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Stephen Hough: The many paths to happiness

The pianist's great gift is bringing people joy when they least expect it.

Playing the hits is, as every musician knows, the secret of putting on a good gig. Play “something new I’ve been working on” and your listeners will allow their minds to wander. At a recent recital by the pianist Stephen Hough, I’d observed this effect a hundred times over when, having given his audience a crowd-pleasing couple of Chopin nocturnes, he played his own composition “notturno luminoso”. Jagged and languid, it’s a piece about moonlight reflected on water and the loneliness of the observer above.But by the time Hough struck the final chord, the sagging postures had vanished. Applauding rapturously, audience members whispered to each other: “Remind me to buy that on iTunes when we get home.”

This is Hough’s great gift: bringing people joy when they aren’t expecting it. He often surprises audiences with his esoteric encores – say, following a sonata with his version of “My Favourite Things” from The Sound of Music. The freedom to break conventions in this way is something he prizes but, as he ruefully admitted to me, “Freedom comes with the impossibility of choosing.”

A glance at his life and work certainly shows that choosing is something that he avoids. Although he is probably best known as a concert pianist (he’s the artist in residence with the BBC Symphony Orchestra this year and will be performing on the first night of the Proms), you may also encounter Hough inhabiting one of his other identities as an artist, composer, poet, theologian or writer. In 2009, Intelligent Life magazine named him as one of 20 top living polymaths. It’s not hard to see why.

“I think the more selfconscious you are about all of these things, the less easy it is to do them,” he explains. His range of activities isn’t part of a grander strategy; rather, it just “mushroomed”. The theme that unites them is how intensely personal it all is.

“Playing the piano is incredibly personal . . . But when it’s your own piece, it’s doubly so. If they say they don’t like the way I play Beethoven, then I can swallow that and maybe they’re right. But if they don’t like what I’ve written, then it’s about me.”

Despite his varied output, Hough is no dilettante, delving deeply into each of his fields. His next composing project is a song cycle inspired by Jesuit poets (including Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Marxist Jesuits of South America) and he’s also knocking two rooms together so that he can paint on larger canvases.

Happiness is Hough’s main preoccupation – more honestly so than for the rest of us, perhaps. And he expresses it in any way he can.

“In Britten or Berg, there’s a tension between the sweet and the sour, between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the tonal and the atonal, the happy and the sad. That, to me, is what all western art is about – that tension. It’s why we want to say anything at all.”

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.