He’s a rare renaissance man, who excels as a concert pianist, writer, composer and painter. Stephen Hough’s accomplishments continue to stack up, so it’s difficult to imagine he ever sat around just watching television, but as it turns out, Stephen Hough was a pretty normal teenager, “I listened to a lot of rock music and I burned incense sticks in my bedroom and I did yoga on my floor and I skived off school and I did very badly on my grades and I watched lots and lots of television, 6 hours a day for a few years. So yeah everything was kind of on hold then. I still played piano a little bit I played enough for my piano lessons but I certainly wasn’t motivated at that point. And then it kicked back again.
I had a very inspiring composition teacher when I was at school. And then he told me to study the Dream of Gerontius of Elgar, the oratorio. So I bought the records for that and started studying that. That introduced me to Catholicism also which has been something else that’s been part of my life since. I’d never been inside a Catholic church I didn’t even know what it was.”
At one point Hough even toyed with the idea of becoming a priest. That didn’t happen, but he has composed a mass at the request of Westminster Cathedral. Stephen’s Missa Mirabilis for chorus and orchestra was recently recorded by the Colorado Symphony and the Colorado Symphony Chorus with Andrew Litton conducting, “I started with the Credo because it’s the hardest movement to write,“ Hough explains, “I think every composer finds that. And it’s difficult because it’s not poetry like the rest of the mass but it’s this kind of theological text with all these clauses of things that you’re meant to believe.
So I started with this, and I thought what does it mean to believe all this? You know, I believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the father and the son. Well, goodness knows what that means, theologians have been arguing about it for centuries. And here congregations say it every week confidently as if they know what it means. So the whole scenario of the Creed became the boys of Westminster Cathedral, the innocent voices of childhood singing the words Credo, I believe. And the men of the choir just saying the clauses as if they don’t actually believe. So there’s a kind of dialog, a scenario set up between the innocence and the experience where the men just sing these words very quickly, as if by rote.
And in a way, that’s the foundation for the whole mass because like most people I think my faith is complicated in that it means a lot to me but I certainly have issues and problems and it goes in waves and so on and so on. This mass is kind of an expression of that.”
As you listen to the Credo from Stephen’s Mass of Miracles, hints of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana may come to mind, “I think that’s an influence,” he agrees, “I think a lot of big choral pieces with orchestra have Carmina Burana somehow in their shadow. But I think a closer influence for me would have been Poulenc. Particularly in his religious music in this way that he combines the sweet and the sour. The way you get this melancholy in the harmonies and yet there’s something very human about Poulenc’s music. Particularly in the Sanctus movement where I try to juxtapose the two sections, the Sanctus and the Benedictus. Sanctus being the majesty of the universe, of god, as bigger than anything we can possibly conceive.
And then the Benedictus, ‘blessed is he who is coming to earth’. And there I set it as if you’re in a coffee shop in Paris and there’s a jukebox playing in the next...it’s very down to earth there’s a cigarette burning in an ashtray. It’s very, very human in that way. So I wanted those two things not to fight against each other but just to sit next to each other and create I hope a slight feeling of poignancy about them.”
Stephen was in the final stages of completing this mass when out of nowhere his whole world was turned upside down, “I’d sketched three of the movements, staying with my mother in the north of England. Then I drove back to London, 200 miles along the M6 and M1. And along the M1, I had an accident. And my car somersaulted on the highway and landed up mangled and upside down on the hard shoulder. And as it was tumbling on the highway, I was thinking because I had the sketches for this mass with me in the car I thought, well, I’m never going to hear this mass. This is it. I’ve had a wonderful life and thank you God for all the blessings and wonderful things that have happened but this is my time. And then I landed on the hard shoulder and all this screeching of metal and sparks flying in the air and the car didn’t explode and I was still alive. And I was able to climb out of the car and get my sketches from it. And that’s why I called it Mass of Miracles.”
Stephen composed the final movement while waiting for a brain scan in the hospital. This Agnus Dei is not contemplative as you might expect. It’s filled with tension and grand harmonic progressions until the very end. Until the miracle is realized Dona Nobis Pacem, grant us peace.