Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Rough Ideas

Reflections on Music and More

Stephen Hough

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Give me a rough idea … not as in a deliberately coarse or unformed one, rather one that has a beginning but not yet an end.

I spend a lot of my life sitting around – at airports, on planes, in hotel rooms – and most of this book expands notes I have made during that dead time on the road. Many of these jottings found their way into print, on paper or online, but others remained unfinished musings on scraps of paper or saved as files on the go on my iPhone: seeds, saplings, waiting to be planted or repotted or pruned.

Mostly I’ve written about music and the life of a musician (not always the same thing), from exploring 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 practise. Other subjects appear too, people I’ve known, places I’ve travelled to, books I’ve read, paintings I’ve seen. Even religion is there: the possibility of the existence of God, problems with some biblical texts and the challenge involved in being a gay Catholic, and abortion. I’ve placed these reflections in a separate section so that readers allergic to such matters can avoid them and we can remain friends.

‘How do you pronounce your name?’

‘Hough: rhymes with rough.’

The Soul of Music

Great buildings catch the eye but great concert halls must catch the ear too – and not just as spaces in which to hear music. Rather they are meant to be musical instruments, their walls and ceilings and floors catching, mixing, projecting the vibrations, transporting them through the air to the ear. A fine acoustic does not just make the music created onstage sound better; it is part of the creative process itself. When I strike a chord, what I hear instantly affects how I will play the next chord. Pianists do not press down predetermined keys with predetermined weight; we spin plates of sound in the air, reacting with split-second reflex to their curve and quiver. Adjustments of pedalling and nuance, of rhythmic flexibility or rigidity, are as constant as the dart and dance of a juggler. We play a hall more than play in a hall.

Wigmore Street is a rather dull thoroughfare. Its buildings tend to be respectable and predictable. Above the shopfronts are offices with politely yawning windows, and the cheerful if not exactly cheap restaurants seem tolerated rather than celebrated. But then we reach number 36. Another shopfront it might seem, but no. Wigmore Street’s mediocre Victoriana has lightened. There is a twinkle in the eye as you notice a glass awning. This crystal umbrella is more than a protection against occasional rain. To build with glass is architectural liberation, and to stand safely covered yet still under open skies is a form of ecstasy.

There are no bright lights outside number 36, nothing to distract one’s continuing amble towards John Lewis or Selfridge’s. Just, on both the east and west side of this glass awning, stencilled letters spelling WIGMORE HALL in one of the Arts and Crafts movement’s more sober fonts. Now you know that you are standing outside a building that has resonated with music for over a hundred years.

Passing through the swinging wooden doors, inset with polished brass panels on which is also stencilled the name of the hall, you step into the outer lobby, a funnel through which all patrons pour. At the end of this corridor is the box office. A small window, as if from a country cottage lacking only a rambling rose, appears at waist level on the left. As you walk towards it only a hand is intermittently visible, dispensing envelopes containing tickets. It’s hard to see who owns the hand, even as one reaches the aperture, for to see the face of the owner of the hand requires a rather undignified bending down, in the hope that your name is on the list, that your ticket is safely reserved, that you’ve come on the correct evening. To the right of the window is a door where a man in evening dress is usually found leaning. This is someone who can override the authority of the armless hand, someone who can make sure that reservations are honoured and that honoured guests are admitted with no reservations. Often the door appears empty until the final approach when a slim figure sidles out, smiling, knowing. He holds an envelope in his hand. The exchange is made. You’re in.

Immediately past this door to the left is a staircase going up, leading to the hall’s small balcony, which contains a mere 78 seats. I’ve sat up there a number of times and it has excellent acoustics and sight lines but it somehow has the feeling of last-minute admission, as if downstairs were oversold or you arrived late or there was a mix-up at the secret window. Or maybe it’s the opposite, and this is the place for that special guest of the performer, or that celebrity who wants to remain incognito, or that jaded music professional who wants an easy exit in the event of a tedious evening. If a concert has not sold well, a fat, red rope hangs at the bottom of the stairs, blocking entry.

After the staircase there is a choice: left or right. Two doors leading into the holy of holies; no other way inside for the public in this small auditorium. Even if I’m sitting on the left side I nearly always enter by the right door, which is directly ahead of the street entrance. To enter by the left door, at the top of the basement staircase, suggests you have been loitering, or were in the loo, or were gulping down a gin and tonic in the bar. To go down to the bar during the interval is to be sociable; to go down there before the concert is to be … available.

And so to your seat: red velvet; straight back and sides. A hand in the gap and a gentle push down. Not too comfortable, so you can focus and concentrate on the music; not too uncomfortable, so you can focus and concentrate on the music for a long time. Glance around to see if you know anyone. Oh lovely, there’s so-and-so. Oh dear, there’s so-and-so. Turn back and look down. Thank goodness you bought that substantial programme book.

The stage is the centre of Wigmore Hall, its raison d’être and point of focus. It is also the dividing line between front of house and backstage. A concert is theatre – costumes, lighting, choreography – and its habits are not just thoughtless tradition. These customs can be the best preparation for the drama of the music to unfold – a reason, too, why we set aside special places for our concerts. As with churches, we use a separate building for this activity partly because we want to create a sacred space. A concert is a feast, a liturgy … a party even. It can be bad, but it should never be drab or routine.

In 1899 the British architect Thomas Edward Collcutt, having finished Britain’s ‘first luxury hotel’, the Savoy, just over ten years earlier, was commissioned to design Wigmore Hall. It was his only concert hall. From the mid-twentieth century onwards acousticians emerged as a separate breed, commissioned by an architect to take his or her visual design and set it to music – scientists of sound. In earlier times the architect worked with the eye and hoped the ear would follow. It all appears to have been a matter of chance and tradition … and the shoebox.

This rectangular shape was traditionally used for concert buildings, the stage a heel at one end. And size didn’t matter too much. As long as the proportions were right it would work. It has something to do with walls as arms embracing vibrations, enabling sound to be projected but contained. Wigmore’s shoebox is small (a slipper fit for Cinderella herself), with every sound beautifully focused. Materials are important: wood is warm, to the touch and to the ear. Wigmore’s stage is a curved cradle of wood, but out in the 545-seat auditorium are the heavier, grander materials of alabaster and marble. Indeed, despite its birth in the era of art nouveau, Wigmore Hall harks back to the Renaissance in style. There are candle sconces on the walls, and if altars were to project out between the flattened, pink-veined pillars, and oil paintings depicting the life of Christ or of the saints were to be hung above those altars, we might easily be in the private chapel of a minor Italian duke. But no, this is a solidly secular space. Indeed, the only iconography is the famous cupola above the stage, an exuberantly colourful mural entitled The Soul of Music.

This is in the Arts and Crafts style and was designed by Gerald Moira, later to become principal of the Edinburgh College of Art, and executed by the sculptor Frank Lynn Jenkins, who was much in demand as a creator of decorative friezes. The Soul of Music figure is gazing up at the ‘Genius of Harmony’ – a ball of fire with rays reflected across the world under a deep-blue but clouded sky. On the left a musician plays as if in a trance, seeking inspiration from beyond. ‘Love’ is there too, carrying roses. She apparently represents the idea that a musician’s incentive must be love for art with beauty as the sole reward. On the right side is Psyche – the human soul – who inspires the seated composer to pen musical notes onto a scroll. The tangled nest of thorns that disturbs the perfection of this vision represents the possibility of humanity failing to live up to this artistic ideal – a choking by materialism. The whole image perhaps suggests music as religion. Such a message might well have shocked the post-Victorians who first received it, if they had not already been shocked by the erotic lurch of the Soul of Music figure, portrayed as a lithe, graceful, naked young man. This frieze is an unashamed display of exuberant naturalism in the pursuit of beauty and pleasure in music. On either side of the central cupola are two simpler rectangular paintings showing musicians responding successfully to the extravagant artistic suggestion of the central image.

Returning to the stage, what about Wigmore Hall’s wings, the traditional theatrical term for the bits on the side where performers wait, often with extreme anxiety, for their moment to appear? Well, Wigmore’s wings are more like two ears. On the back wall of the stage are two symmetrical doors for entry and exit. The door on the right, as you face the stage, through which every artist walks, is mysterious. Wherever you sit in the hall it is impossible to see clearly behind the door because of a twist in the space, and then a thick crimson curtain blocks further view. But on the left there is a yet more mysterious door. It looks exactly the same, but no. This is a sort of broom cupboard leading via some precipitous steps directly up to the Green Room. It’s not used for public events. It’s too informal somehow, too cramped, too prosaic for the stage. This left door is gauche. It’s for Hilda Ogden rather than Maria Callas.

Copyright © 2019 by Stephen Hough