Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Against playing solo classical music from memory

We are celebrating Liszt's 200th birthday this year [2011] and, amongst many other innovations, we have him to thank for the invention of the piano recital – the evening-long stretch when one person sits at that large box of strings and hammers in profile to a concentrated, silent audience. ...

But we also have Liszt to thank for the unwritten but firmly-held rule that the pianist must play that recital without any score in front of him or her. Chopin would not have approved; he chastised a pupil once for playing a piece from memory, accusing him of arrogance. In the days when every pianist was also a composer, to play without a score would usually have meant that you were improvising. To play a Chopin ballade from memory might have seemed as if you were trying to pass off that masterpiece as your own. No wonder Chopin went on the attack. But from the late-19th century onwards, as non-composing pianists gradually became the norm, to use a score implied that you didn't know the piece properly and began to suggest a lack of professionalism. ...

The title of this blog post ["Liszt: the man who invented stage fright"] is, of course, deliberately provocative; there are many issues involved in nervousness in front of an audience, not just memory. But if you get a performer talking in a rare moment of complete honesty one of the principal reasons you will hear over and over again for stage fright is the fear of forgetting. The terror of suddenly not knowing where you are, an obvious wrong entry, that blackout, the orchestra and you in a train wreck of harmonic collision and confusion. It is one of the reasons some pianists start to conduct; it is one of the reasons others choose to focus on chamber music or accompaniment, when the use of a score is acceptable; it is one of the reasons still others go into early retirement and start to teach; it is one of the reasons some artists play the same repertoire season after season; and I often wonder whether Glenn Gould's premature move away from the concert stage to the recording studio had something to do with a gradually failing memory. Ironically it may have been one of the reasons Liszt himself retired from active concert life. ...

I think all pianists need to learn how to memorize and to play from memory. ... But I do think there comes a point (and not just extreme old-age) when we should feel free to play with a score without censure or comment. The only guideline should be the quality of the interpretation.
--Stephen Hough, The Telegraph, on the case for using the score