Stephen Hough's 'French Album,' A 'Musical Dessert Trolley'

Oct 21, 2012
Originally published on October 21, 2012 7:40 pm

As with food, as with fashion, as with film, there does seem to be a distinct French style when it comes to composition. The much-heralded English pianist Stephen Hough has been studying what makes a piece of music uniquely French. It's resulted in his latest collection: the French Album.

With works by Debussy, Faure, Poulenc and a number of lesser-known composers, Hough says he considers this new album "a sort of musical dessert trolley."

"There are some impressionist pieces, but it's a kind of romantic impressionism as well," Hough says. "Impressionism we sometimes think as being rather cool somehow and distant. But this is music of a voluptuousness, of that kind of Frenchness: the smell of the French cigarette, the smear of lipstick on the collar and slightly too much perfume, that whole Parisian theme that's so fascinating to us all."

Here, Stephen Hough talks with NPR's Guy Raz about making the French Album, the missing link between Mozart and Chopin, and why he needs to know a composition's back story before he commits to playing it.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.


RAZ: Does this sound particularly French to you?


RAZ: The celebrated English pianist Stephen Hough has been studying what makes a piece of music uniquely French. And the result? His latest collection. It's called the "French Album," and it includes works by Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and a number of lesser-known composers. Hough calls this new album a sort of musical dessert trolley.

STEPHEN HOUGH: This repertoire, this French repertoire from the turn of the 19th, early 20th century, is something that I find something very intoxicating and very tempting. This is music of voluptuousness, of that kind of Frenchness, of the smell of the French cigarette and the smear of lipstick on the collar and slightly too much perfume, that whole Parisian thing that is so fascinating to us all.


RAZ: This is the "French Album," and yet, when I put it into my CD player, I heard Bach.


RAZ: And I thought, wait a minute. So explain why it begins with Bach.

HOUGH: OK. Well, forgive me for that. No, I'll tell you, principally, the transcription of his famous "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" was made by Alfred Cortot, who was one of the greatest pianists of all time and in a certain sense was a fountainhead of French pianism for the 20th century. He was a friend of Debussy and Ravel and Faure, so that was one side of it.

The other side - and this is a bit more oblique, really - is that the organ was an essential part of French music in the whole 19th, early 20th century. And, in fact, Saint-Saens and Faure both earned their living, in a sense, as organists. And this piece, in a way, is the starting point for virtually every organist.


RAZ: Looking down a list of the names in this record, many of them are recognizable, notable, but there are other names on this list that are less well known, somewhat obscure. There is one name, and a composition is this beautiful piece by a composer whose name is less well known - certainly, I don't know his work - Charles-Valentin Alkan.

HOUGH: Yes. Well, Alkan is one of the great, wonderful eccentrics of the 19th century, a sort of genius who's never quite made it into the mainstream of piano repertoire but wrote a vast amount of music. He was a friend of Chopin's. The legend is that as he was reaching for the Talmud at the top of his bookcase, the bookcase fell on top of him and killed him.

Now, whether that's actually true - I've not actually done the research, but that's the rather colorful legend. But this little piece does give you a view into the crazy world of Alkan. It's called "The Song of the Mad Woman by the Sea." It's very soft, mainly, and sort of slightly wailing melody and the treble and then these very low chords in the bass.


HOUGH: It's a slightly terrifying piece. It's a psychological study, really, of someone despairing and beyond hope. So that's just maybe is a reminder that this record isn't all about just froth and fun. There are some serious pieces. One other serious piece, one of my favorites from the record, is "Melancolie" by Poulenc. It's a substantial small piece. It's about five minutes long.

This is a point in history where popular music and classical music were still somehow together, because this song, this tune, you could imagine something sung by Edith Piaf or something in a nightclub and yet it's also a piece of classical music. It's very Poulenc to have the nuns on one side and Edith Piaf on the other side. And somehow, they're all part of the same wonderful, chaotic, fabulous world.


RAZ: Stephen, you have made it kind of a point over the course of your career to resurrect compositions that have, you know, either fallen out of favor or are just obscure, and you've kind of plucked them from obscurity.

HOUGH: I have done quite a lot. Well, some of it is just pragmatic in that it's more interesting, maybe, to record music that's less frequently recorded than just to do the Beethoven sonatas again, although those are great to do as well. But I'm interested sometimes in links between composers, missing links. You know, how did Mozart become Chopin? You know, what happened between those two styles?

You find a composer like Hummel, really, is the link. Hummel, as a pupil of Mozart, was one of the most important influences on Chopin. So, you know, when you discover that the Hummel piano concertos were the most played piano concertos in the sort of early part of the 19th century, then maybe we should look at him too.

RAZ: It's interesting because the way you talk about this record, it sounds almost like a researcher/historian writing a book. Like, I can imagine you sort of going through pages and pages of documents, maybe sitting near a piano and trying something out and realizing, well, this is actually not right.

HOUGH: Yeah. I find things that I love. I want to know about them. I can't imagine just playing the notes and sort of being satisfied. I want to know where they came from, and I want to find a way to - always to be fresh about them. I'm standing in the wings. I want to feel really excited every single night about a piece. I think any time that I feel this has become routine, I'd be extremely concerned.

RAZ: That's Stephen Hough. His new collection of French or French-inspired compositions is called "The French Album." If you'd like to hear a few tracks, go to our website, Stephen Hough, thank you very much for joining us.

HOUGH: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.