Stephen Hough Puts His Experience Of A Miracle Into His Music

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Pianist and composer Stephen Hough. (Courtesy of the artist)
Pianist and composer Stephen Hough. (Courtesy of the artist)

You wouldn't normally expect one of the great composers of the last few centuries to be meek, but how's this for humility?

"Bach and Beethoven erected temples and churches on the heights. I only wanted to build dwellings for men in which they might feel happy, and at home."

Those words are credited to Edvard Grieg. Pianist Stephen Hough has three — count them, three — new albums out right now. One features his own compositions, and two of them include music by Grieg, including 27 of the Norwegian composer's short Lyric Pieces, which cover a lot of emotional ground.

Hough says that these brief works are very much of their time. "This is from the high point when everyone had a piano at home. Grieg wrote them very much for the domestic market," he says. "None of them are tremendously difficult. They're not like Liszt or Chopin etudes. They're pieces written for good amateur pianists, and for people to enjoy these mood pictures in their own homes. There are some really high jinks, fun, jolly, happy ones, but I think of more of those melancholy, nostalgic ones — and that's something that Grieg gets the flavor of so beautifully. And I think what's beautiful about these Grieg pieces is the subtleness of the harmonies, of the pianism there. You need to have a singing sound. You need to be able to carry these melodies, much like a singer would."

While Grieg wrote them in his native Norway, Hough — who is British — says that he feels that many of them would be very much at home in a different landscape: "It's a sort of homestead thing, isn't it? Certainly the Midwest — I can imagine playing these pieces in Minnesota, in Nebraska, Iowa. I love that part of the country, that sort of vast farmland and desolate landscapes."

Hough was, in 2001, the first classical musician to win a MacArthur "genius" award. Among his myriad polymathic talents (which include work as a professional painter, writing poetry and nonfiction, and teaching) is creating his own compositions, including the Missa Mirabilis ("Miracle Mass"), which was written for London's Westminster Cathedral Choir as a work for chorus and organ, and then reconfigured for chorus and orchestra.

Hough, who is a practicing Catholic, says that the Mass as a form presents certain architectural challenges for any composer. "A Mass has five movements, and four of them are quite short texts and poetic, like hymns," he says. "And then you have the Creed, which is a theological text, and it's as long as all the others put together, and a little bit more besides! And I think that composers have always slightly dreaded setting the Creed, because it requires a lot of music. It's a long movement, and if you're not careful, it upsets the whole way the liturgical Mass works. It's just too much in the middle."

"So when I first started writing this Mass," he says, "I started with the Creed. And I had a few ideas. One was that I was going to have it sung very quickly — so in fact I would get it over with quickly! And I thought, 'Well, yeah, what does it mean, saying it quickly?' Because I've attended many Masses, and said the Creed myself, and it's one of those texts that people say as if they are just used to saying it, and I'm not sure they're really thinking about the words that they're saying."

"You couldn't really," Hough continues. "There's too much packed in there! It's a very profound text, in one way, because it's going through all these clauses of belief that Christians have had since — well, this particular Creed is from the fourth or fifth century, from the Council of Nicaea. The whole point of the Creed was actually not to be flowery and open, but to be very limiting. It was meant to say, 'This is what we believe, and nothing else, and don't you dare go beyond this! So there's something quite finger-wagging about the Creed! So I thought, 'What would it be to sing these words week after week, and not believe them?'"

"So I set up this scenario between boy sopranos," Hough explains, "the voices of innocence and childhood, with the men who may be more jaded and cynical about everything. So in that movement, the men never sing the words 'I believe.' They just sing all the clauses, as if by rote. The boys sing 'Credo' — 'I believe' — between all the clauses. And this interruption becomes initially just an encouragement, and by the end, total desperation, because the boys realize the men do not believe what they're saying. And they are saying, 'You must believe, you must believe.'"

While Hough was working on this Mass, he was in a terrible car accident on a highway. His car flipped over at 80 miles per hour: "I found myself upside down, in a totally mangled car. And I remember very clearly that moment and thinking, 'I'll never get to hear that Mass. This looks like it's the end.' Well, it wasn't. I landed on the hard shoulder. I realized I was still alive and that the car hadn't burst into flames. And then the survival instinct kicked in, and I tried to get out of the car, and I couldn't reach the door above me. And the truck driver who had caused the crash, by coming out too quickly in front of me, helped me to get out. And I survived with barely a scratch.

"And really, it's the reason behind the title Missa Mirabilis — I felt that it's a miracle that I'd survived this car crash. And I wrote the Agnus Dei — 'Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us, grant us peace' — I wrote a lot of that, sketching it, in the emergency room, waiting for a brain scan. I think I hear now a real desperation in that movement. 'Have mercy on us' lasts a lot longer than 'grant us peace.'"

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Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

You wouldn't expect one of the big-name composers of the last several centuries to be meek. But how's this for humility? Bach and Beethoven erected temples and churches on the heights. I only wanted to build dwellings for men in which they might feel happy and at home. Those words are credited to the pianist and composer Edvard Grieg.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Present-day pianist and composer Stephen Hough is also disarmingly humble, even though he's got three new albums out right now. Two feature his own compositions, and one of them is entirely Grieg. Grieg's "Lyric Pieces" for solo piano cover a wide range of emotional territory.

STEPHEN HOUGH: This is from the high point when everyone had a piano at home. And Grieg wrote these pieces very much for the domestic market. None of them are tremendously difficult. They're not like Liszt etudes or Chopin etudes. They're pieces written for good amateur pianists, and for people to enjoy these mood pictures in their own homes. And I think, as you say, that they cover a fantastic range of emotions. There's some really high jinx, fun, jolly, happy ones, but I think more are those melancholy, nostalgic ones. And that's something that Grieg gets the flavor of so beautifully.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOUGH: He was in a city in Norway. I've been to his house. I've seen probably the room where he wrote most of these pieces. And it's a little isolated. I can imagine in those dark winter evenings feeling a little sad. You know, they're not sort of Southern California-type pieces. They're quite dark.

RATH: I understand that he wrote these pieces over the course of decades, and I'm wondering - you know, you're a composer yourself - if you notice a change in quality, a change in approach.

HOUGH: It's an interesting question, actually. I think what I do sense as I get into the later works is a little bit of regret because I think when he wrote those early pieces - he'd written the piano concerto - here was a man who was going to be a major composer of the 19th century. And I think by the end of the pieces, you get a feeling that we know and he knows that that's not going to happen. And so in one of my favorites of Edvard's pieces, "The Nocturne," you hear little quotes from the piano concerto in that. And I imagine sort of - I have this idea that there's a wistfulness about that, that he's quoting that - ah, yes, that's when I was young, and I might have had, you know, a different kind of career. And in a way, perhaps I haven't fulfilled the talent that I had in the fullest way. And so I find there's something very sad, actually, about that nocturne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: I'm speaking with pianist and composer Stephen Hough. Stephen, I'd like to talk about your own compositions now. The Mass that you wrote - "Missa Mirabilis" - something that's very interesting about it is how you wrestle with the text of the Mass as a modern composer. And for people who don't know the basic standard Christian Mass, there are several sections. And most of the sections are basically glory to God, God is great. And then there's the credo, which is very detailed - you know, I believe in God the Father, et. cetera, et. cetera, et. cetera, and a lot of theological detail. And I'm wondering if you can talk about how, as a modern believer or nonbeliever, you approach that.

HOUGH: I started with the creed, and I thought, well, what am I going to do with this movement? I've attended many Masses and said the creed myself, and it's one of those texts that people say as if they - they're just used to saying it And I'm not sure they're really thinking about the words that they're saying as they say it. You couldn't really. There's too much packed in there. It was meant to say this is what we believe and nothing else, and don't you dare go beyond this. So there's something quite finger-wagging almost about the creed. So I thought, well, what would it be to have to sing these words week after week and not believe them? So I set up this kind of scenario between the boy sopranos' voices of innocence, of childhood, with the men who were maybe more jaded and cynical about everything. So in that movement, the men never sing the words I believe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSA MIRIABILIS")

RATH: The word credo is I believe.

HOUGH: Yeah, the word credo - so the boys sing credo, and the men sing all the clauses. And then they interrupt again - credo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSA MIRIABILIS")

HOUGH: And this interruption becomes initially just an encouragement, and by the end, total desperation because the boys realize that the men do not believe what they're saying. And they're saying, you must believe, you must believe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSA MIRIABILIS")

HOUGH: So it actually - it works up into a kind of rather anguished, not exactly frenzied, but certainly very distressed climax. So I tried to make a dramatic scenario out of it, really, about the whole idea of what it means to believe and what it means to have doubt and whether doubt is an important part of faith and so on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSA MIRIABILIS")

RATH: Now, I just found out about this, but as you were working on this piece, you were in a serious car accident. Tell us about that.

HOUGH: Yeah. How it worked - I was staying a few days with my mother in the North of England and got in my car to drive back to London, which is about 200 miles south. And my car somersaulted, flipped over on the - at 80 miles an hour, and I found myself upside down in a mangled car. I remember very clearly that moment. And I remember thinking as I was tossing on the motorway well, I'll never get to hear that Mass. This looks like it's the end. Well anyway, it wasn't. I landed on the hard shoulder. I realized I was still alive, that the car hadn't burst into flames, and I survived with barely a scratch. So that's really the reason behind the title "Missa Mirables." It's a Mass of miracles because even if you don't believe literally in miracles, I felt that it was a miracle that I'd survived this car crash. And then I had two more movements to write, and I did that in the months ahead.

RATH: And, you know, a work like the Mass, where you're dealing with issues of life and death and resurrection and man and God - that's interesting to have that happen in the middle of that. Did it affect how you wrote the rest of it?

HOUGH: The Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. I wrote a lot of that in - I was sketching it in the emergency room, waiting for a brain scan, actually. There's a real desperation in that movement. And the sort of have mercy on us lasts a lot longer than grant us peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSA MIRIABILIS")

HOUGH: I also felt a great joy when I survived this crash.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSA MIRIABILIS")

HOUGH: The feeling of survival is a feeling of incredible joy because you realize what a gift life is and how wonderful it is just to be alive, so I hope something of that joy comes through in "The Glory," which was the last movement that I wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSA MIRIABILIS")

RATH: Stephen Hough has three albums out right now. One is all Grieg. Another is Grieg, Mendelssohn and his own piece. The third is his own piece along with Vaughan Williams. Stephen Hough, real pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

HOUGH: You too, thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.