The keys to composition

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Stephen Hough

Last year I was lucky enough to work with British pianist, composer and polymath Stephen Hough in a project with the Prince Consort, in which he featured both as composer and performer. Back in 2010 I was interested in doing some more performances of the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes (for collective voices and piano duet) and was wanting to work with a range of different pianists from different backgrounds.

So I emailed Stephen asking him if he would join us for a performance. Stephen replied that much as he would like to, he was not taking on any more new chamber music projects as he wanted to devote more time to composition. Coincidentally, I also happened to be looking for new commissions for the forthcoming season at the time so I suggested we meet up and he could tell me more about what he had been writing. I was very familiar, as many pianists are, with the various sparkling and romantic transcriptions that he frequently plays as encores in his recitals, but had never heard any of his original compositions so I was intrigued.

Other Love Songs

We went to a coffee shop in North London and went through Stephen's scores, one of which was a song cycle called 'Herbstlieder' written a few years previously but which had not yet been performed. It jumped out the page at me...beautifully written both for the voice and piano, soaring melodies, tonal, and tied together by two chords that feature in the opening bar. I asked Stephen if I could give the first performance with Jacques Imbrailo at Oxford Lieder Festival later that year, to which he agreed. The piece received rave reviews in the national press and was featured in the Independent's Best Classical Music round-up of 2011.

Other Love Songs, The Prince Consort

Stephen and I decided to continue our association after this concert so I suggested he might like to write a companion piece for the Brahms Liebeslieder that had originally been the catalyst for making contact with him. The resultant piece was a new song cycle for the group called 'Other Love Songs', for soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone and piano three hands (essentially piano duet with one of the pianists only using one hand).

Stephen had the idea of writing something based on other kinds of love that the Brahms cycle didn't touch on and the new piece sat right in the middle of the two Brahms sets of Liebeslieder, picking up motives from the Brahms at the beginning and end of the cycle so that it all connected up.

Interview with the Hough

I particularly enjoy the tonal and melodic nature of Stephen's compositions and I was keen to find out more about this side of him that I'd not read about so much in his interviews, which tend to focus on his formidable profile as a pianist. So below is a musician-to-musician chat about his compositional work:


What were the earliest pieces you wrote and how old were you?

Frederik Chopin, 1849

I started composing around the same time as I started playing the piano, which was when I was roughly six years old.  I filled reams of manuscript paper with rubbish - some of it signed 'Frederic Chopin', most of it with fanciful, sentimental titles!  But I loved hearing the scratch of pencil against the page. I don't know where any of this material is now. Later I continued to write - I remember a Suite of three movements: Caterpillar, Chrysalis and Butterfly. Maybe they're at the back of a drawer somewhere...


Do you think any of the features of your mature style are evident in these first pieces?

I don't think there's any connection today with the earliest pieces, except perhaps a reluctance to give up on Romanticism. I liked, and continue to do so, music which touches me. I also can't let go of tonality; suspending it, even for long stretches, only makes its return more powerful for me. My ear trembles at the sound of a beautiful chord.


Did you write whilst a student at RNCM and Juilliard?

When I went to the RNCM I was not allowed to continue any study except the piano. I had studied composition throughout my teens at Chethams but it could only be done 'out of hours' when I got to the RNCM. I'm sure that has changed now. I managed to take organ lessons for 18 months, bending this rule ... until I was told it had to stop. Crazy! Similarly at Juilliard. But I did continue to write at both places, and some of my harmony and counterpoints lessons gave me a chance to be creative. I wrote a set of pieces on a 12-note row by Schoenberg and wrote a few songs. When I started at Juilliard I wrote a trombone sonata for a friend. It was my last serious piece for many years and actually was re-cast for viola. It's the only piece from my first 20 years which is now in print.


Why do you want to compose more? What is it that brought you back to composition?

Even though I stopped writing serious pieces I still wrote transcriptions in the tradition of the pianist-composers I admired so much. These were often written for friends. One of the first was Quilter's 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal' written for a lady who used to arrange concerts for me in Wolverhampton when I was learning all my new repertoire in my late-teens. The pattern has always been that when someone liked something I'd written it would encourage me and I'd write more. Around the same time I arranged Richard Rodger's 'March of the Siamese Children' for an old friend Norman Baker who was music master at the local Grammar School and who had directed a production of 'The King and I'. I played it as as encore once and the teacher and critic Bryce Morrison heard it and liked it ... so I wrote my version of 'My Favourite Things' for him. And so on...


How would you describe the style in which you write?

It's always difficult to describe music but, as I said above, I am attracted to music which has a Romantic flavour and a tonal base. Having said that I have no interest in writing anything which appeals only to the heart without the head, or in which tonality is predictable or bland. Tonality is both like a vocabulary and an understanding of syntax: it can be used in imaginative or banal ways. But if we remove familiar words or sentence structure entirely meaning disappears. It's precisely the bending of meaning and familiarity which excites me - in words and in music.


New Piano Sonata Preview, Notturno Luminoso

What processes do you go through when writing a new piece?

Normally I start with a big idea (an overall structure) and small ideas (motives or even just a harmonic colour). I do a lot of work away from my desk or piano, walking around, waiting in queues, travelling.


I've often wondered whether the listening experience for people with perfect pitch is the same as for people without. Do you have perfect pitch and is this helpful in composing?

I have what I think is called relative pitch - I can identify a note played but cannot instantly sing, say, an E flat. It's probably fairly useful if you do any composing away from the keyboard.


I've performed a lot of your music at the piano and it's very idiomatically written. Do you ever find that what is practical jars with what is in your head and how do you go about deciding on a solution?

I've not yet written something for the piano which was intended only for someone else to play. This is a problem in some ways because I do think as I'm writing, "Will I want to play this passage under pressure in a large hall with microphones inside the instrument"! But I'm extremely keen to make what I write for any instrument playable and effective. I've looked through hundreds of new compositions over the years which are unnecessarily difficult. True virtuosity is making something sound GOOD. And there's sometimes a level of impracticality which is just poor technique.


Composition is closely linked to improvisation, which I view as the meeting point between performer and composer. Do you improvise as part of your practice and, if so, what kind of things do you do...free improvisation, reharmonization of popular songs etc.?

I often warm up by improvising, and certain pieces have been born during this process. I love harmony and I love cruising around the creamier chords of the keyboard. But I have never improvised a piece and then written it down. It's more discovering nuggets or ideas which then have to be refined on the page.


Do you think composition and improvisation should occupy a compulsory place on instrumental performance courses at the major conservertoires and how could it help students?

I think this would be a wonderful thing. Murray McLachlan at Chethams told me recently that it's part of their course now. It's not just useful for getting out of a fix when things go wrong in a performance but it teaches us too about the very act of creativity which the great composers went through. It's also a good way to overcome a sort of shyness at making fools of ourselves in front of others.


Herbstlieder, Stephen Hough

You have written a substantial amount of vocal repertoire, especially art song. What attracts you to this genre?

There's something powerfully expressive about words and their specific meaning with which I love to work. It's wonderful to try to find melodies which match in expression the emotions clearly, unavoidably there in the poetry.


How has the increased intensity of your composing affected your live performance and approach to the piano?

I'm not really aware of anything, although I'm more anxious to create space in which to write now than I was.


Do you experience imagery when you write or is it a purely internally aural experience?

It's purely aural - although it's also very emotionally guided. So far, in almost every piece I've written, I've had tears in my eyes as I put the music on the page. Nevertheless, I've not given up on writing happy music!


A Hat of One's Own

Why do you think so few solo pianists write their own music when there is such a precedent of this in the past?

I'm sure it's mainly lack of confidence, the fear that they would not write anything of worth. It's like hats. People always say to me "I don't look good in hats" - probably after having pulled a cheap, ill-fitting polyester thing over their ears. But also it's a lack of time. As a career gets started there is an immense amount of repertoire to be learned.


I enjoyed your contemporary cadenza for the Mozart A major Piano Concerto. Would you ever improvise a cadenza live in concert and how would you practise for something like this?

No - my improvisation is a private as my shower-taking!


Would you ever consider writing your own cadenza for any of the big romantic concertos such as Rach 3...it seems like an option, since Rachmaninov gives us the option of 2 in the score? Or how about Tchaik 1?!

I remember Earl Wild mentioning about writing a cadenza for the Grieg when I met him once. There's no reason why not (and it would be a fantastic project for a student) but so often composers save their best writing for the cadenza: think of Rach 1, Beethoven 4, Tchaik 2, Prokofiev 2. Better to write your own piano concerto I think!


What are your next composition projects and where can we hear them?

I've recently finished my 2nd piano sonata (notturno luminoso) which took a long time to finish - maybe two years in all. I've never written anything quite like it - it could not be more different from the 1st sonata.  I'll be playing it throughout the 12/13 season and beyond. I'm now writing a cello sonata for Steven Isserlis with piano one-hand. It was requested for him to play with Paul Coker who has had problems with his right hand. It's an interesting challenge but, like the Primo part of 'Other Love Songs', it will not be required to play it with one hand ... but it will be possible to do so.


An interview with Stephen Hough (@houghhough)

Interviewed by Alisdair Hogarth (@alisdairhogarth)

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