In Chapter 134 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, when the white whale is spotted, the narrator briefly compares Ahab to an orchestral conductor:
hardly had Ahab reached his perch; hardly was the rope belayed to its pin on deck, when he struck the key-note to an orchestra, that made the air vibrate as with the combined discharges of rifles. The triumphant halloo of thirty buckskin lungs was heard, as - much nearer to the ship than the place of the imaginary jet, less than a mile ahead - Moby Dick bodily burst into view!
The metaphor comparing Ahab to a conductor is effective for a number of reasons, including the following:
- The conductor of an orchestra is the leader of a group of people, but his own success depends on their combined skills and commitment. The same is true of Ahab.
- The conductor of an orchestra leads a group that is in near-constant motion, as will also now be true of Ahab.
- An orchestral conductor is the man who is most skilled in leading the combined efforts of others, as is also true of Ahab.
- We normally think of an orchestra as performing an especially complex piece of music, and complexity is also characteristic of the whale-hunt Ahab will be leading.
- The phrase “key-note” could also be understood in Melville’s day as referring to the central idea, the most important theme of a piece of writing, and certainly the pursuit of the white whale functions as such a theme in Moby-Dick.
- The phrase “key-note” could refer in Melville’s day to the leading tone of a work, and certainly it is Ahab who establishes the leading tone of the hunt for the white whale.