Since starting this blog a year ago, I’ve come to realise that I am a memorising snob! To me, memorising music is the same as learning it. Although there is far, far more to learning and successfully performing a piece of music than just memorising it, personally I can’t do one without the other. If I can’t play a piece without the score, then I simply haven’t learnt it properly yet. Try as I might to expand my repertoire by not memorising, ultimately I am only really musically satisfied with the pieces I’ve memorised properly.
Having witnessed a number of poor performances by score-bound musicians, who apparently didn’t know the music well enough to perform it, I’ve always assumed this simple truth to be universal. What use are dots on a page once you’ve learnt a piece? Moreover, I have long felt that watching soloists play from the score actually detracts from the music, and that I enjoy music far more when it is played from memory. However, after attending a number of fabulous performances by extraordinary musicians using a score , I’ve come to realise that this assertion is totally false.
For example, towards the end of last year, I was lucky enough to attend a fabulous concert of Messiaen’s great Vingt regards sur l’enfent Jésus by pianist Cordelia Williams. The concert itself was held in the cavernous medieval chapel of King’s College Cambridge, where Messiaen’s sublime harmonies resonated throughout the space and transcended our normal musical world. Lasting more than two hours, this astonishing 20-movement piece is an absolute tour de force of 20th century music, presenting enormous physical and emotional challenges to the pianist. Williams briefly introduced each movement to the rapt audience, and played the majority of the piece from memory without reference to the score. Just three movements were played with the aid of the score, all of which were quite chromatic and extremely technically demanding, though the page turner remained on stage throughout the performance following the score (mostly sat away from the piano). This occasional use of the score did not detract at all from my enjoyment of the music itself, and I could hear no difference in the quality and boldness of the playing between movements. The mind boggles as to how anyone can learn this amount of frighteningly difficult music and there was absolutely no question here about the performer not knowing the notes – whether the score acted as a safety net or an aide mémoire I don’t know, but the whole audience (myself included) was simply blown away by this authoritative performance.
Clearly it is possible to play a memorised piece or just a section of a concert from the score, and I have many friends who do just that. This ‘safety net’ approach certainly removes some of the performance anxiety about forgetting the notes, and helps to ensure that detailed articulations and phrasings are executed as planned. However, once a piece is properly memorised, I find it quite distracting to use the score and ultimately it degrades my ability to play without it. Although I still don’t think I would wish to perform a solo piece from the score, there is no doubt that some people can and do so with great musicianship.