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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Musical roots

Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, Oryx and Crake, is a terrifying and worthy successor to The War of the Worlds, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and offers a bleak analysis of the future of humanity if genetic engineering pursues the path that she suggests. It is totally enthralling and the last few pages create a vivid scene of utter isolation and despair. But my digression into the byways of art and literature over the past few months may lead to a charge of ultracrepidarianism and so I now return to my well-hammered and ringing last – opera. For many people Glyndebourne epitomises opera audiences – toffs in black ties quaffing champagne alfresco with an incidental interest in the music. I concede the uniform is a little quaint. But, although I do not attend football matches despite having being born in West Ham, I have observed a certain ritual dress among the fans – team strip, scarves, and body paint seem indispensable and this is surely not their daily wear? Note also that the authorities still permit opera-goers to drink on the premises and it is the custom to let the chorus handle the chanting rather than do it one’s self. Chacun a son goût! The reason for the fête-champêtre was a production of La Bohème which may explain my eruption of French phrases. This particular work reminds me that occasionally I have been asked whence my passion for music has sprung – not often, because those in the know realise I can be very tedious on the subject. Briefly, it was kindled first by events in the 1950s, especially Sunday lunches.

Sunday favouritesIn those distant days of summer sunshine Sundays were truly a day of rest; shops were closed and garden centres a future nightmare; cars were mainly black and beyond the reach of most; television was black and white, acquired for the coronation in June 1953, and broadcast only in the evening. Radio was our spiritual food and in our house never tuned to the Third Programme, the source of classical music, but to the Light Programme, which on Sundays at lunchtime aired ‘Educating Archie’ (a vehicle for Peter Brough, a ventriloquist!), ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ (Ted Ray was a favourite wartime comic), or Hancock’s Half Hour. (Go to whirligig-tv.co.uk for a real trip down Memory Lane!) The comedy slot complemented ‘Two Way Family Favourites’, a programme for British armed forces then scattered around the world in what was left of our empire, which played requests consisting usually of popular music. But the final minutes of the transmission, which often coincided with the making of the horseradish sauce from a fresh root or mint sauce from home-chopped leaves and non-brewed condiment, climaxed always with a classical lollypop such as the Grand March from Aida, the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana, or a Puccini gem – Butterfly’s ‘One Fine Day’ or Rodolfo’s ‘Your Tiny Hand is Frozen’ from La Bohème. From these rousing and roast potato moments was my love of classical music born. Later, my older sister acquired a record player and I heard Mario Lanza singing Verdi for the first time; then followed piano lessons, a Robert Mayer concert at the Festival Hall, a Readers Digest boxed set of Beethoven symphonies, and GCE O-level music; in total half a century of listening and learning. Initially, Wagner beckoned austerely from afar but made his presence felt as soon as I was ready.

Glyndebourne passion This fête was in the wet and it is very probable that a thousand similar histories could be told by those sheltering from the rain at Glyndebourne for this particular Bohème. Strip away the formal dress and the panoply of picnics and there is just a simple passion for the music. The production was refreshingly modern – in the last act the four men feasted not on a loaf of bread but on crack cocaine – and the youthful acting of the principals added further verismo to a depressing, gloomy set. The singing was not top class, although the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon shone as Rodolfo, but from where I was sitting the filigree of Puccini’s early score could be heard in every detail thanks to conductor Mark Wigglesworth’s sympathetic interpretation.