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Stephen Hough Puts His Experience Of A Miracle Into His Music08:58

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

Copyright NPR 2016.

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