Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More

Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More

by Stephen Hough

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A collection of essays on music and life by the famed classical pianist and composer

Stephen Hough is one of the world’s leading pianists, winning global acclaim and numerous awards, both for his concerts and his recordings. He is also a writer, composer, and painter, and has been described by The Economist as one of “Twenty Living Polymaths.”

Hough writes informally and engagingly about music and the life of a musician, from the broader aspects of what it is to walk out onto a stage or to make a recording, to specialist tips from deep inside the practice room: how to trill, how to pedal, how to practice. He also writes vividly about people he’s known, places he’s traveled to, books he’s read, paintings he’s seen; and he touches on more controversial subjects, such as assisted suicide and abortion. Even religion is there—the possibility of the existence of God, problems with some biblical texts, and the challenges involved in being a gay Catholic.

Rough Ideas is an illuminating, constantly surprising introduction to the life and mind of one of our great cultural figures.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly


A classical musician holds forth on music, ethics, religion, and much else in this hit-and-miss grab bag of opinionating. Hough offers dozens of short essays on a multitude of topics; most concern his musical career and include appreciations of composers such as Liszt and Tchaikovsky, sketches of colleagues, recollections of concert mishaps (including a study of “humiliation and vomiting at the keyboard”), disquisitions on proper piano posture, and speculation on what constitutes a gay pianist (“Vladimir Horowitz once said there are three types of pianists: Jewish, gay and bad”). Hough’s interest then dilates widely as he touches on overly aggressive art restorations, the architecture of the Sydney Opera House, the morality of assisted suicide, the existence of God, and the sacrament of Communion (he’s a convert to Catholicism). Hough’s writings on music are endlessly knowledgeable, illuminating, and accessible, but his thoughts on nonmusical subjects are more diffuse and less engaging. (“The Big Bang, the first First, might well have been, above all, an explosion of love: the universe’s orgasm,” he conjectures at the end of a ramble on “encouragement, falsehood, and Auschwitz.”) Still, music lovers, from professional musicians to casual listeners, will find the book a delight to browse through. (Feb.)

From the Publisher

A Financial Times Book of the Year 2019

"Hough's writings on music are endlessly knowledgeable, illuminating, and accessible . . . Music lovers, from professional musicians to casual listeners, will find the book a delight to browse through." — Publishers Weekly

"[Rough Ideas is] highly episodic, with entries ranging from a few dozen words to a few hundred. Many of them begin with questions — the sort of things he’s repeatedly asked, one guesses, by adoring audiences and sponsors over post-concert drinks and nibbles before packing his bag to move on to the next venue . . . But if the questions are sometimes routine, the answers are like Hough’s playing: original, fresh, deeply considered, personal. And sometimes quirky or contrarian. We know the 10,000-hour rule to prepare for genius. But Hough shows it helps to have genius as well." — Alan Rusbridger, The Spectator

"Stephen Hough’s brilliance isn’t limited to the concert stage or recording studio. The classical pianist, as his fans already know, is something of a polymath. This lively collection of writings gathers dozens of unfailingly perceptive, often charming, and occasionally moving reflections on the musician’s craft, the symbiosis between performer and audience, Rilke, Simone Weil, Lou Reed, and the importance of practice—which allows “'the time to make mistakes and the leisure to correct them.'Commonweal

Library Journal

★ 01/01/2020

Named one of "Twenty Living Polymaths" by the Economist, pianist Hough, the first classical performer to be awarded a MacArthur fellowship, muses on a myriad matters, musical and otherwise. Despite the title, these 200-plus essays are anything but rough; they are polished bits of prose, some previously published, others developed from notes made on the road, all skillfully composed and a joy to read. Hough takes us backstage, onstage, and into the studio, wryly noting that he has "written about music and the life of a musician (not always the same thing)." He expounds on composers, including Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Frédéric Chopin; people he's known and places he's visited; and religion (Hough is a convert to Catholicism) and social issues. VERDICT Hough writes with wit, grace, and a singular point of view. His book offers rare insight into the mind of one of the leading performers of classical music.—Carolyn M. Mulac, Chicago

Kirkus Reviews

A potpourri of pieces (most about music) in a variety of keys and rhythms.

A prolific classical pianist, recording artist, and writer, Hough (The Final Retreat, 2018) has a lot on his mind. There are scores of entries here—the table of contents consumes eight pages—as the author addresses countless topics, from "The Soul of Music" and "Can Atonal Music Make You Cry?" to "Debussy: Piano Music Without Hammers" and "The Three Faces of Francis Poulenc." Some are adaptations of previously published pieces, and others are versions of Hough's blog posts. His subject matter ranges from music (history, technique, personalities, pianos, autobiography, even some obituaries) to sexuality (he writes in several places about being gay) to religion (he's a Roman Catholic) to art museums, abortion, and more. All of the pieces are tightly focused—some are not even a page long, some of which readers may find themselves skimming over—and most are articulate and packed with questions for readers to ponder. ("I'm allergic to telling anyone what to do," he writes early on.) Hough educates us on his routines, including how he likes to dress up to play and his practice methods while on the road, and he is unafraid to point out his own embarrassments—e.g., a broken pants zipper just before a performance. The author also consistently credits others who have greatly affected him: early teachers, colleagues, performers from earlier eras. Of course, some of the more technical pieces about playing the piano—uses of the pedals, how to play trills—will be of principal interest to other musicians. But much of the book is for general readers: Hough's thoughts about wallpaper music (he hates it), comments about smoking, generous remarks about Americans (he's from the U.K.), and discussions of favorite writers (he loves Willa Cather).

Proof that music is not just in notes; it's also in words.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374721404
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/04/2020
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 609,553
File size: 16 MB
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