Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More by Stephen Hough

The author notes in his introduction that “Hough rhymes with rough” and uses the same word in his title. The irony is that he, as a man, and this, as writing, are about as far from rough as I can imagine. This is a most ‘refined’ book from an extraordinary man, whose ‘rough ideas’ cover a range and depth of ideas which is intimidating, though the writing style is not. This is indeed a collection of ideas, mostly expressed in a few paragraphs, none longer than a couple of pages, and the richness is leavened by an acerbic, self-deprecating wit.

The reader probably needs to be quite keen on classical music and the piano. Stephen knows a lot about music and composers, and his commentaries on specific compositions, in various interpretations, does require a specific appetite.  I have spent at least as much time listening to (a very few of) the pieces mentioned, as in reading the book. This book is a potential gateway to a wide range of culture, art, artists, poets etc.

Some of my favourite segments, however, are the more physical descriptions of the life of a pianist of international repute, constantly travelling and performing. The exercises, the daily programme of mornings checking out the concert hall, piano, etc, then afternoons relaxing in to some local cultural opportunity and then the pre-performance rituals, performance and the comedown. Descriptions of the very different processes of the recording studio were also fascinating.

The book is divided into sections (Forum, Stage, Studio …) with Stephen’s rough ideas on more controversial subjects (sexuality and religion) rather coyly tucked together at the back “so that readers allergic to such matters can avoid them and we can remain friends”.  Of course, these segments are likely to be of the most interest to readers of Quest Bulletin and Stephen makes a sound and strong case for the place of the gay man in the Church, but rather gives the impression that it would be nice to move beyond this to a point where being gay didn’t matter. Among these later pieces is a fabulously bold condemnation of the “Ghastly Story of Lazarus”, and a discussion of culture and death camps which is very moving.

There is so much to admire here, but I recommend either serious browsing at your local bookshop, or borrowing from the library, to decide if this is your cup of tea. If it is, you will definitely want a hard copy on your bookshelf (this is a keeper), but if not, then not.   Peter Rodgers

Rough Ideas is published by Faber & Faber, 978-0-57135-047-6