Many classical musicians eschew talking about their personal lives. With little public interest in who’s having sex with whom a la Hollywood, pianists, conductors, violinists and the like can often get along without ever having to get into talking about sex or romance.
The gay British pianist Stephen Hough (pronounced “huff”), however, is not shy about such topics. In his new essay collection “Rough Ideas,” (published Feb. 4 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S.) he explores the question of the antiquated phrase, “Is he musical?,” as a euphemism for homosexuality in an age when it was “the love that dare not speak its name.”
He darts around all sorts of topics in short essays such as “Gay pianists: can you tell?,” “Can atonal music make you cry?,” “Is New Age thinking bad for musicians?,” “Authentically playing Rachmaninoff” and dozens more.
In 2018, his debut novel “The Final Retreat,” which he says is full of “very raw sexuality,” explored the gay longings of a middle-aged Catholic priest in seclusion.
All that to say, Hough, 58, is not at all stuffy and balks at no topic. He was slated to be here in mid-April to play a Beethoven piano concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra and present his book at Politics & Prose. That, of course, has been canceled but he was still game to carry on with a previously scheduled Blade interview on March 23.
Hunkered down at his home in central London where he lives with Dennis, his partner of 18 years, Hough was friendly and loquacious waiting out COVID-19. His comments have been edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How are things in London?
STEPHEN HOUGH: Well this is something you couldn’t have imagined really with everything shutting down the way it has. I was in New York with 9-11 and you know, it was an absolute lifesaver for me being together with friends and now, of course, you can’t do that. You can’t seek that human comfort, so that makes ths really very different. … I think when we come back to normality, we will treasure these things so much.
BLADE: How has it been for you?
HOUGH: Well, it’s two-fold. My concert diary for the next few months has been wiped clean. I get on the computer and it’s all gone blank, all the travel that was planned for concerts. There’s one for China, ironically, that’s still on for June, I don’t know whether or not that will still happen. … But there’s a positive side to it too. As a pianist, you spend most of your life alone practicing so that’s been the same. I think I’ve been more calm because I haven’t had to worry about whether this piece is ready, I’ve got to leave for the airport tomorrow … all those concerns are gone, which is really wonderful. Of course it’s only been a week. Maybe ask me again in a month the same question.
BLADE: What’s the mood like in your neighborhood?
HOUGH: Well, it’s never been this quiet even on Christmas morning. There are very few cars around, nobody is on the streets. … It’s something people haven’t felt since the Soviet Russian times and that’s scary.
BLADE: Do you know anyone who’s succumbed?
HOUGH: No but it’s funny — my partner and I were in Taiwan for Christmas and we came back just before the new year and he thinks he may have had a mild for of it, but that was in early January so we just thought it was the flu.
BLADE: Has your practice had more clarity? Are you more focused?
HOUGH: I think it’s been more concentrated and more joyful. I’ve been practicing some Schubert sonatas and I’ve been overwhelmed by how beautiful the music is. I wouldn’t say in a way that I’ve never felt before, but there’s a purity to it, much like the air in our city. Because there are so few cars around, London feels very fresh and it’s spring.
BLADE: I would be tempted to get lazy. Have you?
HOUGH: So far it’s been OK. I have some writing deadlines for three compositions that I took last year. At first I was thinking I’d have to kill myself to get them done, but now I can do them without having to worry too much. When I’m on holiday, I find it very easy to do literally nothing all day except just read, eat, sleep, repeat.
BLADE: How do you generally know how much to agree to professionally?
HOUGH: It’s very difficult to know if yo’ve got that right. I’m very careful about not dong things at the last minute. When you’re 21, 22 and just starting ot, you say yes to everything because you never know who will ask again. But you come to a point where you take stock a bit and realize you need enough time to prepare a piece. Not just to be able to play it from memory, but truly inhabit it, like an actor with a role in a play.
BLADE: What feedback have you heard so far on “Rough Ideas”?
HOUGH: We’ve had some very nice responses from both people who are musicians and people who have no knowledge of music at all, so it’s very gratifying when that comes back. … This is a book you can give your grandmother, unlike my novel, which was quite different and came out the year before about a priest who’s being blackmailed by a male prostitute.
BLADE: Wow, sounds scandalous.
HOUGH: It’s very scandalous. …. My partner said, “You can’t publish this under your name,” but I said, “No, I’m going to own this book.” It was a topic I’d been wanting to explore — how do you continue to bring comfort to people if you’re a priest and you’ve completely lost your faith?
BLADE: Are you still a practicing Catholic?
HOUGH: I go to Mass but I don’t take communion. I just don’t feel I’m part of it enough to feel good about that, but it’s still a very central part of my life. The teachings — it’s not just about the rich and powerful, but also the widow and the orphan — there’s a wisdom there that very much makes sense to me.
BLADE: How musically sophisticated are Catholics today vs. historically?
HOUGH: I think it’s a very small number. We think about Catholic culture being so great but it was only in the big cathedrals where you might have a Mozart or a Palestrina. In the small parish churches, the music has never been that particularly distinguished. I think the Anglican church has had more of a musical life. There are lots of great cultural things in Catholicism but they were not always very spread out.
BLADE: How did you wind up being a British Catholic?
HOUGH: I converted when I was about 18. I’d grown up in a more evangelical background but I got very bored with those services. … I went to a Mass and there was something about it that appealed to me very deeply. I even explored becoming a priest a few times although I don’t think they’d take me anymore.
BLADE: Whom do you see as the audience for “Rough Ideas”?
HOUGH: Well I hope everyone really, but certainly everyone who has any interest in music and the piano. There’s a lot of stuff in there I think will be helpful and interesting to piano students.
BLADE: Did your views evolve at all as you got them down on paper?
HOUGH: Yes, but I can’t remember now which ones that would be true of. One of the longest essay in there, which was published in a different form in another book of gay essays is about what it means to be Catholic and gay. … I think that one forced me to think though some tough issues.
BLADE: Why, as you touch on in the book, are young people in Asia so much more into classical concerts than elsewhere?
HOUGH: I think it must have to do with parents with the encouragement that kids get at home. Sometimes even being forced into lessons. I think it’s linked to why Asian kids so often do so well at school and university. It’s that support they have. You to to Korea or Taiwan or China and half the audience is under the age of 25. It’s incredible and wonderful. I have a couple of students at Juiliard and it’s interesting to see the lists of the people who get through and the people who don’t. I would say we’re talking 70-80 percent Asian. There’s something very touching about these countries where 200 years ago you wouldn’t have heard a note of Beethoven when he was writing, now they’re playing Beethoven better than the cultures in which it was written.
BLADE: Do you feel things are being dumbed down in the West overall?
HOUGH: Well yes, I think it’s happening everywhere … but I think there’s room for all kinds of music. I’m very uncomfortable with snobbishness in classical music.
BLADE: Yes, but it feels like it’s encroaching on space previously inhabited by the classical arts. You never just see a classical pianist on the Grammy Awards like you used to. If you do, they put Lang Lang with Metallica for some ridiculous stunt casting novelty thing. The Kennedy Center Honors will have one token honoree each year from the fine arts and the rest have become these middling, ’70s popular acts. Doesn’t stuff like this bother you? Again, not saying there’s anything wrong with the popular acts, but they’re encroaching on serious artists.
HOUGH: Well yes, it would be nice if these organizations would support and encourage the classical arts a bit more. I think the Grammys could do more to put some focus on the classical categories without losing anything of what they are.
BLADE: What do you think of the classical crossover acts?
HOUGH: Well, some are better than others.
BLADE: But what does it say about us that the public has such a voracious appetite for this junk while the serious acts will sell just a fraction of what they sell?
HOUGH: I think when you’re a kid, you need to be encouraged and hsown the way a bit and that’s something that’s happening less today in education. We have to find a way to educate people and bring them into this world and let them know this is great music worth making the effort for. On one hand, it doesn’t bother me. I’ve got friends who have no interest in music just as I have no interest in sports. We shouldn’t make people do things or suggest there’s anything wrong with them. … But it’s OK to entice people a bit to enjoy, say, a fine wine when they’ve been drinking something that’s really cheap and nasty. Some of it is about changing the palate. Some of that happens as we mature. Your tastes are usually different at 40 than they were at 20 but we typically need a bit of encouragement for things that are more difficult and classical music can sometimes be difficult. You might have to sit there for an hour vs. listening to a three-minute pop song.