Rough Ideas

Rough Ideas
Stephen Hough
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 464 pages
A review by Greysolynne Hyman

You may know Stephen Hough as a concert pianist, but you probably don’t know that he is a painter and prize-winning poet. This Renaissance man is the first classical musician to have received a MacArthur Genius Grant. Mr. Hough’s newest book, Rough Ideas, is a collection of short essays, or as I might call them, “thought pieces.” They are the result of notes about a wide range of topics that he jotted down while he was waiting—at airports, on planes, and in hotel rooms. After reading one of these essays and reflecting on it, I often felt that I had been engaged in a conversation with a warm, witty, and intelligent friend.

As you might expect from a concert pianist, almost three-quarters of the book is devoted to musical topics. It’s clear from the beginning that this is a man with a sense of humor who loves language. Even the title, Rough Ideas, is a play on words.

Mr. Hough provides insights from a performer’s perspective. Even the pros are nervous! For him, playing a piece is like having a conversation with the composer. While we marvel watching a pianist’s fingers and hands moving across the keyboard, there are more body parts involved, and each must be in an optimum position.

“Passion” is a word that occurs often in Mr. Hough’s description of a performance. He points out something every audience member knows; we experience music as emotion—the composer’s, the performer’s, and, most important to us, our own reaction.

His analysis of pieces in the piano repertoire is technically detailed. Some are especially challenging—“Dvořák’s Concerto for Ten Thumbs” (Piano Concerto in G Minor, op. 33) 1. His analysis allows him to express the beauty of the music as in the third movement of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat, in which the delicate touch and the interplay of major and minor reflect the fragility of human emotions. He also sets works in the context of the composers’ lives and effects on their music. At the 1889 world’s fair in Paris, Debussy heard the gamelan of Southeast Asia for the first time and then used the pentatonic scale in some of his own compositions.

Stephen Hough’s Rough Ideas offers you the opportunity for an encounter with a multidimensional genius.

Rough Ideas is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and Nook formats.

[1] Stephen Hough, Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), 204–206.

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This book review appeared in the winter 2020 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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