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Rough Ideas: Reflections on music and more, by Stephen Hough

29 November 2019

Paul Edmondson reviews a thoughtful pianist’s book

AS A world-famous pianist, Stephen Hough spends a lot of time “sitting around — at airports, on planes, in hotel rooms”. This collection of 152 extremely worthwhile short prose pieces was produced “during that dead time on the road”. Two-thirds of them understandably take music as their focus — its composition, composers, performances, teaching, and effects; the rest (the “and more” of the title) engage with a range of subjects, including literature, the nature of art, travelling, work, sexuality, suffering, encouragement, and religion.

Hough almost became a priest, and these reflections reveal a solid, modestly expressed faith. At least 20 of them engage explicitly with Hough’s own Christian faith, which he compares to a tree: “It is mostly stable and supporting but it is alive and changeable and unpredictable too. And it gets damaged in the storm sometimes.”

His insight, memory, and experience combine with his liberal Roman Catholic perspective to speak for Anglicanism, too: for example, when he recalls Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s saying that “he would rather go to hell than worship a homophobic God.” Hough is searching as much as reflecting, following his vocation for music, and telling traveller’s tales from his own Christian journey. He includes his impressive discography (1985-2018), and there is a fascinatingly diverse index.

Rough Ideas is Hough’s testament of spirituality, written with the music of his faith which sounds in every area of his life. Kindness, gentleness, respect, compassion, gratitude, and delight stream across these broad-minded pages. It is a collection to take with you on retreat, dip into, relax with, become absorbed by, give as a gift. I found myself wanting to read aloud many of these reflections to friends.

The final piece is a poem that serves to keep the book open — like God, like musical interpretation, and experience: “seeds flying across My garden across many seasons”.

The Revd Dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Rough Ideas: Reflections on music and more
Stephen Hough
Faber & Faber £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

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