SERENE YU

Classical Pianist

How did memorisation become a standard practice for pianists?

Prior to the nineteenth century, pianists generally played from scores in their performances. As the audience constantly looked for new compositions and the idea of performing pieces multiple times was less common than today, new music was produced and performed very frequently. It was unrealistic to expect performers to memorise everything within the small amount of preparation time available.

Some aspects of music composition practices were also influential upon the development of memorisation in becoming a standard practice. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the production of music had slowed down significantly, because composers no longer wrote for deadlines given by aristocratic patrons, but more often for art’s sake and also for the publication market. Surprisingly, this reduced rate of composition did not make the practice of performing from memory common in the early nineteenth century. It was even discouraged by Chopin because he worried that pupils performing without scores would overlook important musical details. In addition, he believed that the audience’s attention would move away from the music to the performer, not giving as much attention to the composers, and also thereby distracting the musician.

Some exceptional cases of performing from memory before the nineteenth century were Handel and Mozart. Handel became completely blind in 1752, but his enthusiasm for music did not stop him from performing. He was forced to play instruments and conducted from memory. Mozart often composed at the last minute. Violin Sonatas in G Major, K. 379 and in B-Flat Major, K. 454 were both composed the night before their premieres, and Mozart did not have time to write out the piano parts that were retained in his mind, so he performed from memory while the violinists played from scores. Although Mozart played without a score, he placed a piece of blank paper in front of him so as not to distract the attention of the audience. These incidents best illustrate the situation before the nineteenth century, when as mentioned earlier new music was composed and performed very frequently which meant that performers only had very little preparation time.

A turning point occurred in 1837. Performing from memory was still considered as arrogant and pretentious, but the seventeen-year-old Clara Wieck performed Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 “Appassionata” without the score. Although this 1837 appearance was not the first memorised performance in either history or in the career of Wieck, it incited interest in the practice of performing more regularly from memory in public.

The middle class expanded in the mid-nineteenth century, so more people could afford to pay to attend performances. When these people went to concerts, they thirsted for showmanship. The virtuosi thus amazed the audience members by performing technically demanding works. The emergence of virtuosi was also due to the development of musical instruments. Composers in the nineteenth century were passionate about exploring the limits of instruments, bringing the performers to new technical and expressive territories. In order to stand out from other performers, Liszt performed more than half of the works in his concerts from memory in the 1840s. It was still a rare practice. Liszt had therefore successfully impressed the audience and was viewed as having almost super-human powers, and so he eventually popularised the tradition of memorised performance.

Performing from memory became quite common during the 1860s and 70s. At this point, complete programmes might be performed from memory. In addition to the increasing regularity of memorised performances, a change of concert repertoire types was also seen in this period of time. Instead of presenting new works to the audience, certain compositions were performed over and over again, forming a standard repertoire. With repeated performances, concertgoers became familiar with those works and so might notice errors. The rise in expectation of greater precision made memorisation a source of psychological pressure for pianists, leading to arguments for and against the practice of performing from memory.

Memorised performances flourished in the 1880s, whereby amateurs performed from memory alongside with the great virtuosi and prodigies. From then onwards, the audience would consider performers who played with scores to be non-professional as they had not fully learnt the music. These factors helped to make performing from memory become standard for pianists, and also something that was expected in their competitions, examinations, recitals, concerto appearances, and auditions.


- Bibliography -

  1. Chissell, J. (1983). Clara Schumann: A dedicated spirit: A study of her life and work. New York, NY: Taplinger Publishing.

  2. Eigeldinger, J. J. (1986). Chopin: Pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils (3rd ed.) (N. Shohet, K. Osostowicz & R. Howat, Trans.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  3. Ellis, K. (2001). The structures of musical life. In J. Samson (Ed.), The Cambridge history of nineteenth-century music (pp. 343-370). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  4. Gordon, S. (2005). Mastering the art of performance: A primer for musicians. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

  5. Hamilton, K. (2008). After the golden age: Romantic pianism and modern performance. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

  6. Irving, J. (2006). Sonatas. In C. Eisen & S. P. Keefe (Eds.), The Cambridge Mozart encyclopedia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  7. Mishra, J. (2014, November). Performing from memory: Historical roots. Paper presented at the College Music Society 56th National Conference, St. Louis, MO.

  8. Plantinga, L. (2004). The piano and the nineteenth century. In R. L. Todd (Ed.), Nineteenth-Century Piano Music (2nd ed.) (pp. 1-15). London, UK: Routledge.

  9. Rockstro, W. S. (2013). The life of George Frederick Handel with an introductory notice by George Grove. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  10. Solomon, M. (1995). Mozart: A life. London: Hutchinson.