Chris Sattlberger
Chris Sattlberger © Getty

Does playing a piece by heart make us better musicians?

No recital with the score on the music stand, or almost. If playing a piece by heart is a performance in itself, it is also a relatively recent habit. But is a musician’s ultimate achievement really to be able to reproduce the entire recital program by heart?

Picture a podium, a piano, and below, a drowsy or concentrated audience. And then, there’s you, in front of your keyboard, fingers on fire, struggling with the tricky arpeggios of Chopin’s Etudes. You more or less succeeded to control a creeping stage fright and proved resistant to the first crucial minutes, when everything is still a potential distraction. It now seems to be going well, you even seem to appreciate what you play when all of a sudden an iron curtain falls over your eyes. You lose control without even knowing why, your fingers start rebelling against your will, and there seem to be nobody in the control room anymore. You go back to the same passage, and tinker with the rest of the piece, half of which seems to have been forever erased from your memory. You're shaking from head to toe. You feel like you’re five years older. And it's not even over yet…. You have to keep calm and carry on until the end of the piece.

Welcome, you’ve just experienced your first blackout. Your worst nightmare. Like so many other musicians who are struggling with memorization, the fear of the memory gap can be paralyzing. But in the end, why are we making such a big deal out of memorization? Is ‘’playing a piece by heart’’ really synonymous with ‘’playing better’’ ?

How dare you...

A brief review of this practice’s history tells us it is not that old. We mentioned Chopin,  and this is no coincidence. In fact, the composer would certainly have been shocked had he assisted to today’s performances. And for good reason: it is said that when a student wanted to play a piece of music by heart, he got angry: "How dare you play without the score? You show so little consideration for the composer...". For Chopin and his peers, playing by heart considered as improvising. No longer referring to the score was a sign that the performer appropriated the work as if it were his own.

New times, new manners. The 19th century is the century of concert halls. Musical evenings between connoisseurs in the deemed lights of private lounges are gradually replaced by public concerts. Concert societies blossom all over Europe, and alongside the development of organology and instrumental technique, a more anonymous audience comes to witness the increasingly impressive performances of solo musicians. Virtuosity is born. Many soloists will come out of the woods, but there are only two maestros: one is a violinist - Niccolò Paganini, and the other a pianist - Franz Liszt.

In 1814, The Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, a well-known German musician, thus reports after a concert that M. Paganini, from Genoa, is generally considered in Italy as the first violinist of our time. The article goes on:

He performed a violin concerto by Kreutzer (E minor) and, finally, Variations on the G string... His playing is simply incredible. He makes traits, jumps, double strings that we have never heard from any other violinist. He plays the most difficult passages in two, three and four voices using his own unique dexterity. He mimics wind instruments, exposes the chromatic scale in the highest register, very close to the bridge, with an almost unimaginable purity. He amazes his listeners with the most difficult passages played on one string and, as if to joke, pinches a bass accompaniment on the other.

The best violinist of all time for some, incarnation of the devil for others, Niccolò Paganini not only transformed the violin technique, but was the first to change the audience's perception of the soloist. Comparable to today’s rock-stars, Paganini brings out the audience’s emotions: "Paganini's mastery cannot be explained by human forces alone: his art is not simply beautiful, it's an otherworldly wonder” as  Frederic Chopin writes. The audience doesn’t only come to listen, but also to admire the virtuosity of this soloist whose concerts now resemble a true show of bravery.

After hearing him play at the Paris Opera in 1832, Franz Liszt will write: ‘’What a man! What a violin! What an artist! What pain, what angst, what turmoil, these four strings can express!’’ Inspired by the artist as much as his flamboyant style, Liszt is determined to transpose this on his instrument. Eight years later, in London, he showcases his own new vision of a soloist concert: the pianist plays Beethoven and Schubert's works alone, for a whole evening. In order to stage his solo performance’s to the fullest, Liszt settles on his piano, giving his best profile to the audience: his hair and slender silhouette along with his massive hands, are immediately highlighted. On the posters announcing his concert at the Hanover Square Rooms one could read: ‘’Mr. Liszt will give, at Two o'clock on Tuesday morning, June, 9, recitals on the pianoforte’’. And like this, Liszt just invented the recital.

A few years earlier, in Berlin, another revolution is on march, albeit a very discreet one. An extremely gifted young pianist just played Beethoven's Sonata "Appassionata" without the score. It was Clara Schumann. Bettina von Arnim, one of Beethoven's friends, attests of Berlin critics’ exasperation faced with so much audacity: "How pretentious is it to sit at the piano and play without the score! ». Franz Liszt will only step through the door Clara Schumann has already opened: he will legitimate the very performance Clara was so strongly criticized for, only a few years earlier. In 10 weeks between 1841 and 1942, Liszt will give 21 recitals in Berlin with 80 works, 50 of which were performed off by heart.

Franz Liszt was obviously an excellent composer and improviser. He played his own works, improvised and drew on other composers’ works (including Paganini’s  Campanella). He was the first to inaugurate a program composed of different aesthetics and performed by a single soloist. His recitals were compared to the blow of a tornado. It goes without saying that he did not need the score. With Liszt, playing by heart became a sporting event, and solely musicians who could perfectly master a program and played it off by heart were considered as fully accomplished. For more than a century, the solo concert - the recital - meant mastery of a work from memory. With a few collateral victims on the side: some performers’ memory gaps became legendary, while others could not handle the pressure and completely quit playing in public, such as Glenn Gould. Or those who, after several decades of a prestigious career, decided to ignore the music critics and appeared on stage with a stand, like Sviatoslav Richter, who played with a score for his last 20 years.   

Memorizing… what for?

So is it really necessary to memorize a piece in order to perform it in the best possible way? Pianist Stephen Hough believes that the question implies two different aspects: “Forcing yourself to play by heart in concert and memorizing the work is not the same”, he says. “I play by heart in 99% of concerts, except contemporary works. It gives me a feeling of freedom. Just like with improvisation, I build the work as I go along, and I enjoy the feeling that anything can happen. But sometimes when I rely on the score to play a polyrhythmic piece, it also allows me to pay more attention to the performance’s subtleties”.

So, why play a piece by heart? There is, of course, a powerful effect on the audience: a program performed by heart leaves an impression of ultimate mastery. As for the performer, memorization allows an in-depth, analytical approach of the piece, which can feed the interpretation. On a more practical level, detachment from the score avoids the presence of a page turner who may, in extreme cases, jeopardize the entire recital, should he get lost in the score or accidentally turn several pages at once.

In contrast, some musicians also have good reasons to keep reading the score: it allows them to avoid fear of memory gaps or to save precious hours trying to integrate the score to perfection. "Sometimes I am even annoyed by the some comments from auditors’ visiting me backstage after a concert, who ask me: how did you memorize all this?” says Stephen Hough. “They don't ask how I imagined the subtleties or how I used the pedal. We have to rethink this tradition and ask ourselves the very question: under what conditions can we give the best of ourselves in a concert?" and Stephen Hough cites the example of thousands of students who can now play hours of music by heart, without having much to say about it at all. "Compared to Richter, who played with a score, their performance has no more merit than just his. Arthur Schnabel had real memory problems; he could have played better if he had conceded to play with a score. It is useful to memorize a work because it actually leads to a deeper knowledge and understanding that feeds the performance, but during the performance, it really doesn't matter if the musician reads the score or an iPad on the music stand’’.

Traditionally associated with concert performers and opera singers, in recital or opera, the practice of performing or singing by heart in public does not apply to orchestral music or chamber music. Conductors, on their side, all conduct by heart to a certain extent, given their expected overall mastery of forty orchestral traits in works that can sometimes last for hours. But fewer and fewer people choose to perform without a score, such as Philippe Jordan in Wagner's Tetralogy a few years ago. 

British conductor Nicolas Collon conducts the Aurora orchestra founded in 2005. In recent years, he has integrated works from the great repertoire (such as Mozart's 40th Symphony at the Proms in 2014) in his programmes, which the orchestra performs without score. As Nicolas Collon explains, the orchestra wishes to renew the performance of classical concerts by creating a more direct relationship with the public: « Conducting by heart can only be justified for artistic choices. By directing without a score, I put myself at the same level as the musicians and we abandon ourselves together to the depths of the interpretation from rehearsals to the performance. The work’s memorization is not a goal in itself, it is a direction we take along with the musicians. And we spend all our practice time - which means more rehearsals, of course - really working on the music."

During the twentieth century, several chamber ensembles also chose to perform concerts without a score. The American string quartet Chiara started to implement this after they recorded Brahms quartets. "We were not satisfied with the result", says violinist Rebecca Fischer. “Playing by heart allows us to be better connect with each other on stage. We are more spontaneous and freer in the interpretation. Mastering both our part and those of other musicians allows us to feel the music on a much deeper level" We must add that this choice requires a considerable amount of work on memorization and requires more rehearsal time.

This being said, major competitions, as well as the music education system in general, are still mostly attached to performance “by heart”: Concertos and the solo repertoire for instruments and voices must be played without a score. They can only be used for chamber music, sonatas with accompaniment and contemporary works; this is always one of the demands placed on the performer. Hence the sharp debate caused by the deletion of the “by heart” notion in the amateur category of one of the greatest piano competitions, Van Cliburn, a few years ago. Should a program interpreted entirely off by heart be judged as better than one performed with a score?

Stephen Hough gives us the final word here: "When the obligation to play by heart can dissuade a musician from tackling a piece he considers too complicated, it’s obviously not a good thing. Neither should it be a goal in itself. Spending full hours trying to memorize a work, while you can broaden your musical knowledge in other ways, is useless. Of course, memory at age 40 is not the same as at age 19, but this should not prevent artists from continuing to perform. Be gentle with yourself, don't kill your talent while it’s still burgeoning. But do not take shortcuts either: memorize the work as if you had to play it by heart, and on D-day, if you feel that you will be at your best by keeping the score open, don't hesitate to leave it on the music stand."

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