Conducting without the score can be liberating if approached in the right way
When Otto Klemperer was asked why he always looked at the score when he conducted, he replied that it was because he could read music. Whether this was a joke or not, he could never be accused of not knowing the music he performed. It's hard to imagine his concerts being any different had he conducted them from memory. Some conductors always use scores, others never do, and many opt for a path between the two. As a member of the last category, I enjoy the freedom of that choice. With some pieces, the absence of the score is liberating; with others, not having it would actually be inhibiting.
If music exists in any specific form at all, it does so in its published context. But the essence of music is not a physical reality. Musicians try to turn one into the other, releasing the notes from the restriction of their five-lined printed cage. For some, this job is simpler if all the dots, dashes, lines, curves, words, and symbols, can be removed from the mind's eye. The variety of music's infinite colours is easier to imagine away from the black and white nature of their visual representation and the structure of a composition becomes clearer when it can be 'pictured' not as a journey across the printed page but as a single event in a timeless space.
A very successful businessman told me that he only took risks he knew would come off. Conducting from memory is a similar paradox. There should never be any danger behind the choice, but there's always a slightly heightened sense of drama. That's no bad thing. However, players sense immediately whether there is any vanity behind the decision, and if so, the result is the complete opposite of an extra sense of commitment that the conductor might have been looking for in the first place.
Nietzsche remarked that 'many a man fails as an original thinker simply because his memory is too good'. This lies behind the idea that says if you conduct from memory you always give the same performance. That's true if you've memorised your performance at the same time as memorising the score. But the opposite can also be the case. Without the score in front of you, one can be more empowered to make the spontaneous choices that create something special. Far from being repetitive, that freedom of going with the flow can produce unique results.
The problem with memorising something is that it's very easy to forget it. A healthier approach is try and understand exactly what the composer wrote and why, and engage with that on an expressive level. Once something is understood, it's impossible not to remember it. Ultimately conducting without a score is not about doing so 'from memory' but about doing so 'by heart'. The heart is a far more trustworthy organ than the brain. And if you always conduct by heart, it doesn't really matter whether the score is there or not.
Leading conductor Mark Wigglesworth is equally at home in the opera house as in the concert hall – and, indeed, the studio, where his acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle for BIS is nearing completion. In 'Shaping the invisible' Mark shares his passion for music and his fascination with the philosophies and psychologies that lie behind it. (Photo: Ben Ealovega)