Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough

Writings

Best And Worst Of Times

On Tuesday 27th September 1983 I won the Naumburg International Piano Competition in New York. The day before I had been a student beginning my doctoral degree at the Juilliard School; the day after I had dates in my diary with the Chicago Symphony, amongst many others. On Monday my Brahms had been bouncing off the walls of Juilliard’s cramped, yellow-carpeted practice rooms as I beavered away on whichever small, gnawed-through piano happened to be free; on Tuesday I found myself on the stage of Carnegie Hall, the sounds of its voluptuous concert-grand filling the celebrated venue to every gold scroll in every plushy upholstered corner.

It was the best of times. Suddenly out of a queue of thousands it was my name that had been called: “Here’s your ticket to a career. Have a safe trip!” Interviews, repertoire-planning, plane tickets, hotels, new tails-suit, broadcasts, managers, recordings – this was my new life, and I had asked for it. From learning to doing in the time it took to boil a kettle; a Doctorate begun and ended, student years over – overnight, at the tender age of 21. It was truly thrilling as I finally got to do what I had wanted to do since first seeing that box of strings out of which sounds were hammered into gold.

The Naumburg has a distinguished history and is one of the oldest competitions in the music world. Established in 1926 and originally called the Naumburg Award it launched the careers of Jorge Bolet, William Kapell, Dawn Upshaw and the Emerson String Quartet to name a random few. And yet winning a competition is merely turning on the car engine. Admittedly this one was a luxurious, elite vehicle with plenty of power, but I needed to drive it, and the road map was scanty to say the least.

It was the worst of times. To begin with, I had very few concertos in my repertoire – maybe six or seven. What would I do when it was the eighth which was requested? Learn it, of course! But when in one season I had to learn seven new concertos and keep as many older ones on the boil too my mind began seriously to spin out of control. “Tiredness can kill: take a break” is wise advice, but once this car is up and running it can be very hard to pull over to the lay-by and rest a while. The temptation to continue driving can be overwhelming, particularly, as happened once, I was down to my last 30 pounds in the bank. Those early concert opportunities do not simply sit there in suspended animation, patiently awaiting the moment when we feel prepared to take them up. They are automatically passed on to someone else – first come, first served; the early bird gets the worm; bird in the hand ... Entering a competition in the first place is saying “I’m ready for this journey” – yet few at that stage know what the journey entails.

I became terribly tired – always tired. I was forever hurtling backwards and forwards across the Atlantic and learning repertoire became a chore – works which had thrilled me were now like heavy burdens on my back. I was like someone whose garden tree had produced a few admired, succulent pears and was now faced with planting a whole orchard. How could I not just learn the notes of all this music but make it my own, wear it, live it? And if this season’s recital was well-received what would I play next season? “Lovely programme idea, but we really need some Schubert … I’m afraid we had too much Liszt last season, do you play any Scriabin? … It’s too much unusual repertoire … it’s too much standard repertoire … so and so has just cancelled in Los Angeles tomorrow, do you play the Beethoven 4th? … Ms. Connie Ductor has asked for you in Tokyo. Can you learn d’Issey Nantes’ Concertino for Piano and Brass? Rehearsals start in three weeks”.

I sat by a hotel pool one glorious afternoon in Singapore sipping a cool drink and wondered why I was not enjoying all of this. Only a couple of years before it was what I really wanted to do and things were going well. This poolside reflection was a very low moment for me but was also an important point of realization that no ‘best if times’ which relied on some ‘thing’ to support it could be guaranteed to last. I would only really find joy in my music if I was not expecting the music itself to provide me with joy. If I could stand back from it then I could see it in perspective, a partner in rather than a provider of happiness. That moment between the Monday of depression and the Tuesday of serenity was the point at which best and worst could be seen as two sides of the same tapestry: one knotted and tangled, the other smooth and ordered but stitched by the same hand and part of the same design. It was also a Catholic moment, when I dipped my toe tentatively back into a faith which put things into an even bigger context. Times have been better since.

A version of this essay first appeared in the Sunday Times (London)

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