Memorization

Music on the brain.

Music on the brain.

After that last post about getting discombobulated over the page turns in Bach’s Great Eighteen Chorales, some people suggested that I just memorize the music. Dear People, do you know that it is going to take two concerts to play all of this music?  That is because I think it would just be too much to be heard in one evening, and just giving one Bach all-memorized recital would take a heap of work and preparation. Giving two would be insane (at least on my schedule!) And we are talking about 97 pages of 16th notes?!

Yes, I know that a number of organists have played the complete organ works of Bach from memory — among them Marcel Dupré, Helmut Walcha, Arthur Poister and most recently, Paul Jacobs. There may be others — but all of these good people were (are) in a different league.

When I was in graduate school, of course I had to give a memorized master’s recital — but then all I was doing back then was practicing four hours a day, going to class and writing papers. I didn’t have any other responsibilities. And the music for that recital wasn’t all-Bach, some of the most highly complex and contrapuntal writing.

When my son was a toddler, I gave an all-Bach memorized recital but also gave up eight months of my life to get up at 4 am to go practice before going to work, and then went back to the organ at the end of the day for more practice. My husband was responsible for getting the baby to the sitter every day, picking him up after work, and feeding him dinner. I got home late, and dinner was on the table.

Brain Areas Involved in Music and Memorization

Brain Areas Involved in Music and Memorization

Recently the New York Times published an article called “Playing by heart, with or without the score” and the author wrote: “Over the years I have observed that the rigid protocol in classical music whereby solo performers, especially pianists, are expected to play from memory seems finally, thank goodness, to be loosening its hold. What matters, or should matter, is the quality of the music making, not the means by which an artist renders a fine performance.” The reviewer specifically referred to pianist Emmanuel Ax using the score and wrote “beginning the program with the pensive Bach work was a musical gesture, not a time to showcase memorization. For me there was something touching about seeing a great pianist play a Bach prelude and fugue using the score. Every wondrous element of this complex music is right on the page. It looks almost as beautiful as it sounds.”

And then we get to the real reason for me playing these pieces for the Honolulu community anyway: to share this incredibly beautiful music and to take you all on a spiritual journey through the music of Bach.

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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5 Responses to Memorization

  1. Jennifer Cotnoir says:

    I stumbled on your blog and found it quite interesting. My grandfather, Winslow Cheney, was one of those organists to memorize Bach’s works. He was a student of Marcel Dupre. If you do a google search you will find an article in The New Yorker from the 1930’s…..just thought you might find this interesting.

    Thank You!!!!

    • Thank you for writing. You may be interested in my latest post about Marcel Dupré’s birthday: http://insanity.blogs.lchwelcome.org/2013/05/03/happy-birthday-marcel-dupre/ where I quoted your message. Also if you do a Search on this blog (top right), you can find all my posts about Marcel Dupré, with whom I studied many years ago.

      • Jennifer Cotnoir says:

        Thank you so much. I just found your blog again. I can’t wait to share it with my mother (Winslow Cheney’s) daughter. Had you ever heard of him by any chance? Wish I could hear you play….do you ever make it to the Washington, D.C. Area???

        • Sorry, I had not heard of Winslow Cheney before this, but I did find the New Yorker article about him and found it fascinating. Although I have a sister who lives in Fairfax, VA, I don’t think we are going to the D.C. area in the near future. We will be in Boston at the Early Music Festival in June.

  2. What a happy coincidence! I recently stumbled upon a You Tube recoding of Richter playing a Haydn Sonata with the music score … and … a page-turner. I was scandalized. And curious. So began to check to see if other performers were also abandoning the rigid protocol requiring memorization. And found your article.

    It is heartening to see that today a performer need not feel obligated to perform everything from memory. As you note, Bach is particularly difficult to commit to memory. There is even some speculation that Glenn Gould was feeling the pressures of memorizing for concert performances when he abruptly shifted gears and began to concentrate on recording. I remember he was one of the first pianist to openly splice and edit, claiming that a recording by nature demanded a perfection which a live performance could not guarantee.

    How I wish this shift had occurred many years ago. I suffered a humiliating public memory slip and although I graduated from Juilliard, never played in public again. Now as I play from scores at home, I see what I lost. And what might have been.

    Articles such as yours might give encouragement to a younger pianist and show a saner approach to performances. Thanks so much.

    ( Another coincidence. I also live in Hawaii )

    Nikki Ty

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