Printer Friendly

Playing from memory: development of a 19th-century performance practice. is the fashion just now for all our pianoforte soloists to play without notes. But the notion of concerted pieces being executed by all concerned without notes is preposterous.

--H. Sutherland Edwards (1876) (1)

In 1837, 17-year-old Clara Wieck performed Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 from memory. (2) At the time, performing without the score was viewed as arrogant and ostentatious, focusing attention on the performer and the performance, and away from the composer and the music. Romantic virtuosity would subsequently sweep through the world of music and performing from memory would inspire awe and endow the performer with almost super-human powers. By the end of the century, a pianist performing with score would become the notable exception. Wieck's 1837 performance was not the first from memory, but rather represents a seminal moment in the evolution of memorization as a performance practice. This article explores the evolution of memorization, its rise in popularity and how the practice reflects changing philosophies and attitudes in music as a whole. The practice finally stabilizes in the late 19th century, setting the stage for modern performance practice.

Memorization Pre-1830

Performing from memory would become fashionable in the mid-19th century, but there is evidence that musicians prior to the 19th century could, and sometimes did, perform from memory. Mozart's prodigious musical memory is usually documented by the famous story of when he transcribed Allegri Miserere, but there are also reports of Mozart performing from memory during his first extensive tour of Europe in 1763 through 1766. (3) In the early 19th century, other musicians performed from memory: Spohr in 1811, (4) Bohm in 1816, (5) Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn in 1818 (6) and 1821 (7) respectively, and reports of Paganini playing from memory begin as early as 1808. (8)

Performing from memory was not common or encouraged prior to the mid-19th century. In 1805, when Czerny was about 14 years old, he would frequently visit Prince Lichnowsky and play Beethoven's Sonatas, the Prince calling out an opus number and Czerny performing the sonata from memory. (9) Beethoven was not pleased. "Even if he plays correctly on the whole, he will forget in this manner the quick survey, the a vista playing [sight-reading] and, occasionally, the correct expression." (10) Memorization then was to be discouraged because it eroded sight-reading ability, but also because there was a danger that the music would not be remembered correctly.

The emphasis at this time was placed on improvisation and sight-reading; memorization was dismissed or actively discouraged. Upon hearing a young Beethoven improvise in 1790, Mozart at first dismissed him, thinking the piece memorized rather than improvised. (11) In 1792, the prodigy of Kalkbrenner's son was called into question when during an improvised performance he reportedly stopped, turned to his father and said "Papa, I have forgotten ...," (12) But attitudes were beginning to change. With the rise of the canon and focus on composers and historical compositions, the performer's job became a faithful reproduction of the score. Memorization would soon supplant improvisation as the favored method of showing virtuosity.

Evolution Of A Performance Practice: 1830-1860

Performing from memory in public began in earnest in the late 1830s and early 1840s spearheaded by Wieck, Paganini and Mendelssohn. Liszt was soon to follow, performing most of his music from memory by 1840. (13) By the mid-19th century there were scattered reports from all over Europe of musicians playing from memory. During this time, tastes and attitudes toward music were changing, reflecting the new romantic ideals. Two changes in particular were key to the evolution of memorization as a performance practice: 1) the commercialization of music and the public thirst for virtuosity, and 2) the rise of the canon.

With the rise of the middle class in the mid-19th century, music became more central to the lives of the general population. More people had access to music through the concert halls, and more people had time and money to become amateur musicians. When audiences went to the concert hall, they wanted a show. Romantic virtuosity was all about the musician as the hero. (14) The virtuoso was an individual with a larger-than-life stage presence who stood out from all other musicians. (15) Traveling virtuosos such as Paganini and Liszt amazed audiences with technical fireworks (16) and feats of improvisation, but as the competition increased, a new form of virtuosity emerged. Because the practice of performing from memory was rare, performers used it as a way to distinguish themselves. Soon, memorization would supplant improvisation as the favored method of showing virtuosity. The reason for this lies in the rise of the canon.

In the 1830s, audience tastes began to shift. Becoming fashionable were historical concerts (17) featuring works of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and other "ancient" composers. (18) While Beethoven's music never really disappeared from the repertoire, older music from the classical and baroque periods was rarely programmed in the early-19th century. Mendelssohn was particularly active in resurrecting previously forgotten music. The pieces forming the canon became sacred; great works by great composers. (19) No longer was it acceptable to freely change the works (that is, improvise around the notated music) and the practice virtually disappeared from public performance after 1840. (20) Performing from memory allowed the performer to show virtuosity in a way that was faithful to the musical work.

Improvisational skills were still admired, but in their place (cadenzas). The notes written by a great master should be played faithfully and the performer's job was to bring the composer's creativity to light, not be creative themselves. (21) In centuries when there was a desire for new music, sight-reading was a prized skill, but in an age that valued a core of technically difficult masterworks, intense study became important.

However, the practice of performing from memory was by no means immediately and universally accepted. Because of the attention it brought to the musician, performing from memory could be a distraction, focusing the audience's attention on the performer and away from the music. There are reports, especially in the early-19th century, of musicians hiding their memorized performances. For instance, in 1844, Mendelssohn arrived at the performance of his Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49 to find the piano part was missing. Mendelssohn played from memory, but asked that pages of a score be turned so the audience would not know. (22)

Pedagogues would continue to discourage memorization for another half century. Hummel and even Frederick Wieck (father of Clara) discouraged the practice in their pedagogical publications. Mendelssohn, whose memory was prolific, insisted his students perform from notation (23) and Chopin was angry when one of his students intended to play the Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2 from memory and did not bring the score. "I don't want any of this: are you reciting a lesson? I want to teach you precisely or not at all." (24) The fear was that students performing from memory would be inattentive to the details of the piece. In other words, have memory lapses. Avoiding these lapses would become a major source of concern as the practice became more common.

Solidifying Practice: 1860-1880

During the 1860s and 1870s, performing from memory was becoming more common but still notable and astonishing, especially when young children performed from memory. The canon was solidifying, (25) and there was now a repertoire that all educated performers studied and repeatedly performed (notably, Beethoven). For the performer, it was now worth the investment of time needed to learn pieces by heart. With the repeated performances, audiences also became very familiar with the great masterworks. The danger was that the performer would have a lapse of memory, and the audience would know. Performing from memory then was the musical equivalent of walking a tight rope: "There are dangers, hairbreadth escapes, in sliding over such thin ice." (26) Even Anton Rubinstein and Von Billow (a student of Liszt's), who were instrumental in popularizing the practice and performed all of their music from memory, were not immune from memory lapses. (27)

Performing from memory thrilled audiences, but critics were not yet universally accepting of the practice.
   This practice, introduced by
   modern piano virtuosos, such as
   Bulow, of trusting wholly to their
   memory in playing long and difficult
   Concertos with an orchestra.
   It may give the solo player greater
   freedom as well as greater prominence;
   but in the latter view it
   looks like affectation; for, after
   all, in such a case the piano is
   but one part among many, and
   there would be equal reason why
   each and every instrument in the
   orchestra should play without
   notes.... If one is to play without
   notes, why not all? And the Conductor,
   why should he have any
   score before him? (28)

This reviewer writing in 1869 criticized performers who played from memory in much the same way Clara Wieck was criticized in 1837 and for the same reason: performing from memory drew undue attention to the performer and away from the music. "Acts of daring belong to the circus, and not the domain of art." (29) If the performer did falter, the music and the performance suffered.

The argument against performing from memory then was the accompanying memory lapses that altered the music. The argument for was that the practice resulted in a more expressive performance. "The musician who plays from memory is as the bird that flies unfettered; the musician, however, who is tied to his notes, is as the bird that is tied to a string." (30) But, it wouldn't be long before attitudes would shift and the conversation became less about whether to perform from memory and more about how to perform from memory.

Memorization Pedagogy: 1880-1900

In the 1880s, the practice of performing from memory exploded. No longer were only great virtuosos and prodigies performing from memory, but seemingly all performers including amateurs embraced the practice. The shift in attitudes is apparent in reviews that now noted when a performer used a score. (31) However, the deterrents continued to refer to the practice as a craze, (32) fad (33) or fashion: "It has only become a matter of fashion, bravura and report on the side of the artist, and the public has so accustomed itself to it, little by little, that it now almost feels entitled to demand it." (34)

As performing from memory became expected, there were more reports of memory lapses. In later performances, Clara Schumann began using scores (35) and Anton Rubinstein described anxiety over his memory:
   I have been conscious of a growing
   weakness.... The public has
   always been accustomed to see
   me play without notes, for I have
   never used them; and I will not
   allow myself to rely upon my own
   resources to supply the place of
   some forgotten passage, because
   I know that there will always be
   many among my audiences who,
   being familiar with the piece I am
   performing, will readily detect any
   alteration. This sense of uncertainty
   has often inflicted upon me
   torture only to be compared with
   those of the Inquisition, while the
   public listening to me imagine
   that I am perfectly calm. (36)

The musicians handled memory lapses in a number of different ways. Some improvised until the memory returned, others paused to collect their thoughts or began again from the beginning; some left the stage to consult a score or even bring the score onto the stage. Pachmann's memory lapses were legendary as were the humorous ways in which he handled them. (37)

The piano and violin were the primary virtuosic instruments of the 19th century, and the practice of performing from memory remains most firmly rooted in these traditions, but conducting from memory also became fashionable at this time popularized by Von Bulow in the 1870s and 1880s. But conducting from memory remained controversial long after performing from memory on piano and violin was commonplace. Von Bulow would continue performing and conducting all performances from memory and even experimented with a notation-less orchestra at Meiningen, (38) but ensembles performing from memory would remain a rare exception.

As the turn of the century approached, the primary question became how to memorize, shifting the conversation away from the critics and towards the pedagogues. The general feeling was children can, and should, learn to play pieces from memory. Leschetizky, (39) a student of Liszt (who was in turn a student of Czerny), may have been the first to develop a system for teaching memorization. Many of his strategies are still in use today. Leschetizky promoted a slow, concentrated mental memorization process--learning one bar or phrase at a time carefully before adding another. "Any one with the power of concentration can learn to play by heart--no matter how intricate a composition may be." (40) During this time, dozens of articles and books written by performers, pedagogues and psychologists on the best way of memorizing music emerged. One of the earliest step-by-step memorization guides was published in 1886, probably written by W. S. B. Mathews. (41) The process consisted of chunking the piece into phrases and memorizing left and right hands separately at the piano. The most comprehensive method was included in Frederick Shinn's 1898 book Musical memory and its Cultivation, (42) The book contains chapters on four types of memory: musical (by which he means aural), visual, muscular and intellectual. For more than a century, these four types of musical memory would structure the way musicians think about their own musical memory.

Practice Stabilizes: 20th Century

By the 20th century, the practice of performing solo works from memory was entrenched, especially for violin, cello and piano. Organists continued to debate the issue, (43) but the general feeling was that the music was not fully learned and could not be fully interpreted until the piece was memorized. (44) Allen Spencer summed up the opinion of the time:
   Only those pianists whose musicianship
   is broad enough to study
   their programs in every detail
   are worth hearing, and it follows
   without question that such will
   always play from memory. Any
   departure from this standard can
   result only in an increase of inferior
   and mentally incapable pianists
   and a lowering of the public performance
   of our great heritage of
   master-works to a degree of emotionalism
   and insecurity wholly
   deplorable. (45)

While solo music should be memorized, the consensus emerging was that chamber and orchestral music should be read. (46) The "etiquette" of performing from memory was detailed in a 1917 article. Orchestral and chamber music performed with score, sonatas with score (though violin part might be memorized), accompaniment uses score, solo playing without score unless part of orchestral solo. (47) At this time, there was not yet the discussion of whether to use notation for modern 20th-century compositions.

A great deal continued to be published on how to memorize music. Much of the advice came from interviews with professional musicians, (48) but psychologists were also writing on the topic. (49) Advice echoed 19th-century themes and revolved around segmenting the music and memorizing in different ways, that is aurally, visually, kinesthetically and by analyzing the details of the music (see Bibliography). The practice of performing from memory was rooted in the 19th-century canon and continues to be; performing music from the 20th and 21st century with notes is generally acceptable.


The practice of performing from memory was not endorsed at a time when sight-reading and improvisation skills were prized. During the 19th century, the canon solidified and memorization replaced improvisation as the primary way to show virtuosity. Audiences could be amazed at the performer's ability and still hear their favorite composers. By the mid-19th century, many virtuosos performed from memory and by the 1880s most amateurs had embraced the practice. By the turn of the century, the practice stabilized and pedagogues and psychologists had taken over the discussion, debating the best ways of memorizing music. The conventions in place in the early-20th century remain current performance practice.


(1.) H. Sutherland Edwards, "The Literary Maltreatment of Music," Macmillan's Magazine 33 (April, 1876): 558.

(2.) Joan Chissell, Clara Schumann: A Dedicated Spirit, (New York: Taplinger Publishing, 1983), 46-47.

(3.) Otto Erich Deutsch, Mozart, A Documentary Biography (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), 30 & 41.

(4.) Louis Spohr, Autobiography (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, Green, 1865), 155.

(5.) Eduard Hanslick, Geschichte des Concertwesens in Wien, Volume 1 (Wien: Braumiiller, 1869), 231.

(6.) R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 36.

(7.) Clive Brown, A Portrait of Mendelssohn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 78.

(8.) Stephen Samuel Stratton, Nicolo Paganini: His Life and Work (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971), 22.

(9.) Peter Clive, Beethoven and His World: A Biographical Dictionary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 81.

(10.) Alexander Wheelock Thayer, The Life of Ludwig Van Beethoven, Volume 1 (New York: The Beethoven Association, 1921), 315-16.

(11.) "Biography: Beethoven," The Musical Magazine 45 (September 1840): 292.

(12.) Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963), 111.

(13.) Alan Walker, Franz Liszt, Volume 2 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), 285-286.

(14.) John Irving, "The Invention of Tradition." in The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music, ed. Jim Samson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 193.

(15.) Jim Samson, Virtuosity and the Musical Work: The Transcendental Studies of Liszt (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 76.

(16.) John Rink, "The Profession of Music," in The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music, ed. Jim Samson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 67.

(17.) Colin Lawson, The Historical Performance of Music: An Introduction (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 4.

(18.) Rink, 65.

(19.) Katharine Ellis "The Structures of Musical Life" in The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music, ed. Jim Samson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 347-9.

(20.) Rink, 68.

(21.) Rink, 65.

(22.) Todd, 473.

(23.) Brown, 289.

(24.) Jean-Jacques Eigeldinge, ed., Chopin: Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by his Pupils (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

(25.) Ellis, 347-9.

(26.) "Concert Record," Dwight's Journal of Music 29 (March 1869): 6.

(27.) John Francis Barnett, Musical Reminiscences and Impressions (London: Hodder, 1906), 142.

(28.) "Concert Record," Dwight's Journal of Music 29 (March 1869): 6.

(29.) Ferdinand Hiller, "Conducting from Memory: A Score!," Dwight's Journal of Music 32 no. 11 (August 1872): 329.

(30.) Karl Merz, Music and Culture: Comprising a Number of Lectures and Essays (Philadelphia: T. Presser, 1890), 154.

(31.) Alfred Veit, "Pianists and Pianism," Music: A Monthly Magazine (November 1893): 19.

(32.) "Royal College of Music," The Monthly Musical Record 19 no. 225 (September 1889): 208-209.

(33.) Veit, 19.

(34.) "The Theory of Phrasing, Memorizing, and Interpretation," The Etude 4 no. 1 (1886): 202-3.

(35.) Schonberg, 238.

(36.) Anton Rubinstein, Autobiography (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1902), 17-18.

(37.) Mark Mitchell, Vladimir De Pachmann: A Piano Virtuoso's Life and Art (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 132-133.

(38.) Raymond Holden, The Virtuoso Conductors: The Central European Tradition from Wagner to Karajan (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 26 & 29; "Foreign notes: Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen in Berlin. Bulow conducts from memory," The Musical Times 22 (April 1881): 201-03.

(39.) Malwine Bree, Seymour Bernstein, Arthur Elson, The Leschetizky Method (New York: G. Schirmer, 1902), 57-58.

(40.) Annette Hullah, Theodor Leschetizky (London: J. Lane, 1906), 44.

(41.) "The Theory of Phrasing, Memorizing, and Interpretation," The Etude 4 no. 1 (1886): 202-3.

(42.) Frederick G. Shinn, Musical Memory and its Cultivation (London: Aucener, 1898).

(43.) H. C. Macdougall, "Playing without Notes," The Etude 24, no. 11 (November 1906): 734.

(44.) W. S. B. Mathews, "Memorizing and Competent Musical Interpretation," Music: A Monthly Magazine. 12, no. 134 (January 1905): 35-41; Edwin Hughes, "Musical Memory In Piano Playing And Piano Study," The Musical Quarterly 1 (1915): 592-603.

(45.) "Should Recital Music be Memorized?," The Etude 25, no. 10 (October 1907): 642-643.

(46.) Ibid.

(47.) Robert Braine, "Playing from Memory," Etude 35 (January 1917): 58

(48.) James Francis Cooke, Great Pianists on piano Playing (Philadelphia: T. Presser, 1913); Harriette Moore Brower, Piano Mastery: Talks with Master Pianists and Teachers (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1915).

(49.) J. Leonard Corning, "The Musical Memory and its Derangements (Amusia)" Medical Record 81, no. 2 (January 1912): 51-63.

Selected Bibliography

Atkinson, William Walker, "How to Remember Music," Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use it (1912).

Cooke, James Francis, How to Memorize Music (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser, 1948).

Fuller, Henry H., "Music," The Art of Memory: Being a Comprehensive and Practical System of Memory Culture (St. Paul, MN: National Publishing Co., 1898).

Geehl, Henry, Playing from Memory (London: J. H. Larway, 1938).

Goodrich, A. J., Guide to Memorizing Music (Cincinnati, OH: John Church Company, 1906).

Holbrook, Martin Luther, "Culture Of The Musical Memory" in How to Strengthen the Memory: Natural and Scientific Methods of Never Forgetting (New York: M. L. Holbrook, 1886).

Kenyon, C. Fred, How To Memorize Music With Numerous Musical Examples (London: William Reeves, 1904).

Matthay, Tobias, On memorizing and playing from memory and on the laws of practice generally (London: Oxford University Press, 1926).

Merz, Karl, "Memory," in Music and Culture: Comprising a Number of Lectures and Essays (Philadelphia, T. Presser, 1890).

Shinn, Frederick G., Musical Memory and its Cultivation (London: Acener, 1898).

Singer, Joseph, "On Memorizing Music," in Eye and Ear Memory (Harrisburg, PA: J. P. Downs, 1891).

White, Wilbert Webster, "Application to Memorizing Poetry, and Music" in The Natural Method of Memorizing and Memory Training Based on the Four Laws ... (New Haven, CT: 1888-9).

Jennifer Mishra is an associate professor of music education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She holds a bachelor of music education degree from the University of Northern Colorado and master's and PhD degrees In music education from Kent State University.
COPYRIGHT 2016 Music Teachers National Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2016 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Mishra, Jennifer
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2016
Previous Article:What relaxation means for musicians.
Next Article:Creating community: in the studio for college music majors.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |