Pianist Stephen Hough is widely regarded as a polymath. His other skills – on top of virtuosity on the concert hall stage and in the studio – include writing, painting and composing. Hough’s latest book Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More follows his debut novel, The Final Retreat, but he has been writing for years, his work spanning poetry (he won the Sixth International Poetry Competition in 2008) to articles on the tensions of being Catholic and gay – and even a book on perfume.
The title of this latest offering puns on Hough’s name, but it’s also a neat description of the work’s philosophy. These aren’t so much essays as briefly – though succinctly – sketched thoughts. Some, like reflections on the relationship between pianist and page-turner, or whether religious faith is more like a rock or a tree, are shorter than a page, while others – such as an anecdote about talking Catholicism and sexuality over lunch with French writer Julien Green – span several. (Limelight published three extracts in March 2020).
“Give me a rough idea,” Hough writes in the introduction. “Not as in a deliberately coarse or unformed one, rather one that has a beginning but not yet an end.”
It is in this spirit that the book – which brings together his blog posts for The Telegraph in the UK with writings scribbled in hotels and airports – gradually unfolds, through stories of music and touring (including candid warts-and-all depictions of musical life) and recording, as well as passages on famous composers, great pianists, Hough’s own compositions, art, poetry, religion, sexuality and more.
In this wide-ranging book, Hough compares Brahms’ Piano Concertos, describes the ‘Eureka moment’ of seeing the Sydney Opera House for the first time in 1991 (some 14 years before the pianist would become an Australian citizen himself) and ponders the privacy afforded one’s reading habits by e-books.
This is a book that rewards both deep immersion and cherry-picking, with many passages provoking a moment of reflection on the topic presented. While Hough’s thoughts probe matters complex and everyday, he’s not preachy – there’s a down-to-earth, humble generosity to the way he offers up these musings, inviting the reader into his personal, professional and spiritual world.