Yesterday BBC Music Magazine tweeted that pianist Artur Pizarro had played a concert in which he read from the music, using an iPad to display the notes. It’s one of several recent reports about classical musicians using the score, reading from an electronic gadget of some kind. In no case have I detected any kind of disapproval, rather the reverse: people think it’s cool to put an iPad on the piano desk.
This may be a good thing in the long run, but it’s a curious change. When I was young and learning solo piano pieces to perform in public, my teachers thought it was obligatory to perform from memory. Anything less would give the impression that I hadn’t prepared properly. It was ‘sloppy’ to take the music on stage; adjudicators and critics would give you a black mark for it, and your fellow students would secretly despise you. Playing from memory felt like a moral imperative.
In itself, this was a change from a century earlier, when teachers like Clara Schumann discouraged her piano students from playing from memory, saying it would look as if they were showing off (and her view seems to have been typical of the time). We know that Beethoven didn’t like it when people played his piano sonatas from memory; he felt they would neglect to memorise all his detailed markings.
Since Clara Schumann’s day, we’ve had a century or so of wanting soloists to play from memory. But now, because of the advent of iPads and the like, the public seems to be losing the desire to see people play from memory. Was it such a flimsy thing after all? Or will audiences get used to the sight of iPads on the music desk, and start wishing we’d leave them backstage?