Why you should care
Because The Economist named him one of 20 living polymaths.
There is an air of expectation. Will Stephen Hough be wearing a hat? That might seem a frivolous question, but not when the person is known as the owner of a small but prized collection of handmade hats, each costing about $600–$700, acquired from a sought-after hatmaker in Chicago.
As Hough explains later, one of his claims to fame came after he wore one of these hats to a dinner in New York with the architect Rafael Viñoly. Although Viñoly professed to have no interest in hats, he asked to try it on and, a few months later, when a magazine invited him to name the six things in life he could not live without, one of them was his cherished hat from a certain hatmaker in Chicago.
Hough arrives, but there is disappointment in store. He has no hat. “I live just ’round the corner,” he explains, “so there was no need.” But then Hough juggles so many hats in the metaphorical sense that it seems unreasonable to complain.
Most people know him as one of the world’s leading concert pianists. Some will have come across the blog that he wrote for a few years for The Daily Telegraph. Then there is the music he has composed, a work list that includes several well-received song cycles and a cello concerto, and his role as a visiting professor at several international music schools. In 2009, he was named by The Economist as one of 20 “living polymaths.”
This artistic impulse I feel as an energy inside, and I feel it the same whether I am writing poetry or playing music.
If that is not enough hats, Hough is trying a new one on for size. His first novel, The Final Retreat, is due to be published this month. It is a short book, less than 200 pages, and focuses on a subject that has been central to its author’s life and philosophy.
About 25 years ago, although we had never met, I found myself staying in Hough’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment through the agency of a mutual friend. Everything was as one would expect of a cultured, cosmopolitan man about town — until one entered the bedroom. An outsize crucifix was hanging over the bed, and one wall housed a bookcase lined with an extensive series of identical yellow volumes on the subject of how to pray.
I tell him I was worried his apartment might be struck by lightning with an atheist spending the night there. He laughs. “It was that period of my life,” he says wryly. But the Catholic faith that was so important to him then clearly continues to exercise his mind. The forthcoming novel explores in fictional form the anxieties that may have been behind two real-life suicides that Hough says moved him deeply. One was of a local Anglican priest when Hough was a teenager, the other of a monk who was facing the imminent revelation of an affair he was having with a man.
“The idea was to write a book that incorporated something of my own beliefs and doubts about Catholicism,” he says. “I particularly wanted to look at those people who set themselves up as being helpers in the community and then fail in themselves. That seems to me a very interesting dynamic.”
Two worlds that are poles apart — Catholicism and male prostitution — rub shoulders in the book. “What was important was the shock element of juxtaposing the two,” he says. “They are sweet and sour, water and oil. At one moment you are talking about an arcane point of theology and at the next, there are graphic depictions of sex that people of a religious disposition are likely to be shocked to hear. I wanted to create the tortured atmosphere in [my central character’s] mind, the frustration that this middle-aged Catholic priest feels for a life that has perhaps been wasted.”
It is hard to imagine how anybody with Hough’s hectic diary of international concerts could find time to write a book. He says the key came when he read a biography of William S. Burroughs. “It described how he wrote Naked Lunch by gathering together scraps that he had collected over the years,” says Hough. “They included letters, poems, articles — anything he had jotted down and carried around in a suitcase. That made me realize that it wasn’t necessary to sit down and write a book from end to end. I started writing short sections on my phone as if each was a diary entry, and that became the eight-day diary framework that I use in the novel.”
Music also played a key part in the shaping of the book. “I have been telling people it is more Sibelius than Tchaikovsky because Tchaikovsky has glorious melodies, but at the end of a work by Sibelius, you feel you haven’t really heard his themes, only the implications of them. Similarly, the most important story in my book is only hinted at in the first and last chapters, where the priest’s notebook is left sitting on the bishop’s desk like a bomb the reader doesn’t see explode.”
In another sense, music and literature draw power from the same creative spring. “This kind of artistic impulse I feel as an energy inside,” he says, “and I feel it the same whether I am writing poetry or playing music. That kind of ecstasy, like stepping outside of oneself, is what I think we all feel when we stand in front of a great painting or have been to a wonderful movie.
“In New York, I just played a program that opens with Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune.’ New York audiences are notoriously noisy in the first few bars, but there was a point later when I sensed we were breathing the same air. That is more thrilling than any amount of applause, when you sense you have control over the audience. A great work like Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 can be even more moving and the slow movement goes beyond anything in, say, Debussy or Rachmaninoff. I can’t play it without tears forming in my eyes. I never get tears when I am playing romantic music.”
Perhaps that helps to explain the direction Hough’s career as a pianist is taking. At 56, he has reached the point where he can choose what he wants to play without the need to think about building a reputation or widening his repertoire. He says he is no longer interested in seeking out the rarities that he used to or dabbling in miniatures and encores.
“I am less excited by the dessert trolley than the main course. I get a far greater charge now from the Brahms or Beethoven concertos. It depends on music that goes beyond the human, and I don’t mean theologically, but in a way shared by any of us who are sensitive to the arts. Beethoven was a good man. You can tell that. And you can sense when an audience connects with what great music, as much as any piece of literature, has to say.”
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