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Playing from Memory and the Musical Imagination


Playing or singing with abandon requires memorization. Memorization allows the music to live independently in the performer. Then it can be processed within and gain in richness, once the musical imagination is activated. The musical imagination works in tandem with the inner hearing ability. A fifth in the score may produce the image of a far away impression. Then, when playing, that image translates into a particular sound. That sound can, in turn, awaken the imagination of the listener and lead him into other associations. The musical and literary imagination of a gifted performer in touch with a receptive audience works with a myriad of complex associations, colors and infinite degrees of light and shadow brought to mind by combinations of lines, orchestral colors, chords and contrapuntal figures.

At a time when playing from the score was the norm, Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann pioneered playing from memory in public. Chopin, on the other hand, is said to have reprimanded a student once for having played a particular piece from memory. That was not the convention and Chopin thought this could look arrogant, since it could give the false impression that the composition had been created by the student. Yet, should the performer-the one who has earned the right to stand in place of the composer- not appropriate the work in such a way as if she were improvising the composition at the moment? The performer must exert that authority the moment of rendering the musical work, the moment of this second creation, or as Adorno called it, reproduction.

The sooner the performer can get away from the score, the better. The real creative work often begins once the work is memorized. According to Robert Schumann, a chord played from the score no matter how freely, can never be as free as when played from your fantasy or imagination, once it has been committed to memory. Playing from memory allows the performer to recreate the work as if in an improvisation. Here is the quote by Schumann:


“Wißt ihr nicht, daß ein noch so frei angeschlagener Accord von Noten gespielt, noch nicht einhalbmal so frei klingt, wie einer aus der Phantasie?


freely translated: Don’t’ you know that no matter how freely a chord is played from the score, it would never sound half as free as when played from our imagination (or fantasy)?

Let the musical imagination take flight!


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