This study examines the genesis of memorization as a piano performance practice, contextualizing it within the major technological, political, aesthetic, and philosophical movements of the 19th century. Its significance becomes apparent when considered with several other notable changes that coincided with the development of performance practice. These include the rise and fall of virtuosos, the emergence of non-composing performers and non-performing composers, the establishment of the musical canon, the ritualization of concerts and the disappearance of the art of improvisation. The first chapter “Innate Memory” considers memory as an inherent aspect of any musical experience, and surveys the general shift from oral culture (based on memory) to literal culture (based on writing). Next, “Virtuosic Memory” considers memorization as an enhancement to virtuosic acts as super-human and sublime. Finally, “Transcendental Memory” examines memorization as an ultimate manifestation of the Werktreue (true-to-work) spirit - a veneration of the canonized work reflecting the performer’s scrupulous study and internalization of the score.
Traditional piano pedagogy has associated memorization with the notion of absolute music: entirely self-referential instrumental music with no extra-musical association. The piano was promoted as a “one-man orchestra.” The expectation that music should be performed from memory has been more strongly imposed on solo pianists than on any other musicians because the elimination of the score emphasized the pianist’s autonomy, even from the corporeal representation of music. It allowed piano virtuosos to be even more spectacular. Even more importantly, memorization cast pianists as “priests” of ritualized concerts: their memorized delivery enhanced the image of more direct communion with the canon. However, the “priesthood” also demoted performers as conduits to the canon. Thus, the socially marginalized, such as women and ethnic minorities, started to emerge as non-composing pianists as the practice was established. Memorization as a practice is a reflection of the nineteenth-century aesthetic philosophy and its social context. Our continuation of the practice to this day attests to the extent of its influence. Examining its historical background enables us to reevaluate our cultural inheritance, and reexamine our own musical identity and aesthetics.