February 3, 2015
I have never studied or performed Bach’s Sonata in C Minor for Violin and Keyboard, but I thought it would make a lovely opening number for a planned recital this spring. So in the next few days, I began by reading the first movement through, making some preliminary phrasing decisions and then figuring out possible fingerings and bowings. A week or so later, I found myself in a hotel room with time on my hands to practice the Bach, but unfortunately I’d left the music at home. Why not start the movement and see how far you get, I told myself. To my surprise, I managed to play the whole thing through with hardly a mistake. I had somehow committed the movement to memory without even trying.
How did this happen?
I have no idea, at least not in a scientific sense. Certainly, I don’t claim to have anything but an average capacity to memorize music, but happen it does, intentionally or not, for me and for most other musicians.
Students are usually required to memorize works assigned by their teachers, and I was no different. At age seven or eight, at a student recital, I performed by memory two melodies, one from Brahms’s First Symphony and one from the Beethoven Violin Concerto. My teacher must have insisted that I memorize them but I don’t remember doing it. Perhaps memorization took place with the very same brain functions that allowed me to memorize the Bach movement some seventy years later.
Simple melodies gradually gave way to longer, more technically demanding works, and finally to the standard concerto repertoire. As a young teenager, I learned and performed concertos by Mendelssohn, Wieniawski, and Bruch—everything memorized but almost all done on some sort of autopilot—with me blissfully unaware of how it was happening.
There must be many mechanisms contributing to this mysterious procedure called memory—each valuable and each serving like redundant systems in an airplane as a backup when others fail. Aural memory seems the most obvious one. Isn’t that why every one of us can sing “Happy Birthday to You” at Suzy’s birthday party without the music in hand? I never consciously memorized it. Did you? Not only that. Most of us have dozens if not hundreds of songs and melodies stored in our brains and committed to memory without being aware of it: “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Hey Jude.” And in my case, Mendelssohn, Wieniawski, and Bruch concertos as well.
But if the ear is important for memory, so are the hands and fingers. The other day, I began the Gigue of Bach’s D Minor Partita with the best of musical intentions, but, alas, my mind began to wander to subjects completely unrelated as I played. Several minutes later, I arrived at the movement’s end having executed all of Bach’s notes in the right order, the right pitch, and the right rhythm while thinking of such things as the emails I had failed to write and the dry cleaning I would have to pick up later in the day. My fingers had remembered the Gigue all by themselves.
And as long as we’re talking body parts, let’s add the eyes. A few rare individuals have so-called photographic memory. A musician so endowed will read a page of music and immediately be able to store the image in his or her brain for future use. I once heard the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich accompany his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, on the piano in a lieder recital. He played everything, in a program lasting well over an hour, without music. Rostropovich was said to have had that vaunted photographic memory.
I must possess the poor man’s version of this gift, for although I cannot read notes off the back of my brain, I often can vaguely visualize at least which music is on which page. For example, the first page of my Mendelssohn Concerto music ends with an octave passage, the second theme extends from the middle of the second page into the third, and so on.
Fiddling away with only the aid of ear, hand, and a little eye memory got me to my early teenage years, but at some point, I became aware that music, just like the car my parents drove, the house we lived in, the books I read, and most everything else in life, has a structure to it. I noticed that there was a distinct form to, say, the first movement of Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto I was studying. It had an introduction, an exposition with two separate themes, a development section, a recapitulation with the second of the two themes in a different key, a cadenza, and an ending coda. This, of course, is Music 101 for any aspiring musician, but it’s a valuable tool for memorization as well.
The path to a successful performance of that Mozart Concerto—and also to a memorized one—lies not only in infiltrating Mozart’s heart and mind, but also in understanding his music’s structure.
Structure became even more crucial when I performed by memory more complex concertos such as those by Stravinsky and Bartok. In trying to understand those works, I often felt like an architect studying the blueprint of a great cathedral. The questions seemed almost interchangeable for both musician and architect. Whether rooms in a building or movements in a work of music, how were their central sections shaped, what was the organization of their many parts and relationship to one another? What role did the smaller details play and what overall effect was to be achieved? Unbeknownst to me until recently, imagery such as the rooms of a building and the objects in them has often been used as a mnemonic device to memorize an astonishing amount of material in memory contests.
If memorizing complex solo repertoire can be daunting, just imagine what it must be like for a string quartet. The Kolisch Quartet, one of the distinguished string quartets of the first half of the twentieth century, played everything by memory including the most challenging modern works. This was not a circus stunt. Rudolf Kolisch, the quartet’s founder, firmly believed that a work was only truly learned when committed to memory, and as a fringe benefit, the quartet would be able to respond to one another using eye contact without the interference of music stands. Felix Kuhner, the Kolisch Quartet’s second violinist, was once asked how he could memorize such thorny works as Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, premiered and often performed by the quartet. Kuhner answered, “I played the part I didn’t hear,” implying that he had memorized not just his but all four parts of the Lyric Suite.
Some find memorizing easy, others find it hard, but feats of memory are too commonplace to talk about. Forgetting is the juicier gossip.
The pianist Arthur Schnabel is said to have once walked out on the stage of Carnegie Hall, bowed, sat down at the piano, and then found himself unable to remember the very first notes of his piano recital. As he adjusted his piano seat, a solution to the problem suddenly presented itself. Schnabel stood up abruptly, complained angrily about the seat’s mechanism, stormed off the stage, and while the stagehands rushed about trying to correct the problem, Schnabel quietly stole a look at those first notes in his dressing room.
Jascha Heifetz’s blunder was more noticeable, however. “Heifetz Forgets” was front-page news in Dallas, Texas, when the Sibelius Violin Concerto Heifetz was performing suddenly came to a halt. Heifetz inexplicably had a memory lapse in a work he had performed innumerable times. The great violinist was forced to look at the conductor’s score before he could continue.
So far, I have involved the ear, the hand, the eye, and the brain in this suspiciously unscientific analysis of memory, but in my opinion there is yet another essential body part missing: the heart.
Did I play the Bartok Second Violin Concerto by memory? Or, as we say in the English language, did I play it by heart? And if I played it by heart, might that not also infer that I played it with heart?
That would be the best reason and the best place I can think of to store Bartok’s Violin Concerto and every other piece of music in my memory forever.
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