Rough Ideas–Reflections On Music And More; Stephen Hough (Farar, Straus and Giroux; 2020)

The Little Bach Book; David Gordon (Lucky Valley Press; 2017)

However one manages life in a pandemic, I suggest that the disruption of former routines and the disorienting effects of ongoing uncertainty can be at least partially ameliorated by the transporting power of a book–or two–a uniquely affecting and influential source of enlightenment, humor, escape, and entertainment, no social contact required. Here are two such books–one new, the other issued in 2017–that I strongly recommend for anyone who loves music and is curious about the life and times of the artists who make it.

First is the nifty little book about the life and times of J.S. Bach, researched and engagingly written–“with most faithful Scholarship and a ready Wit”–by “Bach tenor” David Gordon. Gordon has had a decades-long career as a Bach-specialist singer, teacher, and lecturer, performing with many of the world’s major conductors and orchestras in concerts and on recordings, noted for his Evangelist interpretations in Bach’s Passions. This 140-page gem is indeed a “little Bach book”, packed with illustrations–pictures, original period drawings and engravings, and comparative photographs of pertinent places and objects–that describe and help bring to life the world in which Bach lived and worked–particularly in his years in Leipzig.

Chapters include “The World in 1723”; “The Well-Tempered Title Page”; “Food and Drink”; “A World Lit Only by Flame”; “The Intimation of Cleanliness”; “Medicine and Mortality”. There are discussions of Bach’s weekly church schedule, a description of his living quarters and conditions, a chronology of his life and details about “the 23 members” of his family, and the facts about “writing with a feather”. How can you not be fascinated by such accounts, presumably well researched and presented with humor, an eye for a particularly colorful or significant fact that will resonate with a modern reader, and with a deep respect for its subject without undue glorification.

A description of street lighting in Leipzig is especially interesting: by Bach’s time the city was at the forefront of this innovation, joining cities such as Paris, London, and Vienna. We learn about dental care, eyewitness accounts of Bach at the keyboard, and “how the Brandenburgs got their name” (not necessarily what you think). One of the beauties of this book is that you can just open it to any page and start reading: you’ll learn something and be thoroughly entertained without having to know what came on the earlier pages. Anything but a novelty, this is a clever and useful book for anyone who wants to know more about the world behind Bach’s music. Highly recommended.

In the pre-pandemic world of 2019, I received an advance copy of pianist Stephen Hough’s Rough Ideas, subtitled “reflections on music and more”. Now this book, at “roughly” 440 pages, is the perfect complement to your isolation-induced Moby Dick or War and Peace reading pledge–okay, it’s not a literary masterpiece (nor does it pretend to be), but nevertheless is very well written and chock-full of fascinating stories and intimate details about being a world-class musician in today’s classical music world.

Again, you can open this to any page and begin reading–and I assure you that you will keep reading for a while, for Hough is a master story teller, and he has tons of interesting anecdotes, (well-rehearsed) personal thoughts, and wonderful accounts of things like what it’s like to make a recording, how to practice, playing “wrong” notes, the moments before and after going on the concert stage, the pluses and minuses of page-turners, stage fright and playing from memory, and even what difference it makes what one wears for a concert. There are many sections dealing with specific composers and works: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Bach (“I don’t love Bach; I don’t hate Bach”), Liszt, why Chopin’s B minor Sonata is harder to play than Liszt’s (and why Liszt’s B minor Sonata is harder to record than Chopin’s), Debussy and Ravel, why “there’s no such thing as a difficult piece”, and a revealing discussion that asks “How much do we need to know about a composer?” in order to perform his or her music.

Hough also ventures into discussions of religion, poetry, and art. As he quotes in the book’s introduction: “Mostly I’ve written about music and the life of a musician (not always the same thing), from exploring the broader aspects of what it is to walk out onto a stage or to make a recording to specialist tips from deep inside the practice room. Even religion is there: the possibility of the existence of God, problems with some biblical texts, and the challenge involved in being a gay Catholic.”

As I mentioned, you can open this book anywhere and find something thoughtful, informative, humorous, and always entertaining. If you are at all interested in music, music-making, recording, and wonder how a world-class performing artist thinks, studies, performs, spends his time on the road, in the practice room, in the recording studio, and also want to gain some insights about such a person’s views not only on music and composers and particular challenges of his instrument, but on broader issues of our time, you will absolutely love this book. A joy to read, to open and close and open again.