9780571350476The title is a play on his name and the collection of essays in this satisfyingly chunky volume were often “roughed out” by Stephen Hough while travelling between concert engagements, If you think the life of the international concert pianist is glamorous, think again – in between rehearsals and concerts much time is spent at airports, on planes or in faceless continental hotels; for Hough writing was a way of filling that dead time.

The word “polymath” is nearly always uttered in the same breath as “Stephen Hough” – concert pianist, composer, writer, artist, teacher, thinker –  but Hough wears the title modestly. Articulate and highly communicative on and off the concert stage, he is charming and natural when you meet him after a concert, and his lively Twitter presence reveals a penchant for the good things in life – fine food, perfume, hats – combined with an intelligent, open-minded approach to the challenges of our modern world. While other internationally-renowned concert artists may hide behind their reputation, Hough is happy to engage with his audiences, online and in person, and this warm-hearted, genuine approach, alongside his thoughtful suggestions on changing the format of concerts, for example, has helped break down some of the barriers and misconceptions surrounding classical music.

Many of the essays in Rough Ideas will be familiar to those who have enjoyed Hough’s blog in The Telegraph (sadly no more – so thank goodness for this compilation!) and writings elsewhere. As befits a Living Polymath, Hough’s writing net casts wide, and while the bulk of the volume focuses on musicians and music – the exigencies of being a professional musician, the piano and those who play it, concerts (giving and going to them) – there are also engaging articles on art and culture, and more challenging and philiosophical reflections on religion and the difficulties of being a gay Catholic.

Most musicians communicate best via their music, but Hough, himself a deeply communicative and intellectually acute pianist, is also an eloquent and intelligent writer, whose words are as carefully crafted and colourfully nuanced as his playing, and the phrasing, cadence and pacing of his writing pleasingly mirrors musical shaping.

Hough illuminates the pleasures and challenges of being a concert pianist and offers readers an intriguing view “beyond the notes” and the concert stage into this sometimes masochistic, often lonely profession, while never quite dispelling the mystique of the professional musician. There are thoughts on those sacred, church-like spaces where music is performed and heard (a lovely appreciation of London’s Wigmore Hall opens the book), ageing audiences (be kind to them – they populate and support concerts), dealing with creative block and performance anxiety, page-turners, the joy of making mistakes, and what happens when musicians “lose it” on stage (in the best possible way).

In the section entitled Studio, he discusses the musician’s “tools” – practicing, fingering schemes, scores, trills, pedalling and more – sharing his wisdom and offering encouragement and inspiration to pianists, whether amateur or professional. Later sections ‘….and More’, ‘…..and Religion’ reveal Hough as a profound thinker, always curious and questioning, never accepting nor complacent, and the entire volume is a wonderful insight into the mind of one of our greatest living pianists and a significant cultural figure in his own right.

This generous, varied compendium is intriguing, engaging and thought-provoking, always readable and elegantly written. Dip in and out of the chapters or read from start to finish, Rough Ideas is an ideal volume for the serious musician or keen amateur, music lovers in general and anyone who enjoys well-crafted, intelligent prose on a broad range of subjects.

Highly recommended

Rough Ideas is published in the UK on 1 August by Faber & Faber in hardback and e-book editions

Meet the Artist interview with Stephen Hough

The concert pianist cuts a romantic, almost mysterious image: alone on the stage with only a shiny black minotaur of a concert grand for company, the pianist exists in a place other than ours, elevated – both physically and metaphorically – before us. We invest special heroic qualities in the pianist, knowing that he/she must convey supreme mastery and complete oneness with the music by playing from memory. Pianists are like Himalayan adventurers, scaling the highest peaks without a safety net: Triumph or fail, they do so in the very public sphere of the concert hall.

A concert is not called a “performance” – and its participants “performers” – for nothing. Like an actor inhabiting a character created by a playwright, so the musician takes on a special role for the duration of the concert. Like actors, they also wear special clothes for the occasion, which further defines their role, and the occasion occurs in a special building, often in darkness or semi-darkness. Thus the concert becomes an experience outside the realm of daily existence – for audience and performer.

Every physical act you do when you’re on stage is part of the drama of the performance. Playing a concert is theater. It’s one of the reasons I think we should have a different costume for playing a concert, as opposed to listening to a concert. It doesn’t have to be tails, but I think we need to emphasize that this is something that’s not of the everyday.

– Stephen Hough, concert pianist (from an interview with Pacific Standard

Milton Court, London after a concert by America pianist Jeremy Denk
The mystique of the performance begins as the house lights dim, the unspoken signal to the audience to fall silent. A palpable sense of expectancy permeates the concert hall, and the shared adventure of the performance begins as soon as the pianist crosses the stage. The applause, the audience’s way of greeting the performer, and, in return, a bow, the performer’s way of acknowledging the audience. There is no enmity: for the next few hours we are, to quote British pianist Stephen Hough, “all friends”, sharing in the experience, our many differences forgotten for the duration of the concert.

The moments before the performance begins resembles nothing else. One has a sense of the awesome formality of the occasion, the responsibility, the knowledge that, once begun, a performance cannot be withdrawn. Silent, poised at the piano, at that moment the pianist has complete control over our reactions:

I sit down, and I don’t move a muscle. I create a sense of emptiness within myself, and in my head I count up to thirty, very slowly. This causes panic in the audience: ‘What’s happening? Is he ill?’. Then and only then I play the G [of Liszt’s Sonata]. In this way, the note sounds totally unexpected, but in an intentional way. Clearly, there’s a sort of theatricality about this, but the theatrical element seems to me very important in music. It’s essential if you want to create a feeling of unexpectedness….

The unexpected, the unforeseen – it’s this that creates an impression

– Sviatoslav Richter (from Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations by Bruno Monsaingeon)

The best performers (and I don’t necessarily mean the most famous or technically assured) are the ones who take us into their confidence, creating an unspoken mutual connection through music. They weave stories for us, create magic, transport us to another place and allow us to forget ourselves and the tedious minutiae of our daily lives.

The pianist’s mystique and the ritual of the concert create a unique connection in time and place between the performer, the music and the audience.

Today, when presenting classical music seems to be all about “accessibility”, the mystique of performance can be lost in the desire to “connect” with the audience “extra-musically”, so to speak, by talking to the audience, for example, to break down barriers. It’s great to enjoy classical music in a more relaxed setting; it’s interesting when the performers introduce the programme, discuss their particular connection to the music, or why they selected it. This can work especially well in smaller venues where the audience and performer are in close proximity. But talking to the audience pre-concert in a big hall is problematic without proper amplification, and the big venues almost naturally lend themselves to a more formal, mystical concert experience. And I think audiences like performers to actively create a sense of mystique – because we know we are mere mortals in the face of such superhuman ability.

The most startling thing can be meeting a concert pianist “off duty”, so to speak. Years ago, long before I started writing this blog, I interviewed a concert pianist at his fairly modest home in leafy suburbia. I have always been fascinated by pianists (still am, as this blog testifies!) and I had an overly romantic image of the “concert pianist” (this was some years before I took up the piano again and learnt how to be a performer myself, which gave me an understanding of what goes on on stage during a concert and the curious psychology of performance). The mystique was dispelled the moment the pianist answered in the door. I remember he was was wearing navy socks of the type one can buy in M&S, and his piano room was not some Lisztian salon, as I had imagined it might be, all crimson swags and a bust of the composer for inspiration, or an ascetic monkish cell, but a tidy “office” equipped with the tools of his trade – a grand piano and a career’s worth of scores neatly lining one wall. The virtuoso at home. This person had kids, and a friendly cat, a mortgage to pay and a car to service: in truth, he was disappointingly ordinary. I had imagined something, someone, more esoteric, and his very ordinariness was a shock – he regarded the fine art of creating beautiful music for others to enjoy as nothing more than something he did day to day, nine to five, just like any other job. In fact, most of the musicians I have met via this blog and my Meet the Artist series, and of course after concerts, are normal people – and they “normalise” the incredibly artistic and highly intellectual thing that they do on stage in order to function day to day and get their work (practising) done. Because for them, music is their job. But of course what marks them out is their ability to transform the normal into the beautiful, the transcendent, the magical……and if we want to preserve that mystique, maybe it is better we don’t meet our pianistic heroes and heroines.

…the further a performance must travel to reach the origin of the music, the more the artist demonstrates the measure of both his conscience and his genius

Mark Mitchell, Virtuosi!

An attitude still prevails today that classical musicians, and perhaps mostly especially pianists, exist in some kind of gilded cage or ivory tower, where, separated from the humdrum demands of everyday life, they hone their art and craft in glorious seclusion. For those looking in from the outside, the life of the classical musician may seem extraordinarily special and privileged: one has the opportunity day in day out to engage with the most sublimely beautiful and profoundly emotional music ever written, and share its wonders with others in concert.

Liszt’s music salon at his home in Weimar

Some years ago, several years before I started this blog, I interviewed a concert pianist in his home in leafy suburbia. Apart from the fact that he had a special piano room separate from the rest of the house, his existence, at first sight, was not dissimilar to mine. There was evidence of family, children and pets; he answered the door in his socks, and spoke about his “work”(conjuring magic out of that big black box of wood and wires) as if it were any other nine-to-five job. He lived in an ordinary street, in an ordinary suburb of London. I think, naively, I had been expecting his music room to be a Lisztian salon, rather than an office, and he an effete artist detached from the real world. His very ordinariness was something of a surprise to me. I have subsequently realised, from my many interviews and interactions with classical musicians via this blog, my reviewing and my own experience as a musician, that this “ordinariness” – treating one’s work as  “normal job” – is a way of protecting oneself against the exigencies of life as a classical musician. Because in order to succeed in this fast-paced and highly competitive profession, one has to be prepared to put in the work, hard work, every day, while also maintaining a healthy degree of perspective about what one does. In addition, one has to deal with the cynics out there who do not regard music as “a proper job”.

For the professional musician, work (and “work” often simply means “practising”) shapes every hour and is the cadence by which one sets one’s life. Without it, one can feel directionless, without focus. Yet practising, four to five hours every day, can also be a form of captivity. When one is wrestling with something new and tricky, when the same page of the score confronts one day after day, it can feel as if one does not move forward in the night.

In addition, there is all the painstaking work to be done away from the keyboard, reading, analysing and annotating scores, marking up fingering schemes which once learnt remain embedded in the memory and the fingers forever. Note-bashing is simply no substitute for the hard graft of learning new work in depth: working, with pencil and score, cutting through the music to the heart of what it is about. Living with the piece to find out what makes it special, studying style, the contextual background which provides invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted. The endless striving to find the emotional or spiritual meaning of a work, its subtleties and balance of structure, and how to communicate all of this to an audience as if telling the story for the very first time. There is new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revised, overhauled, finessed, or just simply kept going, a vast catalogue “in the fingers” which can be made ready for some kind of performance within a matter of days, depending on one’s schedule. On top of that, one must attend to the “business side” of the profession – contacting promoters, agents, concert organisers, updating one’s website, creating publicity material, general admin  – all of which is time-consuming and can seem like an irritating distraction from the real work of studying the music.

The life of the concert pianist can be tough, restrictive and lonely, the grinding solitary hours of practise only intermittently relieved by work with colleagues. Then there is the traveling, living out of a suitcase in cheerless hotel rooms, sometimes a different place each night, playing an unfamiliar instrument in a foreign concert hall of uncertain acoustic. Having to produce a faultless performance every time, even if one is tired, jet-lagged or, worse, ill, on a strange, and possibly inferior, piano. Never having permission to be less than perfect; always feeding the artistic temperament. The pressure to achieve matched only by the pressure to sustain – and always, the uncomfortable knowledge that one’s reputation is only as good as one’s last performance. No wonder some musicians reach burn out to decide to take a sabbatical (Kissin, Aimard, and now Anderszewski) or even leave the profession entirel. The punishing schedule (trans-continental travel and 200-plus concerts a year) has been blamed for the late John Ogdon’s mental breakdown.

Only a very small minority of professional musicians can be considered “well off”, financially, when measured against other professions (doctors, lawyers, accountants, for example). The Lang Langs of this work are definitely a rarity. The rest work hard to maintain a reasonable standard of living, and many teach to supplement meagre concert fees. There are mortgages and bills to be paid, tax returns to be made, cars to be serviced, parents’ evenings to attend. (The fact that one is playing Chopin at Wigmore Hall to pay for new curtains may feel like an insult to the music and the musician’s craft. But recall that Chopin himself wrote his most heavenly pieces and sent them off with crotchety notes to his friend and factotum Julian Fontana, demanding the best prices from his publishers because he had bills to pay.) Without the safety net of working in a “normal” profession, where one might enjoy in-work benefits, things like pension plans, health insurance and savings need to be taken care of and factored into one’s financial planning. Injury is perhaps feared the most by musicians as it can mean loss of work – and when one is self-employed regular paid work is crucial.

Professional musicians are often envious of the freedom that amateurs musicians enjoy – being able to play whatever repertoire they like, whenever they like, without the pressure to produce specific programmes for concerts and to satisfy the demands of promoters and agents. Simply to enjoy the music for what it is….

So why do we do it? Why do we submit to the demands of the job, forgoing many of the trappings of a “normal” job (social life, holidays)? Because it is a huge privilege to be able to play this great music, works that rank alongside Aristotle and Shakespeare in their magnitude and importance. One feels like a conservator, taking responsibility for them, sharing them with others. It is a cultural gift – a gift to oneself, and a gift to those who love to listen to the piano. All the falseness of ego disappears when one lays oneself on the line before a full house at the Wigmore or Carnegie Hall. To meet a Beethoven or Schubert piano sonata head-on, for example, it is not about you, how fast you can play, how technically accomplished you are. It is about getting over yourself, becoming ego-less, humble before the greatness of the music, getting under the skin of the music and developing a sense of oneness with the composer. There are so many things in these wonderful works to be explored and understood, things which have the power to continually surprise and fascinate. That’s why we do it.

Further reading:

Give me a break: classical musicians who step away

Another opportunity to see Alan Yentob’s superbly insightful and myth-dispelling programme about the tortures and the triumphs of making it as a concert pianist. With contributions from Benjamin Grosvenor (aged 12), Stephen Hough, Evgeny Kissin, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Joanna Macgregor, Lang Lang, and rare interviews by Arthur Rubenstein. Available via the BBC iPlayer here…….and a taster from YouTube