Stephen Hough (piano, composer) with RNCM Songsters: Love and Loss


Stephen Hough:
Lady Antonia’s Songs
Dappled Things


Other Love Songs

Stephen Hough piano
RNCM Songsters

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Biography and Programme Notes


  1. Herbsttag
  2. Klage
  3. Tränenkrüglein
  4. Bestürz mich, Musik
  5. Herbst

A minor triad shrinking to a major third is the musical cell connecting everything in these five Rilke settings. The final song is composed entirely of these falling thirds – like leaves to the ground in the right-hand of the piano, but lower still to the underground with the slower left-hand descending to the very dregs of the keyboard. Autumn (Herbst), in the titles of two of the poems and in the bones of the other three, is a closing down, an emptying, a falling which seems inexorable: “Ich möchte aus meinem Herzen hinaus” – the poet wants to leave himself behind, that self which experiences such change and decay. Only in the last line of the last song comes any answer to these autumnal questions, as the thirds now rise in the longer piano notes with the mention of One who does not remove but holds such falling, infinitely, gently in His hands. The final bar of the cycle reverses the trend: a two-note chord resolves to a major triad. If Spring has not yet arrived at least Autumn is past.

Stephen Hough

The first performance of Herbstlieder was given by Jacques Imbrailo (baritone) and Alisdair Hogarth (piano) on 21st October 2010 at the Holywell Music Room, Oxford, as part of the Oxford Lieder Festival. The work has been recorded by Jacques Imbrailo and Stephen Hough on Broken Branches Compositions by Stephen Hough [BIS-CD-1952].

Lady Antonia's Songs

Lady Antonia’s Songs

  1. Self-Isolation – To Myself
  2. Magnolias
  3. Song of the Author on Book Tour
  4. On The Balcony

Wigmore Hall’s John Gilhooly handed me a slim volume: “Lady Antonia Fraser sent this to me a few days ago. I wonder if there are any of these verses which you might be interested to set?” I took the book home and leafed through it the following day, and I was instantly struck by how ‘musical’ the verses were – their rhythms and rhymes (always a good framework for a composer to work with, and work against), but also their purity and emotional honesty. I choose four for this cycle: the first two she wrote during the 2020 COVID lockdown and they reflect that sense of isolation we all felt at that time; the third song is a raucous romp depicting the author’s many book tours in the United States, complete with a recurring chorus; the final song tenderly remembers her late husband Harold Pinter and the quiet, domestic drinks they would share on their balcony at the end of a social night out.

Stephen Hough

Lady Antonia Fraser is the author of many widely acclaimed historical works which have been international bestsellers. She was awarded the Medlicott Medal by the Historical Association in 2000 and was made a DBE in 2011 for services to literature.

Her books include The Case of the Married Woman: Caroline Norton: A 19th Century Heroine Who Wanted Justice for Women, Mary Queen of Scots, King Charles II, The Weaker Vessel: Woman’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England which won the Wolfson History Prize, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832 and The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights 1829. Must You Go?, a memoir of her life with Harold Pinter, was published in 2010 and My History; A Memoir of Growing Up in 2015. She lives in London.

Dappled Things

Dappled Things

  1. I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day
    Words: Gerard Manley Hopkins
  2. Requiescat
    Words: Oscar Wilde
  3. Easter Day
    Words: Oscar Wilde
  4. Pied Beauty
    Words: Gerard Manley Hopkins
  5. The Harlot’s House
    Words: Oscar Wilde
  6. No worst, there is none
    Words: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Oscar Wilde may seem unlikely bedfellows but in fact they connect in more ways than might initially be suspected. They were almost exact contemporaries in the late 19th century; both died in their mid-40s; both had a youthful fascination with Roman Catholicism; both were acutely sensitive to physical beauty; both were almost certainly gay. But it’s the polarities which fascinate more. Wilde – the darling of London society, considered one of the most brilliant literary figures of his time but now remembered more for his life than for his works, a witty concoctor of epigrams who died a martyr to Victorian morality. Hopkins – a mediocre priest, unknown, unpublished, hidden away in damp, drafty church residences but today considered one of the greatest and most original poets of the 19th century. It was thirty years after his death before Hopkins was published at all, whereas Wilde had already been translated over 200 times into German alone in that same period. The two men as youths flirted with Catholicism; Wilde walked away, Hopkins converted and became a Jesuit. But then at the end of their lives Wilde became a Catholic whereas Hopkins was plunged into the darkest depression finding no consolation in his faltering faith.

I have set three poems by Hopkins and three by Wilde, the bookends being two of the former’s greatest works from his so-called ‘terrible sonnets . . . written in blood’. The cycle begins with the words “I wake” and ends with the phrase “each day dies with sleep”. This final descent of desolation is not the end though because the piano, in a Schumannesque coda, weaves a long, ruminating passage of consolation based on the first song’s opening melody. Death turns out to be a waking after all.

The other Hopkins poem gives the cycle its title, “Glory be to God for dappled things”, for things which are outside the norm, which refuse to follow convention or obvious patterns – nature’s gracious oblivion to man’s rules and presumptions. Here the music flits from the naive to the whimsical to the droll.

‘Requiescat’ is a tender, sad poem written in memory of Wilde’s sister who died of meningitis aged ten. ‘Easter Day’ is a sonnet contrasting the pomp of a splendid Papal ceremony in Rome with Christ’s own humble, solitary life. The music is based on the traditional Easter Alleliua chant. ‘The Harlot’s House’ is a bizarre story of a man and his innocent sweetheart who come across a brothel on an evening walk. After describing the decadent scenes as seen and heard from outside there is a final moment of horror: at the sound of a violin the woman decides to leave her companion and enter into the “house of lust”. The dawn arrives “like a frightened girl” and the music used here is the same as in ‘Requiescat’: innocence is now corrupted rather than destroyed.

Stephen Hough

Other Love Songs

Other Love Songs

  1. When I have passed
  2. away / December 1919
    Words: Claude McKay
  3. All shall be well
    Words: Julian of Norwich
  4. The city’s love
    Words: Claude McKay
  5. Madam and her madam
    Words: Langston Hughes
  6. Kashmiri Song
    Words: Laurence Hope
  7. Because I liked you better
    Words: A. E. Housman
  8. The colour of his hair
    Words: A. E. Housman
  9. Simon, son of John
    Words: Gospel of St. John (Chapter 21)

I was delighted when Alisdair Hogarth asked if I would like to write a song cycle for The Prince Consort as a companion for the two Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzer sets, but I decided, for the sake of contrast, to avoid waltzes, and to avoid setting poems about romantic love between a man and a woman.

The first song is a double setting for tenor and baritone – two poems by Claude McKay (1889-1948), the African American poet who was part of the literary group in 1920s New York known as the Harlem Renaissance. The poet-as-baritone muses whether, after he’s dead and forgotten, a “pensive youth” might come across one of his verses and softly hum its tune, wondering who its author might be. The song opens with a short introduction in which the poet-as-tenor hums a tune based on the last of the first set of Brahms Liebeslieder. This material forms the accompaniment in the piano, it reoccurs as an accompaniment by the tenor, and finally joins the words of another of McKay’s poems about his sorrowing love for his deceased mother.

Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416) was a mystic and hermit whose book ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ was the first written by a woman in the English language. It is astonishingly universalist for its time, suggesting, with courage and audacity, that all humanity is chosen and already saved by God. I’ve taken a selection of lines which celebrate this insight with ecstatic exuberance.

The third song, again by Claude McKay, unusually describes a city loving its alien guest, despite the colour of his skin, and, presumably, despite the rejection of its citizens.

‘Madam and her madam’ by Langston Hughes (1902-1967), another Harlem Renaissance poet, is a comic vignette about a maid’s exploitation by her mistress: “You know, Alberta, I love you so” receives the maid’s feisty response, “But I’ll be dogged if I love you”.

‘Kashmiri Song’ is from the ‘Garden of Kama’ by Laurence Hope – nom de plume for Adela Florence Cory Nicolson (1865-1904) – and was made hugely popular in its setting by Amy Woodforde-Finden in 1902. It appears to be a love song between two women, and its searing passion belies the starchy colonial life its author would have been living in British India in the late-Victorian period. I have used and adapted the traditional Indian Bhairav scale for this setting.

‘Because I liked you better’ is one of A. E. Housman’s (1859-1936) autobiographical and most heartbreaking poems – Victorian society’s demand for two men to part rather than to admit or pursue their love.

‘The colour of his hair’, again by Housman, is the other side of the coin – someone (probably Oscar Wilde) being taken to prison because of a ‘love that dare not speak its name’. The setting is brutal and banal, with a repetitive, crude sea-shanty tune accompanied by an increasingly violent piano part.

‘Simon, son of John’ is taken from the end of St. John’s Gospel. After the Resurrection Christ takes Simon Peter aside and asks him three times, “Do you love me?” This has always been thought to correspond to the three times Peter denied Christ during the Passion. Before the third affirmation by Peter, three fanfare-like flourishes occur in the piano, suggestive of the cockcrow which alerted Peter to his denial . . . (they also happen to be the same notes which set the second song’s words, “All shall be well”). Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs” to Peter’s avowals of love, and the setting ends with the soprano and mezzo singing the Agnus Dei section of the Mass: ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’. Love, in its many forms, conquers all.

Stephen Hough

Sir Stephen Hough Biography

One of the most distinctive artists of his generation, Sir Stephen Hough combines a distinguished career as a pianist with those of composer and writer.

Named by The Economist as one of Twenty Living Polymaths, Hough was the first classical performer to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (2001). He was awarded Northwestern University’s 2008 Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano, won the Royal Philharmonic Society Instrumentalist Award in 2010, and in 2016 was made an Honorary Member of RPS. In 2014 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2022.

Since taking first prize at the 1983 Naumburg Competition in New York, Sir Stephen has appeared with most of the major European, Asian and American orchestras and plays recitals regularly in major halls and concert series around the world from London’s Royal Festival Hall to New York’s Carnegie Hall. He has been a regular guest at festivals such as Aldeburgh, Aspen, Blossom, Edinburgh, La Roque d’Anthéron, Hollywood Bowl, Mostly Mozart, Salzburg, Tanglewood, Verbier, Blossom, and the BBC Proms, where he has made 29 concerto appearances, including playing all of the works of Tchaikovsky for piano and orchestra, a series he later repeated with the Chicago Symphony.

Many of his catalogue of over 60 albums have garnered international prizes including the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis, Diapason d’Or, Monde de la Musique, several Grammy nominations, eight Gramophone Magazine Awards including ‘Record of the Year’ in 1996 and 2003, and the Gramophone ‘Gold Disc’ Award in 2008, which named his complete Saint-Saens Piano Concertos as the best recording of the past 30 years. His 2012 recording of the complete Chopin Waltzes received the Diapason d’Or de l’Annee, France’s most prestigious recording award. His 2005 live recording of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos was the fastest selling recording in Hyperion’s history, while his 1987 recording of the Hummel concertos remains Chandos’ best-selling disc to date.

Published by Josef Weinberger, Sir Stephen has composed works for orchestra, choir, chamber ensemble, organ, harpsichord and solo piano. He has been commissioned by the Takacs Quartet, the Cliburn, the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, the Gilmore Foundation, The Genesis Foundation, the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, London’s National Gallery, Wigmore Hall, Le Musée de Louvre and Musica Viva Australia among others.

A noted writer, Sir Stephen has contributed articles for The New York Times, the Guardian, The Times, Gramophone and BBC Music Magazine, and he wrote a blog for The Telegraph for seven years which became one of the most popular and influential forums for cultural discussion and for which he wrote over six hundred articles. He has published three books: The Bible as Prayer (Bloomsbury and Paulist Press, 2007); a novel: The Final Retreat (Sylph Editions, 2018); and a book of essays: Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More (Faber & Faber and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019).

Sir Stephen resides in London where he is a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music and holds the International Chair of Piano Studies at his alma mater, the Royal Northern College in Manchester. He is also a member of the faculty at The Juilliard School.