Playing from the score

VingtRegardsSince 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.


About Caroline Wright

artist, scientist, musician
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8 Responses to Playing from the score

  1. There is still a tremendous amount of snobbery about memorising music: I come up against it quite a lot with members of my piano group, amateur pianists (by and large) who feel that memorising is the “be all and end” of learning a piece properly. The same snobbery exists in the concert hall, where I’ve heard audience members comment on the performer’s use of the score, suggesting that the performer is perhaps in some way under-prepared or second-rate because he or she has chosen to have a score with them. Many non-musicians do not understand the complexity of some music, nor the huge efforts that go into the earning and upkeep of all those notes. Sometimes, there is simply not enough time to memorise a piece properly!

    At my piano group’s Christmas concert last month, there were two instances of participants attempting to play quite difficult repertoire from memory (Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ Prelude and Debussy’s Arabesque 1). In both performances, the performers came unstuck due to memory lapses, and because they did not have the score in front of them, or indeed with them at the event, found it difficult to recover. There is a lesson here, and that is that one should never feel ashamed or embarrassed about having the score to refer to, as it can make the difference between a polished, poised performance, and a hesitant/bad performance.

    I was lucky enough to hear Steven Osborne perform the Vingt Regards last May, the most memorable, moving and profound concert I have attended in awhile. He had the score with him, with a page turner beside him, and he referred to the score quite often. But at no point did this detract from the performance, his ability to communicate this extraordinary music, and the amazing sound world and atmosphere he created in the Queen Elizabeth Hall that evening. Ultimately, it comes down to the quality, expression and emotional impact of the performance, with score or without.

    Bravo on your blog’s first birthday, Caroline. I always enjoy your intelligent posts.

    • Many thanks for you excellent comment and kind words Fran. I’m hoping to make it down to London for one of your meet-ups at some point this year, once I’ve learnt some new pieces…

  2. It will be great to see you at one of our events, Caroline, and lovely to meet you and hear you play

  3. Virginia Pianist says:

    The fabulous French pianist Alexandre Tharaud uses a score for pretty much everything; apparently at the age of 25 he decided the memory game was too much stress, and started using the score for his performances. As can be seen on YouTube, he refers to the score often, and is not bashful about it. Clearly, he knows these scores inside and out. Other pianists including Richard Goode and Peter Serkin have been using scores in recent seasons to perform music they’ve played thousands of times in public from memory. Towards the end of his life, Sviatoslav Richter used music for every concert he played: so did Myra Hess. Historically, the pianist Blanche Selva (the woman who premiered “Iberia” of Albeniz) never played from memory, and neither did Raoul Pugno (the teacher of Nadia Boulanger). These are just a few examples of pianists who perform/ed with score.

    I personally wouldn’t want to play Chopin, Liszt or Rachmaninoff from the score (too much jumping around!), but why shouldn’t I use a score for Bach, or Mozart, or Ives, or Copland? The insistence on memory is probably one factor that limits the repertoire one hears as concerts. I know that one reason many pre-Bach composers aren’t performed as often as they should be is because they are a bear to memorize. Anyone who’s struggled with the English virginalists and their endless similar (but beautiful!) repetitions can tell you that using the score in those pieces makes life much easier, and allows for relaxed, confident performances. The few live performances I’ve seen of those works were memorized, and didn’t seem nearly as fun as it should be. One of those performances ended with a train wreck.

    A live-and-let-live approach seems to be the best; if you want to use the score, go for it. If you want to memorize, memorize. I’d personally prefer to see a beautifully-played work performed from the score over a tight, nervous performance that runs off the rails due to a memory lapse. Some people are more comfortable playing from memory, but I suspect the majority of professional pianists wouldn’t mind mixing memorized and score performances on their programs, both in order to enlarge the programs, but also to take some of the stress out of performing.

  4. Nathalie Cabrier says:

    Thank you very much for your blog, I really enjoy to read it. To play or not to play with a score?
    That is the question. To me it is really depend on the performer. Of course both ways have their strength and weakness but at the end of the day what do the majority of people expect from concert? Isn’t just wonderful music? Music with feeling, grace or power? Or is it an incredible performance, a record what a soloist is able to produce? Or is it maybe both, music and performance/record? It’ll be interesting to do an experiment “blind fold” listening the same piece played by the same performer with and without the score and try to guess which one is it!
    I really do understand the freedom of playing without a score but if the score helps the artist to give a wonderful music why not? After all it is the purpose of a score! Can’t an extremely talented, experienced, highly trained player have a score and “escape” from it? Can’t a dancer forget the timing/counting to just dance?
    To play or not to play with a score? Is it only a visual difference? Or is it a truly musicality difference? Well to me, as a simple amateur but a music lover, the answer is very clear, it’s simply music! Yes Music comes first. 😉

  5. ICW says:

    I went to the two performances of Vingt regards sur l’enfent Jésus mentioned above – the one by Cordilia Williams at King’s College, which was mostly memorised, and the one by Steven Osborne at Queen Elizabeth Hall, for which he had the music at all times. Both were truly impressive but the performance that seemed to capture and hold the audience the most and certainly the one that moved me the most was the one by Steven Osborne. Perhaps it was the difference between the venues or the audience and no doubt some of it was due to the different qualities of the playing. But the important difference for me was that Osborne played non stop whereas Williams interrupted the movements by talking to the audience, and she also had an interval half way through. There was something about the cumulative effect of Osborne’s performance that heightened the intensity. At the end of the final movement, Osborne and the audience were still and silent for about a minute before anyone moved. The whole audience then erupted with applause and rose to their feet. This did not happen at Williams’ concert where many people started clapping immediately and very few people stood up. I also had the pleasure a few years ago of hearing Vingt regards sur l’enfent Jésus performed by Joanna Macgregor at West Rd in Cambridge. She had the music throughout, and had an interval half way through. At the end, the applause started about 30 seconds after the last chord was struck and half the audience gave a standing ovation. So, with my highly scientific sample of 3, one sees a direct correlation between the continuity of playing and how moved the audience was! Whether the pianist had the score or not was not key. I suspect that although Macgregor and Osborne had the score, they basically knew the piece from memory anyway, using the score only occasionally for the parts that are most difficult to memorize. I found all three performances unforgettable in different way and I have nothing but profound admiration for all three performers and indeed anyone who can play this piece with or without music. Thank you Messiaen for producing one of the most beautiful and exciting pieces ever written.

    • Wow – lucky you ICW! I’d definitely like to hear the complete work again live, as it is such an incredibly moving piece. I too wasn’t sure about the verbal commentary between movements I have to admit and would probably have preferred it was written down. Having said that, I think used between pieces it can be a very effective way of really engaging the audience and enriching the listening experience. I’ve been to a few fabulous lecture recitals, for example, which are as much talking as playing and are amazingly informative.

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