Wednesday, December 29, 2010

BSO "Music Criticism" Contest

So...a while back, the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced what they called a music criticism contest, in honor of the Schumann bicentennial. A fine idea, I thought, until I got to the contest description:
To enter the Music Criticism Contest it is necessary to submit a personal response to one of the five Schumann pieces being performed at Symphony Hall in November. The personal response should address how Schumann’s music makes the writer feel. The contest will have winners in five age categories, each with an assigned topic.  Elementary school entrants should write 100 words about the Schumann Piano Concerto, middle school entrants should write 200 words about Symphony No. 1, high school entrants should write 300 words about Symphony No. 4, college entrants should write 400 words about Symphony No. 3, and adults should submit 500 words about Schumann’s Symphony No. 2.    
"A personal response" and "how Schumann's music makes the writer feel" might be part of music criticism, but only part! To be criticism, rather than a lightweight personal essay, an essay or a review has to have perspective beyond the personal, has to make an attempt to put a performance or a work into some useful context, and has to attempt to exercise judgment about a performance or work, not just say "It made me feel sad." 

That context might be a particular performer's history with a composer or work, or might be about the historical context of a work or a production. A critic's "personal response" to a piece is a starting point for analysis of a performance or a work - not the end point. 

Robert Schumann certainly knew this. It's too bad the BSO didn't ask its contestants to show some sense of perspective and provide context in their essays, because the resulting winners are not very interesting. You can see them here.


Elaine Fine said...

I'm surprised that the ones from the younger kids aren't more interesting. Perhaps there were only a few entries. The middle school, high school, and college essays don't surprise me. They are pretty much what I expected.

Anonymous said...

That's pretty bad. They're program notes rather than reviews, and written through the narrowest of biographical prisms.

To think that I've written a dozen reviews, and even a whole bicentennial essay, on Schumann without once mentioning, "Say, did you know he spent his last few years in an insane asylum? Didja, didja?" Gosh, I feel derelict in my duties.

Kevin said...

A "troubled minor mode"? A "cheerful major dance"? I was expecting this kind of childlike analysis from the middle school review; but...yikes.