Saturday, July 2, 2011

More on Mozart and Musical Memory

In my last post I inserted a clip from the movie Amadeus in which the character of Mozart demonstrates what seems a remarkable feat of musical memory. As he is being, slowly, ushered into the presence of the Emperor and Salieri, the former is playing, from the music, a new march written by Salieri to welcome Mozart. The Emperor offers the one-page score of the music to Mozart who says no need, I have it in my head. He then sits down at the keyboard and plays it after one hearing and proceeds to criticize the harmony and then improve it. The real Mozart was capable of far greater feats. The most famous one was during a journey to Italy with his father from December 1769 to March 1771. Mozart would have been 14 years old. While in Rome they visited the Sistine Chapel where they heard Gregorio Allegri's Miserere, a setting of Psalm 51. It was written during the 1630s and at some point it became forbidden to transcribe the music--on pain of excommunication--and was only performed by the Sistine Chapel choir for the Tenebrae services during Holy Week. It is written for two choirs, one of five and the other of four voices, plus two other singers.

Musicians receive training in musical dictation--the writing down of music in notation. But it usually doesn't extend past short passages in one or two voices. Mozart heard this nine-minute piece in multiple voices ONCE, then went home and wrote it out. He didn't get everything the first time, but went to hear it again at the Friday service to correct some details. This is the sort of thing that is too unbelievable to put in a movie!

Perhaps the most touching example of musical memory involves Dmitri Shostakovich and Mstislav Rostropovich, the great cellist. Rostropovich had wanted Shostakovich to write a cello concerto for some time but Shostakovich's first wife had counseled him to never mention it! Finally in June 1959 Shostakovich announced that his next work would be a cello concerto. He finished the full score in July and it turned out to be a piece in four movements. On hearing the news Rostropovich collected his piano accompanist and hurried to Leningrad where they received the score on August 2. Four days later they went to Shostakovich's dacha for a first run-through. When Rostropovich sat down and opened his cello case, Shostakovich went to get a music stand for him and as Rostropovich later recounted as his proudest moment as a performer, he said, no need, I have it by heart. He had memorized the whole piece in four days! Here is the first movement, played by Rostropovich:

There are other stories of feats of musical memory: Arthur Rubenstein apparently memorized the whole of the Grieg piano concerto in one mammoth eight-hour session. Here is the first movement:

There is also a story of an English pianist who was in a cab on the way to Heathrow to catch a plane for Australia where he was to play a recital. On the way he heard over the radio in the cab that a well-known Australian composer had just died. So he told the cab driver to swing by a music store where he ran in and purchased a score for piano by the composer. He memorized the piece during the long flight just by reading it and played it in the concert that evening for the first time. From memory.

Forgive me for a little autobiography: I once sent a list of eight or ten guitar concertos I had in my repertoire to a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the CBC, in Vancouver. They had an excellent orchestra at that time and I hoped to play a concerto with them. Not on the list was the Villa-Lobos Concerto, which I had never learned. A few days later the producer called and asked if I could play the Villa-Lobos. This was in July. The concert was in October. I memorized the whole concerto in four weeks. Nothing compared to the other stories, I know, but I can attest that you can do some remarkable things if you really want to! A concerto is a big piece to learn, very demanding in many ways. Usually we take our time learning one. Here is the first movement of the Villa-Lobos:

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