Opera + Classical Music Features

Stephen Hough: Composing in lockdown

Benjamin Poore talks to composer Stephen Hough about coping with lockdown and his forthcoming performance at Wigmore Hall

Lockdown is Stephen Hough’s first real break from performing since 1983. “I have to say that in some ways it’s been the best time of my life, despite the enormous difficulties facing us”. This enforced break from his “main job” – as a renowned international soloist – has meant stepping off the “merry-go-round” of normal routine: hours each day spent on travel plans, contracts, arranging rehearsals, and, of course, finding “precious hours” to practise the piano. 

But this disturbance of normal life has been a boon for his work as originator rather than performer of music: “I can guiltlessly compose”, he remarks. Normally he will compose on the road, writing backstage and in hotel rooms, sketching ideas furiously, and only later more assiduously working them out on the computer back home in London. For a performer with such a schedule and profile, Hough is a prolific composer who has published over forty pieces, ranging from arrangements of songs by Rodgers & Hammerstein to idiosyncratic chamber works for piccolo and contrabassoon to piano sonatas and choral music. Impressive enough without even mentioning his substantial parallel career as a writer: a memoir slated for next year will follow 2019’s collection of essays and vignettes Rough Ideas

Hough has begun work on his first string quartet. He’s writing it for the Takács quartet, a commission that came through first violinist Edward Dusinberre, who heard a concert of Stephen’s music in California last year. He tells me that it is “mostly drafted now” after “many, many hours of work”, and should appear next year. His conception of the piece is shaped by French music of the 20th century, with Ravel and Henri Dutilleux as imaginative bookends, Hough wondering, in his quartet, “what is going on in the gap between those styles”. The group known as ‘Les Six’ (Honegger, Poulenc, and Milhaud perhaps its best-known members) as well as Stravinsky are also in the mix, he tells me, though all the aforementioned are inspiration rather than sources for hommage or pastiche. 

A project on a slightly different scale is Hough’s test piece for the Van Cliburn piano competition – something that “came in last year that I’m now able to crack on with”. He’s in pretty starry company composing for it, joining Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and John Corigliano amongst others. He envisages “a very traditional 20th century showpiece”, a kind of Toccata whose atmosphere should summon the brilliant organ works of Charles-Marie Widor or Louis Vierne, albeit without the colourful stops or luminous scale of a great church instrument. “It’s the smell of that music”, he enthuses, “…incense-laden… sunlight coming through the windows”, all bejewelled with “the glitter of virtuosity”.

“I have to say that in some ways it’s been the best time of my life, despite the enormous difficulties facing us”

The commission poses distinct imaginative and compositional challenges: at only four to six minutes in length “there is no time to write something with lots of structural issues or exploration”. Pacing is crucial: on a musical roller coaster like this you “don’t want to peak too soon… the virtuosity and excitement must come in the last fifteen seconds”. Hough feels strongly that, despite the context of the competition, it isn’t merely “testing” or note-bashing, but rather something that stretches competitors he calls, open-heartedly, “young colleagues of mine”. 

Stephen has settled into a contented rhythm during lockdown, rising early to tackle emails and press enquiries. His studio is located near his house, and practising the piano – which he does as much as ever – provides some respite from the “less straightforward” work of composing; the former allows him to “fill the hours of the day with work that takes my mind off things”. The cancellation of concerts means that his practising has become less frenetic and intensive, allowing him to work on repertoire for its own sake – the Chopin Nocturnes have featured recently – rather than being bound by scheduling obligations. 

But things are set to change, even if only slightly. Last week the Wigmore Hall announced a series of streamed concerts in June, with acclaimed artists playing to an empty hall, including Sean Shibe, Mark Padmore, Mitusko Uchida, and Roderick Williams, amongst others; it’ll be the first live music to air on BBC Radio 3 in months. Stephen has chosen to play Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s D minor Chaconne for solo violin and Schumann’s imploring, dreamy Fantasie in C

Hough himself will launch the concert series, and his choice of repertoire is freighted with a significance we might feel more acutely than usual. “I wanted to play something serious which was both profound and transcendent”, he tells me, “something which reminded me why music is so important in our lives.” The Fantasie seems an apt choice. Schumann wrote it to raise funds for a monument to Beethoven in Bonn: how fitting to programme a piece that is testament to music’s urgency and power, perhaps exemplified by that composer. A quotation from the poet and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel prefaces Schumann’s score, describing a “a faint long-drawn note / For the one who listens in secret.” “Heimlich” is Schlegel’s word, one that evokes the homely and the private, where we now spend much of our lives: you can welcome Hough into yours.

Wigmore Hall’s live stream is on June 1 at 13.00.

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