Stephen Hough: ‘Music is not just icing on the cake. It’s the cake itself. It’s human life’

The pianist on playing to an empty Wigmore Hall, his novel about sex and priests, and being fingerprinted for working visas post-Brexit

Born in Cheshire, Stephen Hough is one of the world’s top pianists. He is also a composer, a published writer and a painter, with a passion for jazz, ballet, hats, perfume and puddings. His recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes is just out. On 1 December he will be the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, and his String Quartet No 1 for the Takács Quartet will receive its European premiere at Wigmore Hall in January. He is 60 tomorrow.

You made news in June 2020 when you played to an empty Wigmore Hall, the first live concert in the UK since lockdown. It must have been nerve-racking?
I always feel nervous, especially with a filmed live relay. But that day, above all, I felt vulnerable. Walking through London was strange and empty. There were still no vaccines, no obvious end to the situation. Everyone was guessing. To an extent we still are… Once I got on stage I let the music – opening with the Bach-Busoni Chaconne – do what it always does: put its arms, very safely, around everyone listening. It was a reminder of how important a cog music is in life. Don’t take it for granted. Tell our political leaders it’s not just entertainment. Not just icing on the cake. It’s the cake itself. It’s human life.

As we speak, you’re in New York working. Does if feel in any way normal?
New York’s much the same as ever, but perhaps a little subdued. I’m staying in the business part of town on the East Side. A lot of the sandwich bars that used to have queues outside at lunchtime have shut down – so many people are still working from home. But New York is New York, and at last I’ve managed to meet my two brilliant Juilliard students in person after a year of Zooms.

As a musician who travels non-stop, how was lockdown?
I had very mixed feelings – aware of so much suffering, yet with the sudden gift of time, which I haven’t had for 35 years of a playing career. I finished three compositions, which would have been impossible otherwise, and I made several recordings. From the start I knew I couldn’t treat it like a holiday. I walked to my piano studio every morning at 10am and came home at 6.30. My partner was working too, and we’d order in food – neither of us cooks – and watch box sets. We got through 24, Damages, Spooks…

In addition to the piano you do many other things to a high level. I’m guessing you’re extremely disciplined?
I sleep a lot! I need eight hours. But once I’m up and about I can focus. I only spend 10 minutes on lunch. If I’m writing a big piece of music, I may have been thinking about it for a long time – like the new one for the Takács Quartet. And I’ve been filling a notebook with a memoir for years, off and on, so I hope that’ll be out soon. Painting? That’s something I do at the end of the day like gardening: hard work but fun. I’ve been using house paint. It flies around the room and some of it lands on the canvas.

Your novel, The Final Retreat, is about sex and the Roman Catholic priesthood. How does that fit into your life?
I’ve known many priests. For a time I considered becoming one, though my mother was of strong Liverpool Orange Protestant stock. I’ve been to mass thousands of times. There was a time when I went every day. I lived a celibate life. The novel is about what happens when the person you turn to for comfort can themselves find no comfort – the wounded healer. It’s about a priest who is gay, in his 50s, a sex addict, uncertain about his faith. I am a gay Catholic but it’s not autobiographical. There were inevitably many questions I asked long ago when I met my partner. I was lucky to be advised by wise priests who said love is precious, a gift of God, don’t throw it away.

Watch Stephen Hough performing to an empty Wigmore Hall on 1 June 2020.

What was home life like, growing up as an only child?
There were no classical records. I liked playing on my aunt’s piano. My father noted in his diary that I’d learned 70 nursery rhymes by the age of two – not that I remember! Eventually my parents bought me a piano. My mother looked in Yellow Pages and found a teacher, just as you would a plumber. My parents were very supportive, but when, aged eight, I did well in a competition and got invited to go on Opportunity Knocks, they said no, you’re going to school tomorrow. And on reflection that was wise.

In terms of working abroad, so hard for so many musicians, what’s your take on Brexit?
I’ll just give two examples. I went to play in Vienna and walked straight in, did the concerts, came home again. I went, similarly, to Spain. I had to spend an entire morning at a consulate office giving fingerprints, details of a year’s tax and a whole raft of other very detailed questions. This was just about manageable for me but would be totally impossible for an orchestra, or a freelance musician offered work at short notice. It seems it’s not really Brussels that has to sort things out but individual countries. But perhaps there could be a blanket ruling with visas lasting, say, five or 10 years.

Stephen Hough in his studio.
Stephen Hough in his studio. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

You’re a dedicated and witty tweeter. Why does that particular form of social media appeal?
I like the fact that with Twitter you are in control, it’s concise, perhaps even amusing. I’ve had fascinating exchanges with people I’ve never met but admire, like Richard Sennett and Philip Pullman.

You love hats, perfume, puddings. What’s on your mind right now?
Puddings. The puddings I like are heavy, sticky, chewy, syrupy – the kind we excel at in these islands. Not creamy Italian or refined Japanese. Rich fruitcake! Christmas pudding! I could eat them for breakfast. A great rhubarb crumble is hard to beat. I think it’s about the only thing my mother could cook really well. She preferred being underneath the car. She was a great mechanic, always wore trousers, could fix anything.

How are you feeling about turning 60?
I must admit it feels pretty horrible – or maybe it’s the anticipation. But then they say that people are at their most creative in their 60s and 70s. So here we go. Bring it on!


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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