I played the piano for fun from when I was
young, and really enjoyed it. I went to music school and
music college without ever thinking about actually following a
career as a musician. Luckily, I had a teacher who helped me chart
the path into the profession. I never considered doing anything
The piano just seemed a very natural fit. It
felt, and feels, like a profound way of expressing myself.
I was never in a hothouse environment, for
which I'm grateful - none of that nine-hours-a-day-practice stuff.
Sometimes I worked hard, sometimes not. When I went to music
college, my teacher there put me through the mill with a lot of
technical work, which I really needed.
I adore Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus by
Olivier Messiaen. I've always been attracted to
large-scale works because you get the chance to really immerse the
audience in something, and this is pretty much as large as it gets
for piano. There are such extremes of emotion, within a monumental
structural concept. It's immensely satisfying to perform.
I recorded it a good few years ago for
Hyperion. I doubt I'd want to change too much - the piece
is very simple, very direct.
Actually, my experience is that listeners don't find it
difficult. Virtually every time I play the piece, at least
one person comes up to me to say they'd enjoyed the piece far more
than they'd expected. I think the main difficulty for audience and
performer alike is the concentration required for a work of over
two hours. But for me that's integral to really experiencing the
piece - you're taken quite profoundly into another world.
Certainly, it is a work that expresses Messiaen's
faith. At times, it's almost a theological commentary. For
example, he gives the same melody to the cross and to the star that
led the wise men. There are some wonderful musical metaphors. The
movement about the incarnation is a very tightly organised musical
process, which starts in one place and gradually shifts, repeating,
moving, getting louder, creating a transformation from one thing
that is very ethereal to the end, which is an absolutely enormous
noise - God becoming man.
The movement "by whom all things were made" is an
incredibly complex construction, with incredible detail
and a very strong sense of energy. The climax is the theme of God
in full blazing glory. The theme of God is the most astonishingly
gentle music. The Holy Spirit is depicted as almost violent, such
is that movement's great energy. The emotion of the music is very
direct, even with its passages of complexity.
Messiaen had a quirky theological bent - the
inverse of what you might expect. He's quite interested in the
abstract; so there's a movement about the contemplation of time -
time contemplating Jesus, and "Contemplation of the heavens".
He thought birds were the greatest musicians;
so there is a lot of birdsong in it. He was a very serious
ornithologist. He travelled round the world collecting birdsong,
which he puts into the music to express divine joy.
Every piece is its own world. What I always
want is to engage the audience, and open up to them a world of
feeling. To try and describe the feelings would probably trivialise
the music. Suffice it to say, some of my most profound musical
experiences have been performances of the Vingt
Other composers? Particularly Beethoven, Ravel,
Schubert, and Rachmaninov. There are a bunch of new pieces I'm
working on, but the main one is Beethoven's Hammerklavier
The most important choice I've ever made was deciding,
on balance, to do a concert in Singapore. It was difficult
to fit in with my schedule. I met my wife there. She's an American
clarinettist who was playing in the Singapore Symphony
We live in Edinburgh, and play together quite
often; but, yes, we do have to travel, and I travel more.
It's worse for the person left behind. When you're travelling,
you've got the stimulation of new places and performing, but being
on your own at home for a week isn't much fun.
Family becomes all the more important when one's life is
so peripatetic. My mother is near, and brother, and the
rest of the family - all within an hour from where we live.
I regret most the times I've hurt friends and
family, but I feel lucky that generally I've had the
chance to put those things right.
Three teachers really influenced me: my school
head of music, Nigel Murray, who embodied a deep and passionate
love of music; my professor at Manchester University, Ian Kemp, who
showed me that musical analysis was a profoundly engaging
discipline; and my physics teacher, Christine Soane, who told me to
throw a brick through the TV.
My favourite sound is the opening of Beethoven's
Pastoral Symphony. It's the piece I probably listened to
most as a kid, and it always made me really happy. I only have to
think about it now. It's the essence of joy in music. It's
incredible what he catches - the feeling of a beautiful day in a
beautiful place, the breeze.
I last got angry about some trivial thing with my
I experience two very different kinds of
happiness: one is playing a concert when I feel inspired,
and the other is spending time with my wife when we're both relaxed
and have no agenda.
I don't pray. I used to be religious, but
haven't been for many years.
Music is a satisfying area to work in - I could
imagine that it could fill that space. It certainly feels like a
vocation. It's amazing way of expressing oneself and getting to
It keeps bringing you back to yourself, because
you respond to the music and keeps you grounded. If you are doing
it properly, you can't get too far away from yourself. There must
be a lot of jobs that are repetitive or frustrating, where it's
difficult not to zone out. Music keeps you in touch with what you
I'd like to be remembered as having been generous and
open-hearted in the way I made music.
Maybe I'd like to be locked in a church with
Beethoven. I've always been fascinated by people whose
wildness isn't hidden, and, by all accounts, Beethoven was
particularly unrestrained in person. But most of all, I'd love to
hear him improvise.
Steven Osborne was talking to Terence Handley
He will be performing Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus
at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 29 May.