Stephen Hough in the ascendent

Composer, belle-lettrist, polemicist, novelist, painter, teacher, and failed priest – as well as pianist – the newly-knighted Stephen Hough must sometimes lose track of his multifarious activities. Last month the Takacs Quartet released a recording of his delicately allusive first string quartet; this month Hyperion are releasing Musica callada, his new Mompou CD, while Faber are publishing his autobiography under the teasing title Enough. I catch him before a rehearsal for the Wigmore premiere of his new song-cycle with Nicky Spence as soloist. Enough already!

The ebullient figure who greets me is still slightly bemused by the new name he finds on his dressing-room door. Its only discernible use, he says, may be as a pass to a better table in restaurants, but he’s pleased the honour has gone to a classical musician. ‘In the present situation,’ he says of classical music’s beleaguerment, ‘we need to hold the wheel very firmly and fight our corner. Look at Kabuki in Japan – no one’s trying to update it to suit the times. It’s a traditional art form and it’s flourishing. We need to do the same without apology, and the “sir” is one tiny little brick in the huge edifice of what I hope will be our future.’

The autobiography was fun to write, he says, but it assumed an unexpected seriousness as it unfolded. It made him realise how regretful he was that he couldn’t help his parents to solve their central problem, which was that although they both loved him devotedly, they couldn’t express any love for each other. He also realised that although he had no surviving relatives in the north-west of England where he grew up, he wanted to affirm his loyalty to that region. ‘And I wanted to talk about a part of my life which was a bit strange, before I went off to study at the Juilliard in New York, where I finally opened out.’ Will he talk about that strangeness now?

Of course. ‘It began when I was twelve or thirteen. These days someone like me would just have been online, alone in their room, and not talking to anyone, just listening to records. I had long hair, did yoga naked on the floor, and my bedroom was painted purple. I had David Bowie’s picture on the wall, and Marc Boland’s, and David Cassidy’s… I can barely remember their names now.

‘I had a year of being afraid of everything. All I could look forward to was the next episode of Coronation Street. If I hadn’t played the piano, I don’t know what I would have done in life. Worked in a shop probably. Who was this person I was?’ He laughs: ‘I’ve obviously made a recovery, but I still have elements of shyness, which I’ve found ways of working around. My book’s title – Enough – has several meanings, and one of them is “this far and no further” – meaning how much I want to reveal.’

And then there was the issue of gayness. ‘Being gay is one of my oldest memories, both conscious and unconscious,’ he writes in his book. ‘It was a pulse, not so much of desire but of identity.’ The front cover shows him seated at the piano aged five, dressed in a Liberace outfit with lace frills and a jacket covered in spangles. The gay impulse itself didn’t bother him at all, but until he reached early middle age the fear of social shame – and of its association with Aids – haunted him almost unbearably.

‘At a time when I was flying across the Atlantic a lot, I would often find myself thinking that I’d rather the plane went down, than that people should discover that I was gay and had Aids, there was such a feeling of untouchability about it at that time. I was scared not so much of dying, as of the disgrace it would bring. Even today, in villages far from the metropolis, this idea of disgrace can still hold. I wasn’t playing the wild sex games which some gay people were doing in the Seventies, but I lived for many years with that fear. One should remember that these people were also celebrating a freedom which their group hadn’t enjoyed for centuries.’ He wryly recalls one close shave he had, in a relationship which didn’t progress beyond the platonic. The American boy he fancied didn’t fancy him because of his uncool dress sense: ‘I do believe my Harris Tweed jacket saved my life, because that boy died of Aids.’

Another of Hough’s great escapes was from the constricting embrace of the Roman Catholic priesthood, because at two points in his life he nearly gave up the piano in order to take holy orders. In early adulthood he gravitated to evangelical Christianity, then moved on to Catholicism where, by the way, he still is. For two decades he spent an hour each day in prayer at Mass, the time carved out with difficulty from his ever-intensifying performance and touring schedule, and it was only when he heard the magic words ‘Your altar is the piano’ that the spell was mercifully broken.

And as he makes clear in his book, the priestly urge is still there: ‘Sometimes to this day I whisper to myself, standing in the wings offstage, the concert grand in my sight: ‘Introibo ad altare Dei – I will go to the altar of God. A Jewish psalm. The opening words of the Tridentine mass. My confession, my confessional.’

So he’s still a practising Catholic? ‘Yes! But I have problems with certain theological concepts.’ Not with the condemnation of homosexuality – ‘you can’t import ideas of psychology from two thousand years ago’ – but with things like the Immaculate Conception, the idea of Hell – Purgatory, he thinks, was the medieval get-out clause to evade the fires of Hell – and with the Trinity, which diluted the force of the Christian message. ‘We lost something important when we made it impossible for Jewish people to have a part in what Christ came as a Jew to bring to the world. It was an extension of Jewishness, not a new religion.’ But the real force of Christianity, he says, lies in its social messages – feed the hungry, forgive your enemies. Yet at the same time he points to the way the world’s great religions all meet at the mystical level.


BUT THERE’S a parallel thread running through this chronicle of a rake’s progress in reverse: Hough’s transformation from a rebellious fifteen-year-old with a ‘shoddy’ approach to the piano, to the absolute master he is today. The key to this transformation was his conversion to Catholicism: ‘It completely and utterly turned my life around. From a tv-bingeing borderline depressive I became intellectually curious, hard-working, disciplined, concerned about others, and above all joyful.’ And his modus operandi now testifies to that discipline. He keeps fit with a regular eight hours of sleep, much walking and trips to the gym, and eight hours’ daily practice in his studio, with just a 20-minute break for lunch.

Pianistically he didn’t flower at Chetham’s where he went to study in his mid-teens, and where he was constantly told he was a layabout who would never achieve anything in life. But a move to the Royal Northern College of Music galvanised him. There he fell under the spell of Alfred Cortot (as perceived through his recordings), and he was placed under the tutelage of two remarkable teachers. One of these was a refugee named Bronislaw Hankowski who in England had chosen to rename himself Derrick Wyndham, and who passed on the pianistic wisdom he had imbibed from his own teachers – Artur Schnabel, and Moriz Rosenthal (who had studied with Liszt).

‘I carry Derrick Wyndham’s ideas with me whenever I practice or play, passing them on to every student I teach,’ Hough writes. ‘The “geography of the keyboard” was one of his concepts I found hugely helpful. He understood the connection fingers have to keys with a clarity I have not encountered since. And technique matters: the greatest musician on earth cannot make the close of Beethoven’s final piano sonata float to heaven, if she cannot trill properly.’ Abandon hope, all ye who enter here without that qualification.

With sixty records under his belt, and bringing out a new one every few months, Hough is exceptionally prolific. For his latest CD he’s revisited a composer dear to his heart – Federico Mompou. As he points out, the relationship goes way back: ‘The first classical LP my parents bought for me when I was five had two Mompou pieces, so I knew his music before I knew Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven. And I loved those pieces. One was called ‘The girls in the garden’ and the other ‘The Gypsies’. For me they stood for piano music in general, and the first one I’ve played countless times as an encore.’

‘Mompou absolutely embraced his second-rankness,’ he says. ‘But that emphatically didn’t mean second-rate. I mean it in the same way as Richard Strauss said that he was not a great composer, but he knew he was one of the best. Mompou knew what he could do, and did it to perfection. And that was to write tiny little piano pieces which are perfectly crafted and exquisite.’

Twenty-five years ago Hough released a CD of Mompou’s best-known pieces, and in the accompanying liner-note he offered a memorably poetic analysis of their appeal. ‘This is the music of evaporation,’ he wrote. ‘The printed page seems to have faded, as if the bar lines, time signatures, key signatures, and even the notes themselves have disappeared… There is no development of material, little counterpoint, no drama or climaxes to speak of; and this simplicity of expression – elusive, evasive and shy – is strangely disarming. .. We are in a glasshouse, and the resulting transparency is unnerving, for it creates a reflection in which our face and soul can be seen.’

Hough has now released a collection of very short late-Mompou pieces entitled Musica callada – ‘secret’ or ‘silent’ – which is a far more serious proposition. ‘This is music which goes beyond music. We recorded it in the pandemic, and it was the perfect music of isolation and abandonment. I’ve now played it twice in concert, and it’s like going on detox, because it goes beyond the notes to some other world. It’s like being put through a fast. It’s so austere, the notes are so few, that you long for some cream or sugar on it, but he won’t give it to you. And it’s exhausting to play. After being in the desert for an hour, you’re metaphorically reaching for a glass of water, and he gives it to you just at the right moment. The final piece is like a hymn ending on a C major chord.’

And even in this context Hough finds a vital connexion between music and his Catholic faith. Musica callada was inspired in part by the writings of the 16th century Spanish poet and mystic Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross), now best known for his concept of the dark night of the soul. As Hough puts it: ‘When you are feeling most desolate and distant from God – there’s an element of that in these pieces, which are very dark a lot of the time. But it’s a positive, searching kind of darkness, beyond the music itself.’

And it’s nice to learn that Hough still believes in the CD as an art form. ‘We’ve got a gorgeous painting for the front cover. If a CD is to have any meaning these days, it must be beautiful in every respect.’

Meanwhile he’s still busily writing. This can take many forms, and recently he added a new one. The centrepiece of his latest song cycle is a song (‘about a one-night stand’) whose text was to be Auden’s famous lullaby ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love, human on my faithless arm…’. But when Hough requested permission from the Auden estate to use it, so many obstacles were raised that he finally gave up and decided to write his own poem to fit his already-composed music. Its title is now ‘One night (after Auden)’.

Creative writing, for Hough, has always had central importance. ‘It was always my favourite subject at school. I loved the way I could express my inner life fearlessly: the smoulder of hidden homosexuality, a desire to shock, and the irresistibility of showing off. All three of these found a lifelong, and I trust less obnoxious, release in front of the piano’s black and white keyboard: life’s lurid colours tamed, if never monochrome.’  IPM January 2023


Enough: Scenes from Childhood
Música callada

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