Memorizing piano works and the effect of age

This post is a reflection on my own experience in memorizing piano works, and how this has declined with age.  As a teenager, and in my twenties, I learned a considerable number of the ‘big’ piano works, including the Liszt sonata, several Beethoven sonatas including the ‘Hammerklavier’, Schumann Fantasy, Schubert Wanderer, Brahms Handel variations and many of the Chopin Ballades and Scherzi, and played them all in public.  I never remember thinking specifically about ‘memorizing’ them, as such – because it was totally automatic, and happened without any effort.   There was simply no problem.  Although I was a busy medical student, I could absorb large-scale works in the holidays, rapidly and reliably.  They are still stored away in my brain, and will be for ever.  I suppose it is a sort of ‘finger memory’ although I find it difficult to analyse – it just happens.

However my ability to memorize repertoire started to decline from the age of 25 onwards, as I think it probably does in everyone.   I am now 71, and over the decades, it has become harder and harder (ie virtually impossible) to memorize new pieces.   It requires much more effort, and the pieces feel correspondingly less secure.    This increasing insecurity at the keyboard has resulted in more performance ‘nerves’, and I suspect it is the main reason why pianists tend to become increasingly anxious about giving concerts as they get older.  I have now completely lost my nerve, and have given up recitals.

Memory lapses are indeed every pianist’s worst nightmare.   Odd technical slips are quickly forgotten, but if a pianist grinds to a halt, in the middle of a work, this is simply catastrophic – he/she is ‘dead in the water’ and there is no way back !   I am fairly certain that this dreadful prospect lurks as a dark shadow in the back of most pianists’ minds during recitals, particularly as they get older.   I am surprised how many of the 300+ pianists playing in my concert series, most of whom are under 30, have had minor memory lapses, which may not always be noticed by the audience  (although I usually spot them), but they must be very unsettling for  the performer.  Some manage to extemporise their way out of a disaster, and find their way into the piece again. I have huge admiration for them – it must be absolutely terrifying.  A young pianist recently played a Scarlatti sonata in F minor, and got ‘in a loop’ and ended up quite convincingly in C minor, but no-one in the audience noticed anything awry and applauded enthusiastically.  Of course, there is absolutely no reason why the music shouldn’t be used, as indeed Curzon and Richter always did at the end of their careers, but it would certainly look strange and would probably not be acceptable in younger players.

The most devastating memory lapses occur in concertos, particularly when the ensemble with the orchestra breaks down, as in various debacles shown on Youtube, involving pianists such as Yundi (in Chopin 1 in South Korea) and Schnabel (in a performance of Mozart K488 ).   The one occasion I actually came unstuck in a concert was as a schoolboy, playing the piano solo in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia, a notoriously long and rambling piece.   I missed an entry, and must have had 1000 nightmares about it over the years !  Some concertos are particularly prone to these problems, notably the last movement of the Schumann  concerto, which modulates repeatedly to remote keys, and it is very easy to  get lost.   There is the additional problem of memorizing when to come in, after an orchestral tutti.    One needs to rehearse the variable lengths of  the orchestral tutti, particularly in the Brahms concerti, so that the entries are automatic, because a missed entry will be absolutely catastrophic.

In conclusion, I don’t think that young pianists realize that their ability to learn and memorize new works will inevitably decline markedly in later on in life, and that this process starts to happen from the late 20s onwards.  Alfred Brendel is reported as saying that his slowly developing career meant that he had more time in his 20’s to learn a large number of pieces, whereas those who have a major career early on may not find the time to do so.    It is an incentive for all pianists to commit as much of the core repertoire to memory when still relatively young – ie under 30 – so that it is there to play and work on, over the next few decades.   So if you are a young pianist, and always dream of giving your definitive Beethoven sonata cycle, to rival Schnabel and all the ‘greats’,  later in life, you need to start now, and get the basic notes in your head, rather than leaving it to tackle some of them in middle age.   And perhaps we should become more tolerant to the idea of solo pianists using the music during their recitals.  It doesn’t necessarily imply that they haven’t done sufficient practice !