Memorize or Not, that is the Question

The American Double strives to memorize their music whenever possible. Given the widely-held convention that one is supposed to use the score when playing a sonata, this practice sometimes raises eyebrows. Is it just an attention-getting ploy? Ellen Highstein addresses this when she says “There is widespread feeling that a sonata, played by an instrumentalist with piano, should not be memorized, citing either ‘tradition’ or a desire to not make the pianist look bad as reasons. In our opinion (and we realize that this is a minority few), this is silly…the less there is to come between performer and listener, the better. The performer’s eyes fixed on the music, and even the presence of a music stand, can quite effectively create a barrier to communication.”1

The tradition of memorization has its roots in the nineteenth century. Even then there were critics of memorized performance; when Clara Schumann first performed without the score, critical reception was mixed, at best. Aaron Williamon, in his article Memorizing music states that “memorized performances were considered to be in bad taste and ostentatious even towards the end of the nineteenth century.”2  Seymour Bernstein states that “As late as 1870, Dr. Hans von Bülow, whose feats of memory were legendary, found the London critics to be as resistant as ever to performances from memory….it was his memory and not his musicality that seemed to make the greatest impression [on the audience] the critics complained.”3

Williamson cites empirical evidence drawn from a study that tested how audiences reacted to a performer playing with or without the music.4 His findings showed that the audience prefers a performance that is memorized.  So why do not more performers memorize their chamber music repertoire? One reason is tradition mentioned by Highstein. However, another reason is that the fear of memory slips can actually impede one’s musical freedom. Finally, it curious that concertos are commonly memorized, even though they are more technically demanding than sonatas. One explanation for this is that when one learns a concerto, s/he must spend an inordinate amount of time learning it, consequently, memory is achieved in the process. However, in less technically demanding works, such as sonatas, this is less of an issue, and so they are less often memorized and perhaps more importantly, less well prepared.

We feel that memorization should be used to deepen one’s understanding and emotional rather than a simple by-product of the learning process. We feel our audiences deserve a well prepared and musically compelling performance. Memorizing simply helps us to achieve this goal.

  1. Highstein, Ellen. Making Music in the Looking Glass Land: A Guide to Survival and Business Skills for the Classical Musician, 4th ed.  New York: Concert Artists Guild, 2003, p. 86.
  2. Williamon, Aaron. “Memorizing music” in Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding, ed. John Rink.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002; p. 113.
  3. Bernstein, Seymour.  With Your Own Two Hands: Self-Discovery through Music.  New York: Schirmer Books, 1981, p. 220.
  4. Williamon (2002), p. 117.
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