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On Memorizing

Walfrid Kujala | February 2015

    Why should we memorize? It had never occurred to me to ask such a question when I began studying the flute seriously. I just took it for granted that memorizing one’s solo repertoire was the right thing to do and was also an important mark of professionalism. I loved to memorize. I even memorized my high school marching band music – as I also did later in the 86th Infantry Division Band during my World War II service in the U.S., Germany and the Philippines – mainly because I hated those clumsy, bobbing music lyres.
    By the time I entered college, I had already built up a reasonably solid, memorized repertoire of Chaminade, Enesco, Gaubert, Griffes, Kennan, Ganne, Saint-Saëns, Caplet, Poldini, Telemann and Handel. Then, at Eastman I added Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Dutilleux, Piston, Varèse, Hindemith, Hanson, Faure, Martin, Reinecke, Hüe, Schubert and Ibert (the Prokofiev sonata hadn’t yet been published).
    After graduation I was fortunate enough to win the second flute/piccolo position in the Rochester Philharmonic, and two years later got to play the Bach 4th Brandenburg Concerto (but not by memory), collaborating with my esteemed teacher Joseph Mariano, concertmaster Millard Taylor and conductor Erich Leinsdorf.
    My first solo appearance with the Chicago Symphony was in 1959, when I performed the Vivaldi A Minor Piccolo Concerto by memory under music director Fritz Reiner. By this time I had picked up several good strategies not only for memory reinforcement but more importantly, for coping with possible memory slips.
    Devising strategically placed flagging spots in the score to land on in case of a memory lapse was an indispensable part of that strategy. Basically, I practiced the last four bars of the movement by memory, then from the last eight bars, then from the last sixteen bars, and so on. Next I practiced “pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey” style, starting anywhere in the movement randomly.
    My flagging system actually came in very handy when I accidentally omitted one arpeggio in the first movement during my performance of the Vivaldi. It happened near the end of a very long passage of arpeggiated 16th note triplets, and luckily I landed unscathed on the next flagging spot that was just one beat away. I had probably left out no more than five 16th notes and one heartbeat.    
    After the concert I went to Reiner’s dressing room to apologize for my stumble, but before I even had a chance to finish my apology, he smiled (a rarity for Reiner), quickly complimented me on my performance, and reassured me that my lapse was of no consequence. That was a great relief! He then sat me down and in a blithe mood told me about concerts he had conducted where some famous soloists suffered memory slips serious enough to necessitate starting over. He added that of course no one is completely immune to memory lapses, for even great artists like Jascha Heifetz, Artur Rubinstein, Nathan Milstein and Rudolf Serkin had experienced them (usually in Bach performances).
    Reiner, himself, conducted most of the standard symphonic repertoire by memory, but did use a score when conducting concertos and newer works. Virtually all the major conductors of that era conducted by memory, being greatly influenced by the renowned Arturo Toscanini, who in so many ways set the standards for all conductors, including for memorization. Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Stokowski, Erich Leinsdorf, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Reiner, Serge Koussevitzky, William Steinberg, Josef Krips, Bruno Walter and Dimitri Mitropoulis were among the most notable memorizers.
    Mitropoulis was especially notable. When he guest conducted the Rochester Philharmonic in 1952, the major work on our program was the Liszt Faust Symphony. He not only conducted the concert performance by memory, but even more impressively, the rehearsals as well. At any stopping point, after making comments and corrections, he would quickly identify our restarting spot, e.g. “12 bars before letter F,” without referring to the score! (Check out his rehearsal of the same work with the New York Philharmonic on YouTube – John Wummer, principal flute and Ben Gaskins, piccolo.) 
    Leinsdorf also had a prodigious memory, no doubt influenced and strengthened by his close association with Toscanini, with whom he worked as an assistant at the Salzburg Festival during 1934-37. In addition to the standard orchestral repertoire, Leinsdorf conducted all concertos and new works by memory. I never knew him to make an error.
    After Leinsdorf left the Rochester Philharmonic in 1957, he led the newly established New York City Opera and then returned to the Metropolitan Opera where had made his original American debut in 1937. In 1962 he became music director of the Boston Symphony, conducting many stellar recordings with that illustrious orchestra. He resigned his BSO post in 1969 and for the rest of his career devoted himself exclusively to guest conducting, making annual appearances with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philhar-monic, Philadelphia Orchestra and several European orchestras.
    In the first of his annual guest appearances with the Chicago Symphony in 1969 it was interesting to note the changes in his conducting style since I had last played under him in Rochester. He had thrown away his baton, and he was no longer conducting from memory! In several conversations I had with him he emphasized the importance of expanding his repertoire, not only into new works but also lesser known but significant works of the master composers of the past and present. That meant that the time saved in not memorizing scores would give him more opportunity to expand his non-standard repertoire. This resulted in very fascinating program designs that juxtaposed familiar and non-familiar works. The CSO and its audiences always looked forward to Leinsdorf’s unique programming brand.
    Nineteen sixty-nine was also the year when the highly-revered conductor Sir Georg Solti became music director of the CSO, and he was the first major conductor who had the audacity to conduct everything with the score – even the national anthem. It was almost as if the so-called Toscanini curse was at last broken. Solti not only conducted from the score but also marked his music profusely, using various colored pencils. To look at any of his scores was almost like visiting an art gallery.
    These markings were not just cues and balance adjustments, however. Most of them were related to Solti’s analysis of the score. His knowledge of the score was a very deep and perceptive one, and he was always searching for new insights. In fact, I remember several occasions when we were about to revisit a Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert or Shostakovich symphony. At the first rehearsal he would proudly announce that he had discarded his old, marked-up score, obtained a new one, and looked forward to taking a fresh approach to the work at hand. The implication was that if one memorizes a score, there is always a risk of becoming locked into a single, hidebound interpretation.
    Sir Georg’s successor, Daniel Barenboim, took over the CSO in 1991, and he was just the opposite of Solti in the memory department. I could easily have voted for Barenboim as the world’s champion memorizer, and I’m sure Toscanini would have agreed. Except for premieres of new compositions, Barenboim conducted everything from memory. He also sported an enormous memory bank of piano works. He not only knew all the Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Grieg, Schumann, Bartók, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky piano concertos, but most of their sonatas, concert pieces and many of their chamber works. Fortunately, Barenboim’s phenomenal memory doesn’t seem to interfere with his knack for interpretive flexibility.
    What about orchestras – do they ever memorize? Actually, yes. Alan Walker’s terrific biography, Hans von Bülow, A Life and Times gives a detailed account of that famous conductor’s years in the 1880s as music director of the Meiningen Court Orchestra in Germany, during which time he had his musicians play by memory all nine Beethoven symphonies plus many other works, often in standing position. Of course Bülow himself had a fabulous memory, both as a conductor and pianist. He had studied piano with Franz Liszt, who incidentally was the pioneer of memorized recitals, which in those days were sometimes as long as three hours (he was facetiously referred to as “Liszt: The Inventor of Stage Fright”). Bülow hired the young Richard Strauss as his assistant conductor, mentored Johannes Brahms, whose 4th Symphony was premiered by the Meiningen Orchestra in 1885, and worked closely with Richard Wagner, whose Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger were premiered in Munich with Bülow conducting. He also championed the music of Berlioz and Tchaikovsky. Bülow in fact played the premiere of the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto in Boston in 1875. His musical influence in Europe and the U.S. was all-encompassing. 
    Most big-name soloists perform from memory, but there are some notable exceptions. One of those notables is the violinist Gidon Kremer. (He also often conducts his concerto accompaniments.) Pianists who play from the score include Olli Mustonen, Gilbert Kalish, Alexandre Tharaud, Peter Serkin (sometimes), Martha Argerich (sometimes), and Stephen Hough (most of the time). Flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal always played his recitals with the score. However, Rampal always gave the impression that he was playing from memory because his music stand was situated quite low, like a discreet teleprompter. He certainly did his Mozart concertos and some other standards by memory, but everything else was always with the score. As a result, he amassed an incredibly large repertoire. His discography lists 773 albums, probably the largest repertoire of any solo artist, past or present. All of his recordings are listed in Jean-Pierre Rampal: A Half-Century of Recordings compiled by Denis Verroust and published by La Flûte Traversière, Salvatore Faulisi, Paris.
    Now back to my original question – why memorize? I firmly believe that my earlier experiences in memorization laid an important foundation for my growth as a musician. Neverthe-less, my overall philosophy did shift over the years. I was especially influenced by Leinsdorf’s history (I had always considered him as a mentor), and of course the Rampal and Solti examples. Thus when I started out as a young flute professor at Northwestern University in 1962, I began to realize the importance of developing a greatly expanded teaching repertoire as well as a larger recital and chamber music resource. For an average memorizer like me, however, such a goal could only be accomplished by cutting back on excessive hours for memorization – and that is what I did.
    Nonetheless, it is still a very satisfying feeling to be able to revisit most of my favorite oldies without having to retrieve the scores, and I remain convinced that it is important for students to memorize much of their solo repertoire. The benefits are indisputable. As a final piece of advice, when performing by memory, don’t get in the habit of keeping your eyes closed. Instead, direct your eyes just a little above the audience. Then they will know you are sincerely sharing with them your love for the music!