Conversation with Ian Hobson, Part 1

Questioner: Park, Jonghwa(Pianist, Professor at Seoul National University)

P. We would like to trace back to your origin and talk about periods of your life. You were born in 1952 and that’s not very far from the end of the war. Could you talk about the general environment when you were born in England, and in the region at that moment, what was happening in musical scene? How you came about your first contact with classical music and why you decided to start?

H. I was born in 1952 in Wolverhampton, which is in the midlands of Great Britain, very near to Birmingham. It was after the war, it was after rationing had finished just recently and it was a very austere time in England. And I was an only child and my parents were not particularly musical, although my father was very interested in amateur operatics, so from an early age I would go and see him performing in south pacific Oklahoma and some of his musicals. I think that was a very nurturing experience for me. And especially in the piano, we didn’t have a piano, an instrument in the house, but we had a toy piano and when I was three I was playing on the toy piano and I was reproducing themes from the BBC radio. They found me reproducing these themes rather accurately and so the family bought a piano for me when I was four and I learned to play by ear on the piano before I had lessons. When I was five, I had lessons. Learned to read music and then went on to do other things. I think it’s an interesting way of starting. It’s very different from learning to read music and then learning to expand your repertoire from one piece to another. When you learn to play by ear it’s more like jazz playing. I don’t know whether it is better, but it certainly expands one’s horizons.

P. So you started to learn music by ear by yourself. So you had no teachers?

H. Yes, when I was five I had teachers. I had somebody who put paper behind the black keys with all the letter of the alphabet so I learned to see what I was playing, to recognize what the names of the notes were and it was a quick move to start playing with music. We had in those days 78 rpm disks, it was before LPs, it was before CDs, it was before cassettes. And I had in the house a Moiseiwitsch recording, on one side was the C sharp minor Prelude of Rachmaninoff, which I immediately wanted to get the music and learned. I could play the first page but the second page was too difficult for me. And on the other side was the G minor Prelude of Rachmaninoff which was a fantastic piece of music and played magnificently by Benno Moiseiwitsch, who was a friend and fellow Russian pianist of Rachmaninoff, who lived in London at that time. This and the sound of this man captivated me. So every time there was music on the radio when I was 6 or 7 years old, when Moiseiwitsch was playing something I said “that is Moiseiwitsch’s playing” cause I could recognize his sound. And this was an interesting fact I don’t know how I did it but I could just recognize the mode of playing and the elegance of the playing.

P. Was this one of the way of getting in touch or exploring or discovering repertoires in music? Was this the main way for you to discover the music or recordings?

H. Yes. My parents were kind of middle class people who liked music. They weren’t opera buffs or highbrow music people, but they went to the musicals. And I remember going to see Kismet, Kismet is a musical production based on Prince Igor by Borodin, and the music was absolutely intoxicating, it was wonderful to hear that. So these things had an influence on me. I went to see south pacific and carousel and Richard Rogers presentations that my father was involved in and I went to see other musicals. I went to see when My Fair Lady the movie with Rex Harrison first came out and this was a fabulous score conducted by André Previn. This was great music. I wasn’t introduced to Marriage of Figaro and Carmen and Fidelio at this age but I was introduced to popular music, which in many ways was based on the tradition of western music from a century earlier. So no matter how you’re introduced to music, I think if it takes your imagination, captures your imagination, it’s worth it.

P. So how was the general environment during your youth? Did you have lots of friends of the same age who were studying piano or instruments?

H. No, not really. I thought I was pretty isolated in that sense. I had friends at school of course but not many of them, if any were interested in music. I knew that I wanted to do music from a very young age but I was also interested in other things. I was interested in literature, in other avenues of learning. And so I had some friends who played other instruments like oboe or viola and I would accompany them and so I would start to understand chamber music, but I didn’t have that many friends who were interested in pursuing a music as a career. When I started studying seriously, probably when I was 13 or 14, I had the opportunity to go to a teacher in London. As I was living in a regional town England, Hereford, which was miles away from London miles away from the cultural center and so I would have to go for three and a half hours on a steam train. That was before electrification. Steam train into London, have my lessons, come back, another three and a half hours, I did this every three and a half weeks. So this started expanding my horizons in music and culture.

P. So obviously the musical landscape in Birmingham and London was quite different?

H. Yes, absolutely.

P. How was that during the 50s and 60s? How was the classical music perceived by society and people?

H. I think that people prided themselves in being very interested in culture and very interested in music. They would attend the symphonies, the local symphonies, whether it was the city of Birmingham symphony or the BBC Welsh orchestra, there was a strong musical culture around the country which has been eroded these days, unfortunately. Because of the Internet, because of the opportunity to listen to all sorts of things and to watch all sorts of things, people don’t tend to go out so much to concerts as much as they used to. I think that, in that sense here, in the Far East, here in Korea there is much more attendance at concerts generally than there is in the US now.

P. Going back to when you started piano do you still remember the tune that you reproduced from BBC radio?

H. No, I don’t. But I used to reproduce tunes from TV commercials, because I didn’t have a TV when I was young. Until I was probably 11 or 12, I didn’t have a TV but my grandparents had a TV so when I would go there to see. I remember the thing for the dishwashing detergent which was very interesting. It was Fairy Liquid.

‘The hands that do dishes can feel as soft as your face, with mild green Fairy Liquid.’ I remember this. A long time ago.

P. I think it’s fantastic. Every time I hear you playing and now that I know when you started to learn music, it was mostly by ear. I think maybe that’s why you have that flowings of musicality compared to people who really started a disciplined approach, learn do-re-mi, and then learn to read the score and then everything is learned off partitura first.

H. I don’t know. Everybody comes that, music from a different point of view. I’m very happy that I learned by ear first, because then it frees one’s mind to make the connections between what you see on the page and what it sounds like. When I teach, I’m teaching people to memorize and people ask me about memorization. I say “Look, what you need to do is to know what the chord that you are about to play sounds like. You need to know what it sounds like. Not to be surprised when you play something.” And that’s an important point because then what you read and how you perceive the sound is so connected. I think this is the same with sight-reading. If you can sight-read music and you can look at the next chord that’s coming up and you know what it sounds like. Of course it doesn’t happen immediately but after practice you can know what that sounds like and how you want it to sound. And then it means something to you instead of just searching for some group of notes ‘Ah, that’s how it sounds like.’ No, you need to know what it sounds like first of all and that comes only from practice, which is doing it over and over again.

P. Could you tell us of a memory from your teen before you left Birmingham? A story that strongly influenced you or one moment that you remember.

H. Maybe many things. As I said I went down to London to play for this man who’s named Sydney Harrison, he was a TV personality also a very good pianist, very elegant sounding pianist. And he taught me to play with more authority and more adult kind of approach to the keyboard. So the pieces that I worked with at that age when I was 14 or 15, that was the first time I came in contact with Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, and this was so exciting to find a piece like this which had such exotic harmonies and repeated notes which is rapidly and also glissandi, up and down the keyboard. Not only one note at a time but sometimes thirds and fourths.

It seems like almost an impossibility when you look at them on paper buts it’s a great thing to do and it’s quite possible so that young people can feel that they really achieved something, miraculously by relaxing enough to play those kinds of things.

P. So what age did you leave Birmingham?

H. No, I wasn’t in Birmingham I was close to Birmingham, I was in Hereford, which is in the west country, which is a market town near the Welsh border, and that’s where I went to London for my lessons first of all when I was 13. When I was 14 and a half the family moved to Coventry that is bigger town, a more industrial town, it’s the car town where they make jaguar and a lot of the other cars. Then I stayed there until I went to college. This was a place that has a cathedral which was bombed heavily during the war it was destroyed actually by the German army and a new cathedral was built there, so this was a very important time for me to come to this town. I went to the fifth anniversary of the war requiem by Benjamin Britten. Benjamin Britten wrote the war requiem for Coventry because of the cathedral and the town that had been destroyed. And I went to performance of the fifth anniversary which was in 1957. This was a great moment for me, also to attend other auditorials, cinematic passion and so on, and to really become come in contact with great choral music. I studied the organ, so I was involved with choirs and it was a great learning experience for me.

P. So that’s when you studied the organ.

H. Yes, that was when I started the organs. When I was 14. It’s difficult, it’s very difficult when you first start to learn the pedals it’s like trying to ride a bike, you’ll fall off many times, but having learnt it I think I can probably still play and it has been very useful to me not only musically but economically because I used it to get myself through school later in life to be an organist and choirmaster at various churches. One also comes in contact with the great music of Bach. I always maintain that although we have 48 Preludes of Fugues of Bach for the piano or for the keyboard or the harpsichord. The greatest Preludes of Fugues of Bach are for the organ and those are magnificent pieces and as a pianist you can only come in contact with through this of Busoni transcription, unless you play the organ. And if you play the organ, it’s well worthwhile. I even remember when I went to Cambridge to study, I wanted to continue studying at the Royal Academy of Music, I didn’t have fees to do that. So I went to the Royal College of Organists and I played A minor Prelude in Fugue of Bach for the organ. And through that I got a scholarship to continue studying at the Royal Academy of Music. So it was very useful to me.

P. So you stayed in Coventry until you went off to college. I read that you studied at the Royal Academy of Music as well as Cambridge. Did you do it at the same time?

H. Yeah, I did do it at the same time. When I was sixteen I did an academic exam which was Oxbridge exam, a special exam to get into one of those colleges. And I won an open scholarship to go to Cambridge. But I was only sixteen so I couldn’t go to college in Cambridge until I was 18. So in the entering year when I was 17, I went to London to the Royal Academy of Music and continued my studies with Sydney Harrison who I had mentioned earlier and he was a professor there, so I studied there. And then when I got the scholarship from the organ, college of organists to continue to study I commuted between Cambridge and London for two years and studied at both places.

P. So I presume from age 17 and on, your lifestyle certainly changed?

H. Yes, of course.

P. Was there any stress related to that, or the anecdote related to that?

H. No, I was just trying to keep up with my academic activities and becoming 17, 18 years old there’s many things that one has to deal with in life and then I decided to make my studies at Cambridge shorter than normal. And I did an audition for Yale school of music, graduate school because I wanted to not only do academic music but wanted to really concentrate on performance, piano, organ, conducting, and not do too much of the other academic subjects. So I accomplished that in 1972. When I got into Yale graduate school of music, and went over there and then I never lived in England anymore. I did three years of study at Yale did coursework for my doctor’s degree, got a job at University of Illinois and I’ve been there ever since until I came to Seoul National University.