If you don’t like Mozart, go and watch a football match

Stephen Hough, CBE: he writes about everything from concert nerves to Auschwitz (CBE)

Rough Ideas
By Stephen Hough
Faber, 464pp, £18.99/$21.46

Stephen Hough is famous for a lot of things, mostly to do with playing the piano. He ranks high among the leading keyboard geniuses of our time – and genius is not an idle word here: it’s a status formally acknowledged in the US with what’s known as a MacArthur “Genius” Award. But he is also a composer, poet, painter, one of Britain’s best-known Catholics and, at the same time, one of its more prominent, reflective and articulate gay men. And for some years he’s written about all these things – in articles and blogs compiled during the lonely hours that travelling pianists spend in airports and hotels, with this book as a result.

Rough Ideas re-presents 200 of his various pieces in the form of short essays that explore many subjects. Some are serious, some frivolous. And though the ideas can indeed be rough, they are expressed with compensating erudition and eloquence about everything from concert etiquette and platform nerves to playing trills, the Girl from Ipanema, Rilke, good Americans, Auschwitz, Alzheimer’s, the Wigmore Hall and Willa Cather.

There’s also an entire section pertaining to religion, which he keeps separate from everything else so that readers allergic to the subject can skip it – though if they do they’ll miss some pertinent, occasionally provocative but usually persuasive essays on such things as why Hough is a Catholic and a pianist but not a Catholic pianist, and why he believes the Church has got it wrong about homosexuality (with cruel consequences for the millions who have suffered persecution over the centuries thanks to teachings that he thinks have more to do with social culture than with God).

More lightly on that subject, there’s an essay called “Gay pianists: can you tell?” (I won’t reveal the answer, but he quotes the legendary Vladimir Horowitz who said there were three kinds of pianist: Jewish, gay and bad. It’s not entirely true, but close.)

And when Hough isn’t being mischievous, he’s being brave. Where pundits in the general press pursue approval by embracing fashionable causes, Hough takes up positions that are far from popular.

He sees nothing wrong with serious music being a museum culture – because the great works of the past are no less great for being old, and thoroughly deserving of respectful preservation. He pleads for the virtues of ageing audiences. He’d happily abandon the established practice of the concert interval (though it would upset concert hall proprietors who want the income from the drinks sales). And in times when political correctness forces classical musicians to spend their lives apologising for the supposed stuffiness and elitism of what they do, he defends dressing up for concerts (on the grounds that performance is a special event and the clothes are “our wedding attire for the composer”). He also dares to suggest that classical music is not for everyone. Making a pleasingly subtle distinction, he argues that the art form is for anyone – so long as you’re prepared to make an effort and engage. If you don’t want to, that’s OK: no law compels you to spend time with Mozart. Go and watch a football match instead.

Hough is good at metaphors and similes. Success in competitions for a young performer is, he says, never a goal: it’s “putting the ball on the pitch, the keys in the engine”. Listening to historical piano-rolls is fun, but nonetheless as accurate an impression of the pianists of the past as “telling the time from shadows in a park”.

And he has sharp things to say about the relationship or otherwise between music and mood, arguing that there’s scant historical connection between how a composer feels and how he writes. “Mood”, says Hough, “has little impact on pen hitting paper”; and it’s the same for artists in performance. There is – he offers as a quietly lethal criticism of flashy players – “a danger when we think that everything has to ‘show and tell’ in order to be telling”. Rachmaninov, one of the supreme pianists of his time, sat stock-still at the keyboard: “the emotion utterly distilled, and the more powerful, more moving, because of it”.

Being himself a rather sober figure on the platform, Hough would naturally claim that. But he’s also a proponent of restraint in worship – for which quality he prizes Anglican Evensong as a liturgical expression of Christ’s “Noli me tangere” (“Do not touch me”). Too much worship, says Hough, wants to touch you; but Evensong leaves you alone with your thoughts – not in denial of hospitality or welcome but like “a rambling old house where everyone can find some corner to sit and think”.

That said, Hough’s thinking usually gets done on planes – which he apparently hates but finds useful as places to pray, because they impose on the helpless passenger a degree of vulnerability and surrender that makes them ideal for spiritual exercise. Like so many in this book, it’s an observation I wish I’d made myself. And one I’ll certainly make use of.