Ever since Stephen Hough won a national children’s piano competition at the age of eight, he has gathered honours and accolades. After this first competition win a newspaper headline over his photograph asked: “Could this be the new Mozart?” Ten years ago a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship of $500,000 enabled him to buy the studio where he composes and practises (on a Steinway, a Yamaha and a vintage Bluthner), a few minutes’ walk from his home.
This doyen of British pianists has made majestic recordings of everything from Schubert, Chopin and Liszt to Saint-Saëns and Scriabin. He never plays modernist works and his reason for this is revelatory: “Playing Boulez and Stockhausen takes a different kind of skill from playing Chopin,” he says. “It’s almost like playing a different instrument. And with a lot of that [atonal] music, everything’s written in. There’s no room for interpretation – and that’s what draws me to play the piano.”
He might be a ferociously high achiever, a popular cultural blogger and a famously gay Catholic but no pianist was ever more laid-back than this dandified 50-year-old. I meet him at the mews cottage he shares with his partner in north London, surrounded by paintings and photographs of his pianistic heroes, and with a crucifix on the wall above the piano “to remind me of the higher things”, as he explains with a laugh. Although as a teenager he was more interested in rock, the first piece of classical music to fire his imagination was Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, and it also triggered his decision to convert to Roman Catholicism at 18. Why did he do that?
“The initial attraction was rebellion against my Orange Order [strict Irish Protestant] family background,” he replies. “But it was also an aesthetic, mystical thing. I’d read enough to be convinced intellectually that if Christianity was true then this was the truest form of it, and I wanted to become a priest. I also knew I was gay – I knew that when I was five – and being a priest would have given me a legitimate way of not marrying and not having to say why.” He was persuaded out of that plan by his religious mentors’ arguments that he owed it to his gift to stay a musician.
But his moral wrestles with his Catholic conscience continued, spilling out into an article for The Tablet, the Catholic newspaper, in 2006 in which he argued that the church’s condemnation of homosexual love went against the laws of both God and nature. He was heartened by the response: “Many people, including bishops, wrote to me, saying: ‘Keep doing what you’re doing; it needs to be done, the Church moves slowly but it will get there in the end.’ ” Hough doubts he will ever find time to write the book on gay theology that he has been contracted to do – but might he follow Liszt’s example and take orders in later life? “I don’t think they’d have me now. I’ve spoken out too much.”
A lot of that speaking out has been through his blog, in which he holds forth on everything from ballet and fine art to perfumes and hats and musical life on the road; his tone is cheerful, urbane. “I enjoy people’s comments,” he says. “I enjoy going into conflicts and sorting them out.” In one entry he observed that although he admired Bach he didn’t “get” him. “His music has not, as yet, entered my bloodstream,” he explains. “I don’t embrace it wholly. One respondent said that in Bach there’s never a sense of the disordered, the out-of-control – and those are things which I find very attractive in art. It should be like our lives, not neat and tidy.”
Yet Hough’s own compositions – viz his recent piano sonata Broken Branches – seem very controlled. “No, that sonata is always breaking down, everything in it fragments, as the title suggests,” he says. “I’m interested in tonality breaking apart but I like still to see it there. I love peaches that are going bad but I want them still to be edible, to have that sense of being a peach.”
His cycle Other Love Songs, released in the summer, makes a bold statement, studiously avoiding poems that glorify romantic love between men and women. The texts come from religious mystics, gay black Harlem poets and A.E. Housman in polemical mode; some of Hough’s settings could have been by Ravel.
Currently Hough is finishing a mass commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, on whose title, Missa Mirabilis, hangs a tale. Driving home after a concert in 2006, he hit a truck at 80mph and rolled over several times. When he regained consciousness, the early draft for this mass was still in his bag – intact as he himself, miraculously, was too: he sketched the “Agnus Dei” while waiting in hospital for a brain scan.
Hough might never become a priest but he is in many ways already a father figure. As a piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music, he conscientiously coaches young players. And he’s losing count of the number of CDs he has recorded, but it is more than 50. He likes the idea of this: “As you get older, it’s nice to feel there’s something of yourself you’ve left behind. Especially if you don’t have children of your own.”
Stephen Hough’s residency at the Wigmore Hall begins on December 20; his recording of the Grieg and Liszt concertos is released in November by Hyperion, and “Broken Branches”, his collected compositions, by BIS