A memory lapse while performing in front of an audience is a nerve-jangling, limb-paralysing, heart-stopping experience. Adrenalin floods the body, the mind swirls frantically, and even experienced performers can suddenly grind to a halt as their memory inexplicably fails mid-flow, causing a musical train wreck. Why would anyone chose this high-wire act, voluntarily placing themselves in such a precarious and potentially embarrassing position?
Since I started thinking about why people memorise music – and in particular, why people perform from memory – I’ve read a number of commentaries questioning the dogma of soloists playing without the score. The concert pianist Stephen Hough writing in the Telegraph (2011) reminds us that performing from memory is a relatively recent fashion, probably stemming from Liszt’s invention of the solo piano recital in the mid-19th century. Liszt was a consummate showman with extraordinary virtuosic skills who loved to please the audience with his amazing pianistic fireworks. However, he set the standard for pianists who followed him, and it was later considered “unprofessional” to play from the score, as if this indicated that a pianist didn’t know the piece. Hough provides a detailed list of the pros and cons of playing from memory (see below), and cites a number of famous pianists who started to use the score as a safety net in their later years when their memory became less reliable. Hough himself believes that “all pianists need to learn how to memorise and to play from memory” as an essential part of their education, but he is certainly not above using the score in a performance if required.
Pianist and writer Susan Tomes suggests in the Guardian (2007) that playing from memory has become a kind of snobbery, which has actually “narrowed the breadth of the repertoire”. She also points out the double standards that apply – only soloists are expected to play from memory, while chamber and orchestral musicians are not. Even more perplexingly, modern music is usually exempted from the rules, and it is not uncommon to see a performer play an entire solo recital from memory but use the score for any pieces written the last 50 years. More recently, music critic Anthony Tommasini also laments the requirement for soloists to play from memory in the New York Times (2012), but praises the fact that this rigid requirement for memorising classical music is now starting to change. Various soloists are daring to perform with the score, and more and more music schools and competitions are relaxing their requirements to play from memory.
To me, the idea that performing music from memory is just a recent and undesirable fad seems to lack a little historical perspective. Prior to the development of the modern system of musical notation, around the 11th century, music was necessarily performed from memory without the aid of a score. Religious plainchant was performed using the text from the Latin Bible for reference, but the melodies were all memorised – something Howard Goodall describes in the first part of his BBC series telling the “Story of Music” as “one of the most spectacular feats of memory in the history of the human race!” From monastic plainsong to traditional folk tunes, musicians throughout the ages and across the planet have performed music without the need of a written score for reference. Even now, most jazz and popular music is performed without a score. Although much of today’s ‘classical’ music (i.e. Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th century, contemporary, etc.) is just too complicated to learn and reproduce accurately without a written reference, that doesn’t mean it’s too hard to memorise.
Performing from memory undoubtedly adds an extra unnecessary layer of stress that the performer must manage. But many would argue it also allows the musician to better communicate with the audience. I wouldn’t dare to criticize either way. If a musician can perform equally well or better with the score, then why shouldn’t they? However, I think it would be a great tragedy if music students, amateurs and professionals abandoned the art of memorising all together. There is a deep personal connection with the music itself that can perhaps only be truly experienced when the musician is entirely focused on the music itself, not a representation. The mental discipline required to memorise a piece of music is worth striving for. And the joy of playing from memory is worth savouring.