gigglemusic – Telemann in maschera

To celebrate Version 1.4 of gigglemusic – now available on the App Store and Google Play – my teacher, Jan Thuri, and I recorded a Covid-19 compliant performance of a short duet by Telemann.

It’s a hard time for musicians, but play we must. If this is the only way, then so be it.

You may notice that we’re closer to each other than recommended by the International Oboists’ Guild (we’re playing from the same score), but we took the extra precaution of muzzling our instruments’ bells.

Make of it what you will. And please forgive us our mistakes. It is harder to play behind a mask than you might imagine.

If you’re eager to make contact with other musicians during these difficult times, try gigglemusic. It’s a new network for classical musicians. We released our first version just as Covid struck, and we’re still holding off from widespread marketing until our strapline ‘bringing musicians together‘ makes more sense, but we’re eager to add more users.

gigglemusic lets you find other musicians, concerts, music businesses, groups, opportunities and items for sale. Register, promote your own skills, add your own events, and let us know what you think. It costs nothing.

Lettre d’amour

Antal Dorati (1906 to 1988) is generally known as a conductor, but he was also a fine composer. Born in Budapest to musical parents, he studied at the Franz Liszt Academy with Kodaly and Bartok.

His Five Pieces for Solo Oboe, written for Heinz Holliger, are amongst the most imaginative (and difficult) solo works for the instrument. The least difficult is this one, which I recorded this morning at home. There’s a wrong note (other oboists will surely notice it), a chickening-out of the harmonics in the last bar, and a number of other deficiencies. One can always do better. Here it is, anyway.

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


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.


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.



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).


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.

COVID-19, R*(1-I) and the difficulty of making policy


Policy is a matter of values and the calculation of cost and benefit.

Take speed limits, for example. Increase the limit, and the severity and number of casualties will rise. Decrease the limit, freedom is curtailed and economic damage done (an economy can’t function at walking pace). Assuming today’s technology, the limit is unlikely to rise beyond 200 mph, or decline below 10 mph. Debate merely nibbles at the edges of the issue – vehicle safety standards, road safety standards and the availability of emergency services, the equitable and orderly provision of which is assumed. It’s hard to imagine any disruption to the ‘not uncomfortable’ equilibrium that current speed limits achieve.

COVID-19 by contrast, is disruptive and governments are struggling to develop policy. But whilst our values are clear (save lives, attend to the sick), the calculation of cost and benefit is both ethically tricky and technically difficult.

The facts are these:

  • COVID-19 is highly contagious. In the absence of social distancing policy the number of individuals (R) to whom, on average, an infected individual is likely to pass on the virus (in the absence of immunity), is almost certainly higher than 2. A value greater than 1 is bad news enough.
  • The proportion of the population immune to COVID-19 (I) is low (current surveillance (antibody) testing suggests it is lower than 0.1 even in countries where thousands have died).
  • COVID-19 is a life-threatening disease (the threat rising with age and ‘underlying health conditions’).
  • There is no cure (though there is hope that drugs might reduce the likelihood of death).
  • There is no vaccine.
  • However, there are treatments that reduce the likelihood of death – oxygen, intensive care, ventilation, etc. These are highly demanding in terms of resources (beds, doctors, nurses, drugs, machinery, PPE, etc.).
  • Those providing treatment (doctors, nurses, etc.) face a disproportionate risk of infection.
  • Reducing social contact lowers R.
  • Unless R*(1-I) is less than 1, cases and deaths will rise exponentially.

This rare and disruptive combination of facts has left governments with no option but to reduce R*(1-I), by means of ‘lockdown’ or ‘social distancing’ policy, to a level that will still enable the provision of treatment to those in acute need in an orderly and equitable manner.

Some individuals have argued that for COVID-19 the ‘cure is worse than the disease’, but for most of us it is unimaginable that treatment could be denied to those who might benefit from it, and that doctors, nurses and care workers should be overwhelmed and placed at high risk of catching the disease themselves.

Imagine if the emergency services could attend just one in every ten car crashes. Most of us (those of us lucky enough to live in a relatively prosperous country) would consider that an unacceptable trade-off of cost and benefit.

The difficult medium-term question (before the arrival of a vaccine and/or high population immunity (I)) is what level of R*(1-I) can be tolerated? How many new cases and deaths are we able to ‘accept’ on a daily basis? As many as our health services can treat? Or far fewer?

  • A value of R*(1-I) higher than 1 means an exponential growth in cases and deaths to a level likely to exceed the capacity of our health services
  • A value of R*(1-I) only just higher than 1 means, perhaps, a manageable growth in cases and deaths, such that, as they expand, health services might still provide treatment in an orderly and equitable manner to those who need it
  • A value of R*(1-I) at 1 means a stable level of new cases and deaths (and as I increases R can also be allowed to rise)
  • A value of R*(1-I) lower than 1 means a decline in cases and deaths, eventually to zero

Assuming that a vaccine for COVID-19 is a year away and that I remains low, most governments will attempt to formulate policies that won’t allow R*(1-I) to grow much higher than 1.

But the first question each government must address is an ethical one. How many cases and deaths averted can be traded for freedoms temporarily curtailed and wealth sacrificed? This isn’t an unreasonable question, even though it’s a difficult one. Just as with speed limits, there must be a ‘not uncomfortable’ equilibrium to find. Don’t forget that we accept a certain level of cases and deaths from seasonal ‘flu without demanding ‘lockdown’ or radical ‘social distancing’.

Indeed, some have argued that COVID-19 is no more serious than ‘flu and that the cure (lockdown of any kind) is worse than the disease. Few, I think, having seen the near-collapse of health systems in prosperous developed countries, even amidst lockdown, would make the same argument today, even if opinions may still differ as to exactly how the trade-off between disease and cure should eventually be made.

Assuming that exponential growth must be prevented at almost any cost, the next questions are technical ones. How, technically, can the ‘acceptable’ level of cases and deaths be reached, and how can R*(1-I) be kept close to 1?

On the whole, governments have taken the first step already. They’ve introduced strict lockdown policies to force cases down to an ‘acceptable’ level (though it’s also imaginable, in cases where governments have acted early, that they might allow cases and deaths to rise to their ‘acceptable’ level). But none, I think, can force cases and deaths down to zero, even if that were their aim.

Once they’ve achieved an ‘acceptable’ level, governments must then devise policies to ‘manage’ R*(1-I) at around 1 for a year or so without recourse to a vaccine. No government knows how to do that yet. Epidemiological theory might help, but only the experimental relaxation of lockdown policies will determine what really works and how, therefore, we are to lead our lives over the coming months. The Czech Republic, Austria, Norway – these countries are selectively relaxing policies. Another two weeks, perhaps, and they will be able to measure the effect on R. Surveillance (antibody) testing will give them the value of I.

The precise level of lockdown that will keep R*(1-I) at 1 may differ from place to place. Some of us may be free to roam, whilst others are confined to their homes. And whilst this is happening there will be those who will argue that R*(1-I) should be allowed to rise beyond 1, if not by very much, to protect the economy. Every government will be forced to answer these difficult questions, and every government will curtail freedoms and sacrifice wealth to some extent. The alternative, of disorder, disruption and the inequitable provision of treatment will always be unacceptable.

The sad thing about all of this is that faster action might have saved many thousands of lives. The stringent lockdown policies aimed at bringing the level of cases and deaths down to an ‘acceptable’ level were unavoidable from day one, but if they’d been implemented sooner (in the UK, or in the USA, for example) that ‘acceptable’ level might have been achieved sooner, and the second phase, of managing R*(1-I), might have already begun, as it has in countries with wiser (and occasionally more authoritarian) governments.

I suspect that countries that come out of this well will be those in possession of some or all of these characteristics:

  • Benign, decisive and mildly authoritarian, government
  • A relatively efficient bureaucracy
  • A well-developed, well-equipped public health service
  • A well-developed infrastructure for disease control
  • Respect for the value of the individual
  • A well-educated population, generally trusting of its government and willing temporarily to sacrifice freedoms and wealth
  • A population culturally capable of social distancing


One more note…

COVID-19 is frequently compared to Spanish Flu, when lockdown at the levels we’re currently experiencing wasn’t even attempted. But there’s one crucial difference, I suspect, between the early 20th century and now, and that is that whilst there were few treatments available for Spanish Flu, there are treatments for COVID-19. I don’t mean cures. I mean that intensive care units, ventilators, even if available only in limited numbers, can be used to save lives. Policy, therefore, can be implemented to ensure that these limited resources are available to those who need them. There were, of course, terrible choices to be made during the Spanish Flu pandemic, but they were subtly different ones. Viruses and the mechanics of contagion were less well understood. Treatments were fewer. Expectations of government and health services were lower. Government was less capable. If you caught Spanish Flu, your chances of survival mightn’t have depended so crucially on the treatment you could receive.

Cair Paravel

Boris Johnson’s vision of Albion reminds me of Cair Paravel, the turreted castle and court at the heart of C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s nod to a chivalrous past that never, of course, existed. Boris, naturally, is High King Peter, ‘head of the world’ at last, rousing his subjects to a frenzy of patriotism with talk of a new era, a new dawn, a new beginning (an old cliché).

Cair Paravel is lovely. Primary colour standards flutter in the breeze. Boys can be Kings, and girls can be Queens. Whether boys can be Queens too, or girls, Kings, is never made clear, but C S Lewis, I suspect, might have given short shrift to Diversity and Inclusion Policy, even if not to gender equality. Queen Susan, after all, is a dab hand with a long bow, though Queen Lucy must rush about the battlefield like a courtly Florence Nightingale with a tiny bottle of Chanel No. 7 that cures even mortal wounds.

Everything in Narnia is noble and nice, and everyone is gracious. The Royals speak with the clarity of a BBC English of the 1950s, with a sprinkling of ‘prithees’, ‘nays’ and ‘verilies’ to make it even nicer. No one squabbles. For spiritual and ethical guidance there’s a talking lion.

Everything is good and wholesome at Cair Paravel, even if just a tiny bit priggish and smug. There are sometimes battles to fight, against envious oiks who want what Narnia has, but don your cuirass, your sallet, your fauld and your spauldron, parry and thrust awhile, and the oiks, natural cowards that they are, will retreat in shame.

Puberty is as yet a distant threat at Cair Paravel. Indeed, nothing sullies the loveliness. No one counts the debits and credits, there are no interfering bureaucrats, no constraining regulations, no spending reviews, no deficits, no cancer, no garlic, no cocaine, no coronavirus. And whilst not everyone is equal (after all, you can only be royal if you went to a good school) everyone seems happy enough, banqueting and quaffing mead together in the great hall of the castle – only enough, mind you, to make them merrie. No one is drunk and boorish at Cair Paravel.

I loved the Chronicles of Narnia until I was about sixteen (far too long, you might say). The muscular Christianity, the moral certainty, the nobility of it all – the clothes, too, and the talking animals. But in reality it has all the verisimilitude of Katharine Hepburn as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, make-believe nonsense that does a disservice to the multi-faceted, complex, competitive world we live in.

The oiks, after all, have their own point of view, their own moral certainties, their own talking animals, their own ‘good schools’. Is there anything as dangerous as righteousness, certainty or nationalism masquerading as patriotism? Better by far to compromise and cooperate, and to pool our sovereignty. We’re all of us oiks after all.

I dream of a time when the flag of the EU will once again flutter above the parapets of Cair Paravel.