A mighty memory orchestra at the BBC Proms

Anyone watching the BBC Proms concert shown on BBC Four on Sunday 9 August might have noticed something unusual. The orchestra ditched their music stands, manuscripts and seats, and played an entire symphony standing, and from memory.

Here's what happened...

Without a single sheet of printed music to guide them, the Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon, performed Beethoven's 'Pastoral' Symphony - all 40, complex and intricate, minutes of it - at the Royal Albert Hall. Not to mention the specially-composed Smatter Hauler by Anna Meredith for which they were joined by the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble.

A performing miracle in every sense

The performance gripped the audience and was resoundingly well-received.

"Playing the Beethoven from memory, the Aurora created an organic sense of community, dynamism and inspiration..." wrote David Allen in the New York Times, while Jonathan McAloon, writing in the Daily Telegraph, felt "...not being tied to the spot seemed, refreshingly, to make the performers bolder, as well as more bonded to their conductor's vision."

Listen to it here now, or watch it on the BBC iPlayer.


The performance was met with an equally enthusiastic response on social media:

...And there's more

As if one piece from memory wasn't enough, the Aurora Orchestra were joined on stage by the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble for a performance of Anna Meredith’s Smatter Hauler specially-composed for the concert and, like the Beethoven, also performed without a manuscript in sight.

Listen to it here, now, or watch it on the BBC iPlayer.

Why from memory?

This wasn't the first time Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra had pulled off this incredible memory feat. Last year at the Proms they performed Mozart's 40th Symphony entirely from memory.

In learning it off by heart, I totally understood how it works.
Nicholas Collon

A few days before this year's performance Collon spoke to Radio 4's Front Row programme and explained why performing Beethoven's 6th from memory has changed the way he understands the piece:

"Before I memorised it, I thought that the second movement just felt too long, but in learning it off by heart, I totally understood how it works."

"Orchestral players often roll their eyes at the unrelenting stream of notes in their parts in the slow movement, those endless variations."

"And I thought I’d love people to actually know the journey they’re going on, to feel why a moment like that turn to E flat major – just before we hear the cuckoos at the end of the second movement – is so special. Beethoven has been teasing us for so long, and then finally he goes into that key."

Music, memory and the Proms

Feats of memory such as this are fairly rare among orchestras. But for singers, such as soprano Susan Bullock, and actors, like Lisa Dwan who has performed Samuel Beckett's monologues, memory in performance is an essential part of their work.

I played all sorts of sensory jokes with myself...
Lisa Dwan on learning Samuel Beckett's 'Not I'

Listen to them discussing their different methods for committing hours of words and music to memory.

Music and memory at the Proms 2015

More from the Proms 2015