This month I will write about memorization. More precisely, I will introduce a discussion of memorization with two other related performance issues: sight-reading and looking (or not looking) at the keys. These three matters, considered together, provide an interesting and important take on what it means to have learned a piece of music and then to perform that piece. Most of this discussion will take place next month, however, since I want to borrow much of this month’s column for another purpose. This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the great keyboard performers, scholars, and teachers of the twentieth century—harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick. I want to begin with a tribute to him in honor of that occasion.
Ralph Kirkpatrick was born on June 10, 1911, in North Leominster, Massachusetts, an area where, in the years when he was growing up, it was possible to hear a lot of good music in concert—after all, this was still an era when people heard most music live rather than through recordings. In his memoir Early Years—about which I will say more below—Kirkpatrick mentions having heard, among others, the singer Amelita Galli-Curci, pianists Sergei Rachmaninoff and Harold Bauer, violinist Jacques Thibauld, and the Flonzaley Quartet. He also notes that the quality and variety of music played by less-renowned performers and by local performing ensembles, especially choral societies, was extraordinary.
During this time he avidly studied piano, and was interested in the widest possible variety of music, acquiring scores of then very new works by, for example, Debussy and Ravel. Kirkpatrick arrived at Harvard University as a freshman in 1927 completely absorbed by music. It was there that, by utter chance, he discovered the harpsichord: a Dolmetsch/Chickering instrument that had recently been donated to the university. The first harpsichord sounds that Ralph Kirkpatrick ever heard were those of jazz played by a music faculty member who happened to have sat down at that instrument when Kirkpatrick was in the room. He was intrigued enough to seek out the opportunity to play the instrument, and that set the course of his career.
Ralph Kirkpatrick’s career comprised concert performance, recording, scholarship, and teaching. The latter two came together in his writings. As a concert performer Kirkpatrick was a pioneer: not the first ever to play on the harpsichord, but one of the first, and easily the most widely noticed after Landowska. He gave his first harpsichord recital at a meeting of the Harvard Music Club in May 1930. Already by the late 1930s, in his twenties, he was giving well-heralded concerts in what was then called Carnegie Chamber Music Hall (now Weill Recital Hall). He was a strong presence on the concert stage through the 1960s, performing in specialized “early music” venues such as Williamsburg, mainstream venues (he was the first harpsichordist to play at Alice Tully Hall, for example), and on festival stages and concert stages throughout the world.
Although most of Kirkpatrick’s concert performance was as a harpsichord soloist, he also performed as a soloist on both clavichord and fortepiano, and, especially in his early years, as a chamber musician. He also was a frequent performer of the Bach harpsichord concerti. In about 1974, health problems forced Kirkpatrick to withdraw for a while from the concert stage. By the time his general health had stabilized to the point where he was able to consider resuming concert activity, he had completely lost his sight. At this point he decided that, rather than give up performing, he would take a new approach to playing: one that relied on his very strong memory and large, well-learned repertoire, but that also required him to play utterly unassisted by even any peripheral glimpses of the keyboards.
I was fortunate enough to be in the audience at his return concert on September 25, 1977 at Sprague Hall on the campus of Yale University. It was a vivid and exciting performance, and his decision to return to the concert stage at this juncture in his life struck me at the time (and still does today) as an act of great courage and dedication. This concert ushered in a final flowering of his work as a performer that lasted about four years and culminated in a recital at the first Boston Early Music Festival.
Kirkpatrick’s recording career also began early in his life. In 1937 he recorded music of Bach—the Italian Concerto, the Ricercar a 3 voci from the Musical Offering, and the G-major Partita—for the now long-defunct Musicraft label (for which, by the way, the organist Carl Weinrich also recorded Bach, although it was primarily a jazz label). In the 1950s and 1960s he was one of the most prolific recording artists, most famously recording Scarlatti for Columbia and Bach for Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft and DGG’s Archiv Production. The culmination of this latter series of recordings was a double trip through both books of the Well-tempered Clavier—first on harpsichord, then on clavichord. Many critics and listeners consider the clavichord half of this tour de force to be Kirkpatrick’s finest recording. He also recorded Mozart solo piano music on a restored 18th-century piano, Mozart concerti with several different ensembles, Haydn songs with mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel, sonatas of Handel and Mozart with violinist Alexander Schneider, a certain amount of twentieth-century music, and various other things. Unfortunately, very few of Ralph Kirkpatrick’s recordings are in print as of this writing. Of course, this is always subject to change.
The most renowned aspect of Kirkpatrick’s scholarship was his work on Domenico Scarlatti. When he published his biography of Scarlatti in 1953, it was received as a work of great importance. The book concerns itself not only with Scarlatti’s life but also with his music, with the culture in which his music was created, and indeed with aspects of the overall history of that time and place. It served as a model for serious, accurate scholarship about matters bearing on music and musical performance. Indeed, Kirkpatrick, in the preface to the book, suggests that part of his own interest in taking on what became a long and difficult project was that he “had become painfully aware of the inadequacy of the available texts and the absence of information fundamentally necessary to me as a performer of his works.”
Nowadays we take it for granted that a performer needs information. This was not an idea that Kirkpatrick invented from scratch, by any means, but the thoroughness and common sense with which he carried out the Scarlatti project helped to advance the notion that artistic interpretive work can be enhanced greatly by historical knowledge. It did not hurt that the book was very well written: engaging and clear, a pleasure to read.
Other writings of Kirkpatrick’s include the well-known preface to his edition of Sixty Sonatas by Scarlatti—written in a question and answer format and giving a lot of food for thought about interpretation and performance—and articles and reviews touching upon subjects such as clavichord playing, Bach’s dynamics, Couperin’s L’Art de toucher le claveçin, and many others. Two books of his—the memoir Early Years and Interpreting Bach’s Well-tempered clavier: A performer’s discourse of method—were published shortly after his death. The first of these is my favorite of his writings. It covers some of his family history, his childhood and early musical education, his time at Harvard, and his year in Europe immediately following his graduation from college. Written with great craftsmanship, it is also heartfelt, informal, and engaging. Much of it deals directly with music, but not all of it—Kirkpatrick talks about his relationships with his parents, and other family, for example, with candor and insight. Almost every line provides something to think about. The second half of the book consists of the journal that Kirkpatrick kept of his trip to Europe in 1931–32, during which he studied with Wanda Landowska, among others.
Ralph Kirkpatrick first taught as an undergraduate, when he gave some piano lessons to other students to help support himself. Later he taught briefly at Bennington College, and then, in 1940, joined the faculty of Yale University, from which he retired in 1976. Among his students at Yale were harpsichordists Albert Fuller, Fernando Valenti, Frederick Hammond, William Christie, Martin Pearlman, Mark Kroll, Louis Bagger, Howard Schott, Blandine Verlet, Seymour Hayden, and Richard Rephann, among many others, Duke University organist Robert Parkins, and musicians whose careers have been in fields other than keyboard playing, such as oboist Allan Vogel and guitarist Eliot Fisk.
Ralph Kirkpatrick was an exciting and path-breaking performer and one of the seminal influences on the early music movement and on the history of keyboard playing in the twentieth century. He died on April 13, 1984. It is an honor to remember him on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Memorization and sight-reading
Memorization, sight-reading, and looking or not looking at the hands and feet are three aspects of playing that are inextricably intertwined with one another. Some facets of these relationships are as follows:
1) If a piece is really, fully memorized, then the performer—rather obviously—does not need to read any music in performance.
2) If a player is a perfect sight-reader who can play pieces at first sight with the kind of accuracy and security that I and other mere mortals have to practice hard to achieve, then that player—at least for purely practical purposes—does not need to remember even the next note, let alone the whole piece.
3) Memorization and sight-reading, even though they are in a sense opposites, are both often considered essential hallmarks of good musicianship; for some people they even define good musicianship. They both often play a part in auditions for academic programs.
4) Good sight-reading can be a practical necessity, especially in circumstances involving accompaniment; memorization is rarely of practical import.
5) Neither memorization nor sight-reading necessarily has anything to do with musical understanding or artistically convincing performance. That is not to say that either of them cannot be a part of artistically great performance, or part of the process of preparing for such a performance.
6) If a piece is really well memorized, then the eyes are, by definition, not needed to look at music, and can perhaps afford to look at the hands and feet. If a player, however, has real command of the instrument and does not need to look in order to find notes, then this looking serves more to give the eyes something to do and to keep them from inviting distraction than to assist directly in the playing.
7) If a piece is being sight-read, then it is very important that the player not look at the keyboards or the hands and feet. A player who needs to look at the hands or the feet probably cannot become even a moderately good sight-reader.
8) Everyone has some point on the spectrum of easiness and difficulty below which he or she can sight-read, and above which he or she cannot. The placement of this point determines some things about the practical side of music learning for each player, but does not determine anything about technical, musical, or artistic outcome.
9) One traditional description of the process of learning a piece of music might be that it starts with sight-reading and ends with memorization. (One way of framing a consideration of sight-reading and memorization would be to discuss how each of them relates to the parts of the learning process that fall in between these two end points. That would naturally move into a discussion of whether either or both of the end points were really necessary or useful.)
Next month I will explore some of the nuances and implications of these points—which are presented here in a somewhat oversimplified way as a starting place for discussion—and various others. I will also discuss my own relationship with memorization and with sight-reading, both as a player and as a teacher.