Toscanini and Furtwängler were known for conducting from memory, but K always used a score. He was asked, “Maestro, why do you use the score when these conductors do not?” To which K replied: “Because I can read music.”
[This story is told about both Knappertsbusch and Klemperer.]
I was taught piano in a way that gave me tremendous sight-reading skills (thank you, Bransby). To paraphrase Ratty, there’s nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about at the piano, sight-reading one’s way through all kinds of music, suitable and otherwise.
There’s a downside to being a “reader”, though. You never come by a memory of a piece through slow dogged study and sheer repetition. And I hated memorising music; loathed it. It wasn’t until I was at uni and discovered Walter Gieseking’s little book, Piano Technique, that I learned a much more powerful strategy for memorisation that didn’t rely on physical repetition. But by then it was kind of late: I was already a flute major, and there’s no particular expectation that flutists perform from memory.
Here’s an excerpt from the AMEB’s syllabus for the Fellowship in Music Australia diploma:
“For pianists the entire program must be presented from memory with the exception of contemporary works. For string players the entire program must be presented from memory except sonatas and contemporary works. For other instrumentalists presentation from memory is encouraged but is not obligatory. For singers, presentation from memory is required except in Oratorio.”
That says it all. If you’re a pianist or a violinist etc. memorisation is pretty much de rigeur. If you play some other instrument it’s more or less up to you. [Given the AMEB’s exceptions, I always found it ironic that I memorised contemporary works most easily.] If you’re a singer memorisation is expected, except for the quaint matter of oratorio, since there the aim is to make what is essentially opera seem less theatrical.
The double-standard on the instrumental front has always intrigued me, and seemed a bit unfair. But it’s the way things are, at all levels of music-making. Such is the power of expectation that when a concert pianist or string player uses sheet music, other than for the newest or most obscure of repertoire, it attracts attention and comment.
One pianist I know makes a point of performing with sheet music always. It’s been a while since he explained his rationale to me, so I hope I’m not misrepresenting him, but Geoffrey Lancaster’s view is that memorisation is a kind of arrogance, an assumption on the part of the performer that he or she knows how the music will go. Playing from memory, seen in this light, diminishes the spontaneity of the performer’s interaction with the composer’s text.
Of course, that’s the view of a performer who thinks deeply about things. And, in any case, no one would ever call Geoffrey unprepared or say that the presence of sheet music got “in the way” of his musical communication. But these do tend to be the suspicions levelled at most performers who appear on stage with sheet music.
There’s the pianist who plays from his part for the Grieg Piano Concerto. Unprepared? He may well be, and the presence of the music could be a symptom of that. The violinist whose head is buried in a music stand. Is he failing to project across the footlights as a result? Does the concert fee, whatever that might be, justify the expectation of a memorised performance in the way we expect actors to have memorised their lines?
Historically, performing concertos and recitals from memory is a fairly recent practice. And there’s no musically justifiable reason for it being compulsory. Let’s say you’ve played a piece into your muscle memory – that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll know it more intimately or have greater insights into its interpretation. On the contrary, you may be more caught up in the mechanics of the performance. If you’ve memorised it a la Gieseking, you probably have a very sound analytical conception of the piece but you aren’t necessarily going to give a freer or more spontaneous rendition simply by virtue of this. And if you happen to be blessed with some form of eidetic [photographic] memory as some musicians are, well, you’re not really playing from memory at all, but reading the music from your mind’s eye instead of the music desk. The only difference is it looks better (aesthetics do play a part in all this, I’ll admit) and you don’t have to worry about page turns.
All this comes to mind because recently Sydney audiences heard another violin concerto performed with sheet music (phenomenally, I should say) and so the subject has come up for what is perhaps the third time this season. As I’m sure I’ve established with my preamble, I’m not especially wedded to performance from memory and I’m more than ready to think positively of those with courage enough to fly in the face of convention.
As with some other concert conventions, performing from memory is often held up to be a greater virtue than it really is, perhaps to our loss. We’ve created a scene that favours the pianist or string player with an easy memory and discriminates (yes, discriminates) at the early stages against the musician without. To that end the performers of “Other Instruments” have a better deal. Because, even though performing from memory does have aesthetic and practical virtues…
1. The benefits of memorisation as a study technique don’t transfer as a matter of course to performance from memory. [And a performer’s use of sheet music doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t know the piece inside out.]
2. Performing from memory doesn’t really guarantee anything except that the musician has memorised the piece. [Oh, and that there’s a greater risk of error during performance.] It doesn’t assure a deeper musical insight or superior interpretation. It doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with performing a piece many times.
To which end, I’ll leave you with another conductor story:
I heard Mark Wigglesworth conduct Brahms 4 in Cardiff years ago. In the post-concert discussion afterwards a man in the audience asked him how many times he’d conducted the symphony in order to be able to “do it from memory”. The response: this was the first time Wigglesworth had conducted it in a concert. Ever.