DIVINING THE DIVINE
Concert pianist Stephen Hough says classical music reveals humankind’s deepest emotions
You hear the despair and the darkness there, which is quite terrifying
Eminent concert pianist Stephen Hough says planning a recital is a bit like preparing for a dinner party.
“I always put together the programs a bit like someone going to the market and seeing what looks good,” he says. “Maybe the tuna’s looking particularly nice and so you build around that.”
Hough is something of a renaissance man. The British composer, with Australian heritage on his father’s side, has built a reputation as one of the world’s most respected performers, as well as a visual artist, writer and connoisseur of perfume, hats and tea. His musings appear regularly in UK newspaper The Telegraph and he has almost 18,000 followers on Twitter.
The centrepiece for his Musica Viva recital at Queensland Conservatorium on Tuesday is his composition Trinitas, which takes themes of the Trinity and dogma, arranged around the numeral three. The piece was commissioned by Catholic magazine The Tablet and the Barbican Centre in London.
“It’s in three sections, the tune it’s built on is made up of thirds, and it uses the 12note row,” says Hough, whose Catholic faith drives his creativity. “The metaphor is dogma, because the 12-note system was a dogma of music life in the middle of the 20th century. Dogma is interesting – rules can free us or enslave us. The same is true with the Trinity and the 12-note system.”
The pieces he has assembled around it include works by Liszt (selections from
Forgotten Waltzes and Transcendental Studies), and Schubert, including the Sonata of Sighs, which the composer wrote after his fatal diagnosis of syphilis. Hough will also perform work by Belgian-French composer Cesar Franck. In a recent column, Hough wrote that classical pieces, like famous artworks in museums, can be like old friends.
“I’ve played a lot of Liszt ... and it does very much seem like being with an old friend, and I think also with Schubert and Franck, because you spend an awful lot of time with these pieces as you’re preparing them. It’s thousands of hours in the practice room so you get to know them very well. They travel with you, accompany you sometimes when you’re not feeling well ...” So, would he invite them to dinner? “Liszt certainly I would and Schubert would be fascinating because he was such an extraordinary genius. He wrote so much music in his tiny life, and the Sonata of Sighs was very poignant because it was written when he discovered he had syphilis and therefore this 20-something-year-old man knew he was going to have a very short life and a very painful and disgraced one. You hear that in this piece. You hear the despair and the darkness, which is terrifying.
“Classical music takes us inside a room of the deepest human emotions, not always pleasant ones. It’s not always full of joy.”
Hough says while he went through a rock and pop phase as a teen, classical music simply had more for him to sink his teeth into.
“It just seemed to me so rich,” he says. “These pieces are endlessly fascinating. I want classical music to change your life. Every single piece.”