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ROUGH IDEAS by Stephen Hough


Reflections on Music and More

by Stephen Hough

Pub Date: Feb. 4th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-374-25254-0
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A potpourri of pieces (most about music) in a variety of keys and rhythms.

A prolific classical pianist, recording artist, and writer, Hough (The Final Retreat, 2018) has a lot on his mind. There are scores of entries here—the table of contents consumes eight pages—as the author addresses countless topics, from “The Soul of Music” and “Can Atonal Music Make You Cry?” to “Debussy: Piano Music Without Hammers” and “The Three Faces of Francis Poulenc.” Some are adaptations of previously published pieces, and others are versions of Hough’s blog posts. His subject matter ranges from music (history, technique, personalities, pianos, autobiography, even some obituaries) to sexuality (he writes in several places about being gay) to religion (he’s a Roman Catholic) to art museums, abortion, and more. All of the pieces are tightly focused—some are not even a page long, some of which readers may find themselves skimming over—and most are articulate and packed with questions for readers to ponder. (“I’m allergic to telling anyone what to do,” he writes early on.) Hough educates us on his routines, including how he likes to dress up to play and his practice methods while on the road, and he is unafraid to point out his own embarrassments—e.g., a broken pants zipper just before a performance. The author also consistently credits others who have greatly affected him: early teachers, colleagues, performers from earlier eras. Of course, some of the more technical pieces about playing the piano—uses of the pedals, how to play trills—will be of principal interest to other musicians. But much of the book is for general readers: Hough’s thoughts about wallpaper music (he hates it), comments about smoking, generous remarks about Americans (he’s from the U.K.), and discussions of favorite writers (he loves Willa Cather).

Proof that music is not just in notes; it’s also in words.