilty of some piracy. He faced tight deadlines, and borrowed poems by François Villon and Rudyard Kipling in the script. Although, he didn’t properly give credit to the authors or their translators, and was accused of plagiarism.


  • Johann Jacob Froberger, Plainte faite à Londres pour passer la mélancholie – Pirates show up often in our stories, but very few of us actually encounter pirates in real life. Composer Johann Jacob Froberger, however, was one of those few people! He was a German Baroque composer and virtuoso harpsichordist, and played an important role in the development of that omnipresent Baroque keyboard genre, the dance suite. Froberger spent most of his time working in Vienna for the Archduchess of Austria. But when the Empress died, Froberger began to travel around Europe. On a fateful trip to London, Froberger’s ship was attacked by pirates. The pirates did as pirates do and robbed him. But Froberger was one to make the best out of a bad situation. He immortalized his run-in with the pirates in a piece of music: Plainte faite à Londres pour passer la mélancholie, which translates to “Lament, composed in London, to relieve melancholy.”


  • The Who, The Who Sell Out – This 1967 album, which features the song “I Can See For Miles,” is one of the strangest concept albums from the 1960s. You may recognize The Who Sell Out from its iconic cover, featuring Pete Townshend using an oversized stick of Odorono deodorant and Roger Daltrey sitting in a bathtub full of Heinz Baked Beans. The album only had a few actual songs; most of it was filled with fake commercials, public services announcements, and jingles, all meant to represent a pirate radio broadcast. Pirate radio was a real thing in the 1960s. When the BBC placed restrictions on the kind of music that could be broadcast in England, pioneering DJs would set up transmitters in ships offshore and illegally broadcast music to the public. These “pirate” radio stations became beacons of rock music, and would broadcast come hell or high water, literally speaking.

What other pirate themed pieces were we missing? Let us know, mateys!

Music Heard On This Episode


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