Two Great Musicians

Today is the birthday of two great musicians – my nephew, Frederic Bager and the composer, Richard Wagner.

Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813, Frederic in London in 1991, where he studied at the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music.

Time will in due course adjudicate between them, but in the meantime judge for yourself whether execution trumps composition in this tribute by Frederic to Wagner, an eight-hand sleight-of-hands performance of The Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner’s Die Walkure.

Frederic is available as a recitalist and soloist (max. two hands). Wagner is not.

Happy Birthday, Frederic.

Pandemic Prizes

When I was a seven-year-old at prep school, maps of the world were predominantly red – British colonies, dependencies and, of course, the motherland herself. But I suspect our geography teacher was a die-hard, nostalgic imperialist. This was 1965, and India remained red, nearly twenty years after independence. It must have been an old map, a reminder of those more glorious times when the British were at their world-beating best – when they bestrode the world.

Boris Johnson went to a similar kind of school, I suspect, though he’s a few years younger than I am. Rather less of the world was red when, famously, he first dreamt of being king of it.

But the ethos endures, and I was reminded of it when yesterday he announced that the UK would soon have a ‘world-beating’ test, track and trace regime.

The British are Best, after all.

Or is it the Americans who are Best?

Donald Trump made a very similar claim a day or two ago. The USA has the world’s best testing regime, he said.

What I don’t understand is why the two of them have turned this into a competition. For a start, best is irrelevant if you’re the best of a bad bunch. And what does ‘best’ or ‘world-beating’ mean? Could we agree on a common standard of measurement?

‘Virus-beating’ is good enough for most of us. Or ‘excellent’, or ‘as good as possible in the circumstances’. Not ‘world-beating’. Not ‘best’. The enemy in this ‘war’ is not other ‘lesser’ nations but a squiggle of RNA that endangers all of us without regard to nationality.

They’re different people, Trump and Johnson, but both sound the drumbeat of nationalism too readily for my taste. It’s unnecessary and it’s dangerous.

Three Tenors

Tired of Netflix, I took refuge, the other night, in YouTube and found myself binge-watching and listening to three of my favourite Wagnerian tenors of yesteryear – Jon Vickers (1926-2015), Siegfried Jerusalem (1940-) and Alberto Remedios (1935-2016), all of whom I saw performing in London in the ’70s and ’80s. I was a huge enthusiast for Vickers and Jerusalem even then, but have only more recently come to appreciate how splendid and exceptional Remedios was.

Great heroic Wagner tenors, such as these, are ever thin on the ground. They must be heroic in two senses at least – both stylistically and emotionally. They need voices resonant enough to convey the heroism of the characters they sing, and personal heroism in order to be able to walk onto the stage and sing the arduous roles that composers such as Wagner have written for them. Few can keep it up for long. They peak and they fade. I was lucky to hear and see all of them at their best.

Jon Vickers was probably the most extraordinary of the three. Indeed, he had one of the most extraordinary tenor voices of the 20th century, an elemental force that he could barely control (he’s probably loved rather less by those who know how singing works). It suited the operatic characters he inhabited, men struggling with feelings and faults that they, also, could barely control – Otello, Siegmund, Tristan, Peter Grimes, Canio, Samson – rough physical men, acting violently and impulsively.

Here he is as Siegmund (in Die Walkure):

And here as Canio (in Pagliacci):

He was also a profoundly religious man, and temperamental. He had his own strong views as to how a character should be portrayed and sung and, like Peter Grimes, he was averse to ‘interference’.  He viewed Wagner’s Tannhauser as blasphemous and withdrew from a Covent Garden production in the 1980s.

He also sang lieder, but to my ears and eyes he never sounded or looked quite right in the more domestic setting of the lieder recital hall, straining at the leash like a wild animal tamed.

So besotted was I by Vickers the singer/actor that I even wrote to him in the 1980s to ask for his autograph, which, courteously, he sent me. I still have it, scrawled across a photograph of him as Samson, in chains.

 

I was turned on to Siegfried Jerusalem by an article the great journalist Bernard Levin wrote in The Times in the early 1980’s after hearing Jerusalem sing at Bayreuth, hailing him as the yearned-for newcomer heroic tenor, possesed of a splendidly easy, heroic and burnished voice. There was certainly a dearth of good heroic tenors at the time. Peter Hoffman and Rene Kollo were already sounding strained.

Here he is, also singing Siegmund:

It’s a beautiful and eloquent performance. The sheer quality of his voice, the sound itself, is amongst the most beautiful I’ve heard. But in comparison with Jon Vickers it seems emotionally light.

So besotted was I by Jerusalem the singer that I wrote to the Royal Opera House to suggest they engage him more frequently. They replied, courteously, that he lacked the tessitura required for the larger Wagner roles. I think they were wrong about that. He sang Siegfried at Bayreuth and Parsifal at the Met to great acclaim.

 

I heard and saw Alberto Remedios in the ENO English-language production of the ring, conducted by Reginal Goodall, who was famous for making Wagner’s operas last longer than any other conductor.

Remedios was Liverpudlian through and through, his grandfather an immigrant from Spain. Semi-professional footballer, shipyard welder, laddish, I suspect, to the day he died, he possessed a naturally wonderful voice and an aversion, sadly, to learning roles in foreign languages – one of the reasons he never sang at Bayreuth (they also considered his voice too lyrical). I read somewhere that he had difficulty in learning roles in English, too, and on one occasion gave the flowers he was presented with at the end of an opera to his prompter.

Here’s his Siegmund (in German):

And Peter Grimes:

Listen also (on Spotify) to the last act of Reginald Goodall’s Twilight of the Gods. I’ve never heard Siegfried sung more ardently or gloriously.

To learn more about Remedios, you might watch him as he’s cornered by Eamonn Andrews for This is Your Life. You will marvel at how awful TV used to be.

 

They were three wonderful tenors, and though there are equally great Wagnerian tenors singing today (Jonas Kaufmann, amongst a few others) I miss these three particularly – and Jon Vickers most of all.

Chuggers and Shamers

Chugger

I spent much of my first summer in London in 1980 standing in the queue at the back of the Albert Hall for the BBC Proms (I had more patience and energy when I was 22). If you wanted a good vantage point you had to be there by 4pm, though for the more popular programmes it had to be the night before. All in all, you’d be standing for six hours at least, if you count the concert itself, though the more professional Prommers were equipped with collapsible camping stools, thermos flasks, and so on. There’s a lot of oneupmanship when it comes to Promming.

For three hours or so, before you bought your ticket, you couldn’t go anywhere. The most annoying aspect of this was the ‘chuggers’, the good people collecting money for charity, though I don’t think that’s what they were called back then. They lacked the big buckets that today’s kind hijackers carry. Of course, they were well-meaning young people and I don’t doubt they were collecting money for excellent causes.

And they were in chugger heaven chugging the Prommers behind the Albert Hall. We were relatively rich and easy pickings, I suppose. And there was no possibility of escape, save by forgoing some particularly wonderful and obscure piece by Stockhausen, Cage or Ligeti, pieces I’d been longing to hear since infancy. The chuggers had us, as Molesworth might have put it, ‘like a Treen in a disabled spaceship.’

They usually worked backwards from the head of the queue, methodically and determinedly, and, of course, nearly everyone gave them something. Most would have felt embarrassed not to. The moral pressure was almost irresistible.

Only I hated, even then, doing something just because it was expected of me. The greater the moral and peer pressure exerted, whatever the cause, the more I wanted not to. So usually I didn’t.

‘You don’t think this is a deserving cause?’ they’d ask.

‘Do I have to explain myself?’ I’d say, and you could see them beginning to enjoy themselves. Torturing a refusenik like me was what made chugging fun.

‘I think you do,’ they’d say. ‘After all, everyone else here is giving, and I’m sure you’re as comfortably off as they are. Is it that you just don’t care about people/donkeys/the Amazon rainforest/injured soldiers/cystic fibrosis/torture/rococo plasterwork/the overuse of hydrocarbons?’ And so on.

The more there was of this sort of thing the more I dug my heels in, however contemptuous the looks of the Prommers to the right and left of me.

Then, and now, if I give time or money to charities (which I promise you I do, from time to time), I like to do it authentically, not because everyone else does it. Acting authentically (after all, existentialism was fashionable in the early 1980s) was important to me then, as now.

I was reminded of this by my friend Jo Weaver’s blog, yesterday, in which she writes about the ‘flag-shamers’ and ‘clap-shamers’ who terrorise the meanies who don’t ‘join in’ in the UK. If you didn’t fly a flag on VE Day or don’t clap the NHS on Thursday evenings you’re as likely as not to be abused by your neighbours.

Whatever happened to tolerance and minding your own business?

I’d never thought of the UK as a totalitarian state, where conformity in thought and deed is a requirement of citizenship. If I were in London I probably would clap the NHS on Thursday evenings, but I don’t think I’d fly a flag on VE Day. If I did neither it would be no one’s business but my own.

Warriors

Robert Laurence Bager (1918- 2003).

Grace Evelyn Tizard (1921-2019).

My parents fought in the Second World War, my father in the Royal Artillery with the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkerque, and the Eighth Army under ‘Monty‘ in North Africa and Italy, my mother in the ATS (the Auxiliary Territorial Service) in England and Wales, calibrating guns and helping to test radar technology.  For both of them it was a socially liberating experience, my father being promoted to the ‘officer class’ at Alamein, my mother, along with millions of other women, finally allowed to do something useful in a man’s world.

I am proud of them both.

Bob

 

I don’t doubt that my brother and I brought our parents joy and satisfaction in their post-war years. We were their highest priority, but nothing, I think, could compare in intensity and influence to the years between 1939 and 1945.

The War marked them in different ways. My father saw terrible things on the front line but rarely spoke of it, though, by character and bearing, he remained a military man to the end of his life. My mother, by contrast, spoke of the War nostalgically, especially in the company of my godmother Anne, with whom she served. ‘Comrades in arms’, cantankerous friends for seventy years, for Anne and Tizzy (my mother’s abbreviated maiden name), the War was a time of levity and joy, as well as seriousness and sadness (my mother spoke of a Polish airman lost over continental Europe).

B_06

Jonathan and I were conscious of the War from our earliest years. It was the background to everything. The schoolmasters who taught us at our prep schools were often former military men, uncomfortable, like my father, in civvy street. Diminished by demobilisation, they’d been robbed of purpose. Commander Varley’s history lessons would conclude with a noisy re-enactment of the Japanese fighter planes that divebombed his convoy in the South China seas. His grasp of the more distant past was slender. In the playground we played at Spitfires and Messerschmitts. The films we watched, including my favourite, The Sound of Music, took the War as their starting points, and television was saturated with series such as Tenko, ‘Allo ‘Allo, Colditz, and Dad’s Army (my mother’s favourite), all harking back to that finest hour.

My generation is rooted in our parents’ experience of the War. It formed them, and, by extension, it formed us too. Our lives were made safer and more comfortable by the sacrifices they and their generation made. We have never known real danger or want (even at boarding school in the 1960s). Political misjudgement in the 1930s made the inevitable worse, but it was a war that had to be fought. We must be grateful to them.

Guided by Science

Flag Marks

Deaths from Covid-19 in the UK are (or are about to be) more numerous than anywhere else in Europe. They’re exceeded only in the USA.

We must be wary of international comparisons. It’s far from certain that we’re comparing like with like. Every country records deaths diferently, but, even so, this is an appalling eventuality given that the UK had time to witness the overwhelming of Italy’s and Spain’s health systems, and to understand that deaths in Italy and Spain were far in excess of seasonal averages. Covid-19 was no mere ‘sniffle’ by March. There was time, too, to observe other countries imposing rigorous lockdowns, such as here in the Czech Republic, where I live.

‘We have been guided by the science throughout,’ government ministers mumble defensively, as if a mere mantra can excuse their own culpability.

Science doesn’t guide.

Word usage may be debated, but, to my mind, science ‘informs’. It is politically neutral. After all, if science (or, rather, scientists) were ‘guiding’ our response to global warming we might have done more by now to avert catastrophe. Decisions on carbon emissions and other mitigations are political ones, as is the question of how many deaths and how much suffering can be tolerated for the sake of freedom and prosperity during a pandemic.

Governments choose how to be ‘guided by science’. Consider Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq, another reprehensible decision IMHO. He chose to ignore the ‘science’ (the findings of weapons inspectors that Iraq probably had no useful weapons of mass destruction), choosing instead to be ‘guided’ by evangelism and a taste for the top table.

It’s strenuously denied, though crystal clear to most of us, that the UK government changed tack on ‘lockdown’ when it was informed that several hundred thousand might otherwise die, and that the NHS would be overwhelmed. But it was already clear, based on Italy’s and Spain’s examples, what would happen if no restrictions were placed on our liberties. Lockdown was already the prudent course, the obvious political decision, whatever the science. And whether the science changed or not, science doesn’t absolve government of its responsibility to act rapidly and prudently. It, alone, is responsible for a delay that has caused thousands to lose their lives (around ten years lost, on average). It has blood on its hands.

Here in the Czech Republic daily new case numbers are now fewer than 70. Lockdown is being relaxed in stages, very carefully. The whole country is an epidemiological experiment. Life won’t return to normal for many months, but economic activity of many kinds can resume.

That will eventually be the case in the UK, but, guided by science, the government will have allowed thousands to die unnecessarily in the process.