Restricted access

This content is exclusive to members of the International Journal of Music.

Join now for as low as $1.67 per month…

…or get FREE access if you are a student or teacher!

Stephen Hough: “Vida breve” (Hyperion, 2021)


In this interview we discuss with Stephen Hough about a lot of details regarding his album Vida breve (Hyperion, 2021).

Cite this:

Publication date:

ISSN: 2792-8349

Copyright ©

International Journal of Music

The album takes its title from your own Sonata No. 4, which is of course featured on it. This name can make one think of the Hypocrites quote “Ars longa, vita brevis,” and the fact that it is in Spanish adds a possible link to Manuel de Falla’s short opera La vida breve. How much of this daring speculation is correct?

Nothing! All four of the piano sonatas that I have written have titles in different languages. The first one, called Broken Branches, is of course in English. The second is Notturno luminoso, in Italian. The third one is Trinitas, in Latin. Then I have Vida breve in Spanish. There aren’t any particular reasons why I have titled them this way; I think we often like to give names to musical works, even if the composer himself didn’t — just think of the Moonlight Sonata, the Funeral March Sonata, the Eroica Symphony or the Tragic 6th Symphony by Mahler. So I’ve given it a title rather than leaving it to the listener. There are two reasons for this: firstly I love language and words, despite also loving music’s abstraction in the sense that it doesn’t need words to express itself. But also I like the fact that the title gives some indication of the mood of the piece.

With my first sonata Broken Branches we’re talking about a piece where everything falls apart. It is a sonata made up of sixteen tiny movements. There’s a Janáček link in the title — the overgrown path, the broken branches; the same imagery of unfamiliar forest paths that seemingly lead somewhere but are then revealed to be dead ends.

With the Notturno luminoso I wanted to create the idea of night life. But not the “luminoso” of the moon on a lake but rather a disco, or even something more dangerous, a brothel perhaps, that wild night club in Málaga where people are drinking too much. But in a more serious sense, the intense feeling of loneliness we can find during the night hours. People partying to get rid of the emptiness within. I wanted to get some of that bizarre, manic element into my second sonata.

My third sonata is called Trinitas. The idea of trinity as a doctrine is interesting to me because it was something that didn’t get defined in Christian theology until three hundred years after the death of Christ. It was a very controversial idea; it almost broke the Church in half. It certainly marked the final division between Christians and Jews, the final break in the path after which there could no longer be any connection. This was significant because in the decades after the death of Christ the two communities were not so different in belief or practice. Of course, there were different understandings about certain issues but more as if a despite of theologians within the same faith, not between different religions. And in my third sonata I take the dogma of Trinity as a launching pad and put it alongside the twelve note system in music, also a dogma which became divisive. Serialism originated with Schoenberg and then after the Second World War became for about 30 years the only way you could write music if you were going to be part of the acceptable, fashionable music scene, Stockhausen and Boulez and that whole group of post-war composers. In my third sonata I take the dogma of serialism and use it against itself, the tone-row becomes not a way to destroy tonality but a way to question strict atonality.

And then there is Vida breve. The concept of the brief life is a wonderful idea. In a sense, we all want to live for ever but we all know that’s not possible — life is short, an experience we all share. The only absolutely unavoidable thing we know is that life will come to an end. Of course, this has been the subject of every kind of artistic expression from the first cave drawing right to the present day. It’s a mystery; we don’t know why we die, what comes afterwards, if anything. Even if we believe there is life after death, we really don’t know any details; it’s all shadows, it’s all expectations, hopes. So this short piece, this ten minute sonata with its melancholy feeling of haste and of something finishing quickly seemed an apt title. But it has absolutely nothing to do with Falla!

Are there any connotations of Vida breve that influence the colour of your piece?

If there is any colour, it is Paris because I used part of a song of Charles Trenet, En avril à Paris, as a hidden theme. This sonata was commissioned by the young American pianist Micah McLaurin who won the Gilmore Young Artist award a few years ago. Part of that award is the money to pay for a composer to write you a piece, and he asked me. A couple of years previously, he had asked me whether I knew how to get hold of Alexis Weissenberg’s transcription of the Charles Trenet song. I found it for him and emailed it to him. So when I put this piece together, I wanted to use a little bit from that Trenet song, but hidden away. You’ll never hear it as the song but a fragment of it is part of the set of five little nuggets out of which the whole piece is constructed. Everything in this piece comes out of these first five fragments, which are sometimes just three notes. And so that’s the Parisian aspect.

The programme includes pieces which have a connection to death, each in its own way. A very peculiar approach is indeed the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, because it embraces two seemingly differing but coexisting visions of the same music (Bach’s vision and Busoni’s vision). What do you think the ideal balance for this is?

Well, I think that Bach is always bigger, more universal than any other composer in a way. There is always room within Bach to be creative. You can have Jacques Loussier’s jazzed-up Bach, or Wendy Carlos’ moog-synthesised Bach; or Stephane Grapelli playing Bach. And Bach himself of course was transcribing his own works for different instruments. So I think that first of all, with Bach there is always an abstract flexibility in a way you wouldn’t have with Chopin. Chopin seems to be much more specific — it’s very hard to orchestrate his piano works because the music and the instrument is so closely entwined. On this CD, we begin and end with two Bach transcriptions; the Chaconne and then at the end the Ave Maria that I transcribed myself from the Gounod.

During the nineteenth century, people thought about Bach in very different ways from today. Firstly, we’re so used to the idea of Bach’s original music being a central part of modern repertoire — everybody records the Goldberg variations. There have been at least five different recordings in the last five months! Including Lang Lang! Playing original Bach is what pianists of today do, but it was not always like this. In the nineteenth century transcriptions of Bach were far more commonly played than his original keyboard works. Very few pianists would walk onto a concert stage and play real Bach; no, they would play transcriptions. So we essentially have two 19th century visions of Bach on my album with the Busoni and the Gounod. Firstly we have Bach the organist, and with him this monumental piece that Busoni makes out of the original piece for solo violin. But of course, the original Chaconne on the violin is monumental in a different kind of way because even though written for a small instrument and on a smaller canvas the scope and sheer humanity of the piece is immense. So in a way what I think Busoni is doing is two-fold: I think he is showing us the huge scale of the original Bach and reminding us that the organ was Bach’s main instrument. He lived his professional life week by week playing the organ in the choir loft. So I think you get both of these ideas from this transcription.

And then there is Gounod of course. In England fruit is often so flavourless that we have to spice it up with something. So when I was a boy, if we had melon, we would always sprinkle it with sugar or ginger because otherwise it had no taste. Or you’d add cream perhaps. To me, Gounod adds cream and sugar to Bach. He does not trust that the melon has enough flavour by itself. He thinks you need to dress it up a bit. And this is a very nineteenth century aesthetic, the idea of decoration. The Victorians for example, never left anything plain. If you look at Victorian architecture, it is usually decorated with curls and frills and many ornate details. I think that is the equivalent with Gounod. He takes this very simple Bach piece and, in a very beautiful honest way, makes something rather sweet and sentimental out of it. But actually I think it’s fine and I love it.

And how do you think this approach of Busoni to other composers’ music differs with the Kammer-Fantasie über Carmen?

Busoni was a fantastic pianist. He was actually one of the greatest pianists of his time, but also a great experimental composer. In many ways he was a modernist. So even though his transcription of Bach’s Chaconne could be seen as old fashioned, he was not an old fashioned musical thinker at all, which can be seen in his original compositions which are often very strange and utterly original. I think you get a little bit of that sense in the Carmen Fantasy because this piece is emerging from a tradition of the great opera paraphrases pretty much invented and certainly developed and perfected by Liszt. Liszt would take operas that were famous at the time and reconstruct them into big arrangements. The idea was to reproduce in the salon the tunes that people had heard in the opera house, but also they were an opportunity for a pianist to show off with these glittering virtuoso arrangements. Just think of the Don Giovanni Fantasy, the Norma Fantasy, Rigoletto; they’re all very difficult and very ornate with flashy endings.

Busoni does something intriguing and different here because firstly he calls it Sonatina Number Six, not just “paraphrase on themes from Carmen.” Already, he’s setting it up with slightly different expectations. He looks deeply into the psychology of the opera, of the characters and inside the story, and so in eight minutes you have a certain sense of the flavour of Bizet’s whole opera. And Busoni has the courage to end softly, with an hallucination of death. Although it is difficult to play he is not looking to the audience for applause with this piece.

Regarding Liszt’s Funérailles, there is often a dilemma about why it was written: for the Habsburg crushing of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, or also having been written in October 1849, for the precise month of Chopin’s death. Indeed, it has many Chopinesque elements such as the A-flat Nocturne-like section, the Polonaise héroïque kind of writing, etc. What is your vision about this?

The piece is ambiguous and it just shows that a composer can have many different things on his or her mind when they’re composing a piece. I don’t think it’s likely to be a direct Chopin tribute as Liszt probably had the piece in mind before Chopin died. He often had sketches of pieces lying around from years before.

It is true that the octaves in the left hand in the middle section do bring to mind the octaves of the “A-flat Polonaise” which was Chopin’s great Polish piece if you think about it. Out of all the pieces that Chopin wrote, this work seems to me to be the most nationalistic. I think Liszt would have had sympathy as a Hungarian, as a neighbour of Chopin with similar political issues of being dominated by a foreign power. There are certainly parallels there. And of course, we cannot forget the year it was written in 1848; the whole of Europe was filled with conflict, with revolution, with change. And not just political revolution but industrial revolution. So it was a time of incredible turbulence. And I think all of this would have fed into Liszt’s inspiration. Additionally, Liszt himself was changing at this point in his life. He moved to Weimar in this year and he would very soon reach a point of playing almost no public concerts; he was changing his mindset from being a pianist who composed to a composer who played the piano. This shift in his life gave us the B Minor Sonata, the Faust Symphony and many other similarly serious and experimental masterpieces.

You had already recorded the 3rd Sonata by Chopin on your Chopin Late Masterpieces album, as well as the Ballades and Scherzos and the Complete Waltzes. Anyhow, considering how extensive your catalogue is, it seems that you have been somehow reluctant to record Chopin although you often include it in your programmes. Is this so? And in this case, why?

When I began recording with Hyperion Records in around 1992, they just didn’t record standard repertoire to the extent that they do now. The whole identity of the label was to record different, more obscure things. That is why I did Scharwenka and Sauer concertos; I couldn’t record Beethoven or Mozart or Brahms — it was not possible. The founder of Hyperion, Ted Perry, was a wonderful guy but he had a distinct vision for the label. His son, Simon, took over the label when Ted died and he’s been much more flexible; he seems quite happy (so far!) for me to record anything that I want. In fact, the recordings that I am most pleased with recently are the complete nocturnes of Chopin which are coming out at the end of this year. I recorded the cycle last year during the lockdown. And I want to record the Preludes and Impromptus as well as the Polonaises and Mazurkas one day perhaps. Chopin has always been at the centre of my life and if I had to choose one composer I would take to a desert island, it might well be Chopin. I have always played the works that I have recorded a lot, but I suppose it’s just that most often, recordings have to have a reason. You have to be so passionately convinced that you have something new to say about a piece or there’s no point in doing it really. In the late-1980s I actually recorded the ballades and scherzos for Virgin Records but I didn’t like them. We had a very difficult situation with the piano arriving in bad shape and I just didn’t feel it had the right sound and so we never issued them. I’ve played both concertos too — Chopin is essential in my repertoire. Equally, the nocturnes were an amazing project for me and it was something that was only really made possible because of the pandemic. When you’re travelling all the time and playing up to one hundred concerts a year, there just isn’t the time to spend on all the pieces you want to work on. So making the most of my time at home, I worked intensely on these pieces for three months or so. I already knew them extremely well, but I wanted to focus on them absolutely, and to be completely immersed in them.

It’s incredibly important to get the right piano when recording Chopin; I was lucky enough to play a beautiful Yamaha from Southbank for this project. This piano was just a dream — you could not find a more beautiful piano for this music. Often modern pianos can be too thick in sound. Chopin’s piano music always has a certain transparency and the danger is that this can be lost on the modern piano. We always talk about these issues with Beethoven and Mozart; whether we should play them on pianos of the composer’s time, but we don’t talk so much about Chopin. And I think that it is significant that Chopin didn’t like the heavier, more brilliant Érard, he preferred the Pleyel. Although the Érard already sounds very thin compared to the modern piano, the Pleyel is even closer to a piano of Beethoven’s time. So Chopin seemed to love pianos which have a delicacy, a transparency, a finesse, and a lot of very soft colours. This is almost impossible to achieve on a modern piano.

The album finishes with two wonderful “encore bonbons” which are your own arrangements (played with the most sublime singing tone, if I may add). They are the traditional Korean song Arirang, and the famous Bach/Gounod Ave Maria. Are they still linked to the concept of death in a way of redemption, or are they just there to lighten the spirits of the listener after such a dense repertoire?

Requiem aeternam means Eternal Rest. Perhaps this was what I was thinking about, death as a “resting in peace.” I wouldn’t have liked to have ended with something angst-ridden. I think we all hope that death will come to us as a moment of repose and rest. Especially for somebody who is suffering from a very painful illness or even for someone who has just lived a very long life. So that’s probably what was on my mind behind those two encores. With Arirang, I wanted very much to record this beautiful old song which is one of the most well-known tunes in the whole of Korea — there really isn’t an equivalent in the UK. Arirang is more than just a kind of national anthem; it transcends that.

Stephen Hough Vida breve

More About Stephen Hough

Did you enjoy this content? Please consider sharing it with others who may find it interesting: