Musical memory | Why are orchestras learning symphonies off by heart?

Stephen Johnson meets members of the orchestra whose trademark is its memory 

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Musical memory | Why are orchestras learning symphonies off by heart?
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In the age of Wikipedia and smart phones, the whole idea of committing information to memory seems increasingly quaint (how many millennials have even had cause to memorise a phone number?).  Where once the ability to recall information was prized as an indicator of learning, today we rely far more on ‘external' memory in the form of information stored digitally in the cloud.  The skill is not so much remembering information as knowing where to find it.  

But there are signs of a reaction against this collective memory loss. A number of recent bestsellers have highlighted the dangers which the information age can pose to our minds (including recent works by neuroscientists Ryuta Kawashima and Daniel Levitin); ‘brain training’ websites such as Lumosity and Memrise have proliferated; and there is an increasing body of scientific evidence indicating that keeping our memories active can help militate against dementia later in life. 

Against this background it’s fascinating to see Aurora Orchestra emerge over recent years as the first orchestra to perform whole symphonies from memory as a regular feature of its artistic output.  Watching an orchestra perform without printed music is completely alien to the status quo for audiences, and so unusual as to be disconcerting. There are vanishingly few historical precedents: Hans von Bülow seems to have encouraged the Meiningen Court Orchestra to play without music in the late 19th century, and I've read a suggestion that the virtuoso Mannheim Orchestra, which so impressed Mozart, did the same. And that's about it. 

But why should we be so surprised when an experienced, tight-knit chamber orchestra like Aurora decides to perform without music parts? As Aurora’s Principal Conductor Nicholas Collon points out, we are accustomed to seeing instrumental soloists, singers, and musicians in other genres performing from memory (it takes an effort to imagine The Who's Pete Townshend glancing carefully at his music stand before smashing his guitar to pieces). Granted, there are a lot of notes to learn in Beethoven’s ‘Eroica' or ‘Pastoral' Symphonies, but nowhere near as many per part as a pianist has to memorise playing the same composer's Hammerklavier Sonata. True, there are complicated interactions between the players to be learned – the kind of thing sometimes helpfully 'cued' in the parts – but opera singers have to learn all that, plus the words, plus the actions, and try to avoid crashing into the stage props at the same time. The main reason why orchestras have not memorised, historically, is purely practical: professional players have to perform hundreds of different works each year, and setting aide the time needed to memorise more than a handful would be impossible.  

So why bother memorising, if it’s so time-consuming?  What kinds of advantage might it confer on the performerss?  It's interesting that it should have been von Bülow who seems to have been behind one of the first historical experiments in orchestra memorising, as it was his one-time friend and father-in-law Franz Liszt who is said to have started the fashion for giving solo piano recitals from memory. Liszt had a keen sense of theatre, and no doubt the thought of stoking up the audience's sense of awe at his prodigious abilities played a part. But Liszt was also a man with strong spiritual inclinations (he later became a priest), forging his stellar career at a time when art was beginning to take over some of the functions of religion for many educated Europeans. Memorising texts had long been an important part of religious devotion, Catholic and Protestant. On the subject of sacred texts, the poet George Herbert wrote:

                     A man that looks on glass,
                     On it may stay his eye;
                     Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
                     And then the heav'n espy.

Learning a couple of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas recently, and reaching the point when I've been able to take off the water wings of the printed music, I've realised how valuable it is, as Thomas Beecham put it, to have the music in your head rather than at arms' length. Somehow taking the music into one's own body, as it were, increases that sense of identification with the mysterious substance of music. It reminds you that, whatever else music is, it isn't printed notes.

Aurora, however, are going much further than that. They're not just memorising their own parts, plus all the pencil markings they may have added: they're effectively memorising the whole score. British orchestras are famously expert sight-readers – they have to be, given the premium placed on rehearsal time. But having to spend extra time learning the parts gives the players' unconscious minds more time to process what they take. What will come out at the end stands a chance of being a more 'inwardly-digested' performance, not solely reliant on the conductor's interpretative overview.  

Then there's the effect on the orchestra as a group. There is, says one player (Michael Trainor), a new 'bond' between the players: 'It creates a whole new clarity on the stage.' The musicians are 'listening in a totally different way, hearing things they wouldn't have picked up on before. Each person knows it in such an intimate way.' Of course it can be scary, but nerves - if they're not totally paralysing - can add a new edge, alertness and vitality to a performance. 'Despite the nerves and pressure that we feel', says another (Jamie Campbell), 'I think we play better, and we play more freely.' There's psychological evidence that when we're apprehensive about a task, we can change our feelings from fear to excitement simply by telling ourselves that we are excited. Several of the Aurora musicians appear to have made this discovery for themselves: 'It's the most exciting thing I've ever done', says Tamara Elias, quite categorically. 

And what happens physically when you take the music stand away? The effect, says violinist Elizabeth Cooney, is simply liberating. 'Without the music stand you're definitely more free to move around. You can communicate a bit easier amongst yourselves, but also to the audience. There's no barrier.' It's when you hear comments like that that you realise this could be the beginning of a revolution in orchestral music making. We all want to hear orchestras play with feeling and understanding. What better way than to invite them to play 'by heart'?

Aurora play Brahms Symphony No. 1 from memory at St John’s Smith Square on 3 June and Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 4 June, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the 'Eroica', from memory at the BBC Proms on 22 July. Find out more about their upcoming performances here

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