Stephen Hough: Enough: Scenes from Childhood
Faber and Faber – 272 pages – £18.99
One of the first acts of Charles III as King was the knighting of Stephen Hough, a pianist, composer, painter and professor who had just published a new book, Enough (2023). Enough is a pitch perfect memoir of Sir Stephen’s early years, long before he could image the tap, tap, tapping of a sword on his head.
As Sir Stephen rose from his kneeling position, King Charles whispered, “Thank you for giving us so much joy.”
Stephen Hough has a god‑given touch at the keyboard, as he writes, and also as he paints.
Painting for him is a private matter. A gallery owner noticed the paintings on the walls of Hough’s home. When he discovered they were Hough’s, he asked to exhibit them. It is this act of public display that makes him feel naked. His work is glorious, full of color and form. It feels like a musical composition condensed into a moment.
Actually, he reports moments at the piano in concert when he feels he may have revealed too much of himself, and he rushes to the conclusion of a work so that he can go back into hiding.
Here we have both the simplest and the most complicated of humans. He came out as a homosexual when acts of sodomy were still criminal in England, and yet he feels comfortable in that layer of skin. He also is so comfortable as a performer that he can practice on a simple electronic keyboard. No Steinway B is necessary (He is a Yamaha artist).
Hough’s story begins like a Lawrence Sterne novel with his birth to a philandering husband and a wife who may well have preferred women. Of course many children are under the impression that their parents only had sex once for each child they beget. Whatever the nature of the union, his mother and father were extremely supportive of their young son. Almost-Liverpudlians, when they were told Hough had talent, they spent five pounds for a piano. Hough gravitated toward musical neighbors and ended up at two music schools which expanded his musical horizons, and did not deter him from a musical course.
He wasn’t a bad boy, but he enjoyed practical jokes. When life around him seemed dull, he could cook up and enact a scene which made him laugh. Others did too. First thing in the morning, he would rush up to a teacher and give her a hug. The teacher was shocked. So were the students. Scampering back to his seat, criticism was impossible to level: a hug is just a hug.
The language of this memoir is so beautifully paced and shaped that you know Hough was born with music inside him. He describes a world in which this music was able to come out.
We live with his colorful and moving descriptions. He is able to go with the flow and takes advantage of opportunities when they arise. And always, there are the encouraging voices of his parents in the wings.
A note his father wrote when he was entering a competition lingers: BEST WISHES FOR WEDNESDAY ENJOY IT THE MUSIC IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE PRIZE – Hough comments on these fourteen wise words. “When, a week or so later, I discovered that I had not been selected as a winner he wrote me a remarkably touching letter, including the following observations: Now then. As I thought over things, it also occurred to me that this could well be a blessing. i.e. You now have no reputation to uphold continually. No selection to justify. No target to achieve regardless. Why don’t you just soak up the atmosphere, take what is offered, and for goodness sake enjoy the experience. Have fun and stay away (aloof) from the trampling all around you. In time you will be able to impose your personality on your surroundings. Don’t rush it. Let things come to you until you feel your feet & become known & get to know people.”
Yes, his childhood was a Christmas card. But writing about it allows him to write about his inner life fearlessly. The smoulder of homosexuality, (he knew by the age of five), a desire to shock, and the irresistibility of showing off. These three elements found expression on the keyboard. They find expression in his paintings and also, in this book. Yes, a joy to the reader. An early teacher made him sight‑read everything. “Don’t miss out on the twiddly bits,” she cautioned. He doesn’t.
Hough’s trajectory raises important questions about how talent emerges in a person. Recent studies have found that the creation of notes and words comes from the same part of the brain and one encourages the other. John Adams, Jeremy Denk and Hector Berlioz are all wonderful writers.
For Sir Stephen, in the end, faith has carried him through. He was tempted by the priesthood as a teenager. A priest suggested that he could make a greater contribution as a musician. Listening to Sir Stephen and reading him you can see why.