Reviewing the Premiere of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

Essay Assignment: Reviewing the Premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

Your task:

Imagine you are a music critic covering the 1824 premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Your task is to write a review of the piece that will judge its overall success. As a critic, you have a specialized knowledge of music (think of the vocabulary you learned in unit one), but your readers will expect things explained in clear, easily comprehended language. Your focus should be on the music, though you may include some details about the quality of the performance itself if you feel they are particularly relevant.

Some things to think about:

Good music critics will identify what they believe to be the composer’s goal and then render a verdict on the composer s success. In doing so, they will naturally discuss the musical work within its context, namely the norms and conventions of contemporary musical life.

As an imaginary music critic of the early nineteenth century, you have an intimate knowledge of these norms and conventions (which you’ve, at least in reality, absorbed both through Kelly’s chapter and the accompanying source documents). Thus your review should judge the work as described above, but your arguments must be supported by good reasoning and evidence (i.e. data). For example:

I didn’t care for the third movement of the sonata. There was just something off.

Audiences, expecting a third movement in typical ternary form, instead heard constantly developing themes that did not correspond to any recognizable structure. Although the composer made an admirable attempt at working outside expectations with a through-composed structure, the density of themes rendered the movement difficult to follow on one listening.

Notice how the first example gives an opinion with no support, and would be useless to a reader. The second example demonstrates an awareness of conventions (here expressed as audience expectation), identifies departures from those conventions, and then gives an overall evaluation that accords with and is supported by the analysis. These examples should also make it clear that the success of your review depends on both your musical evaluations and clear, organized, and well-reasoned prose.

Some more things to think about:

A review can address many things from the quality of performance to the musical work itself. In fact, much nineteenth-century criticism focused specifically on musical works as new contributions that should be evaluated apart from their realization in performance. And the premiere of a work was often then opportunity to evaluate its success or failure as a piece of music. (Think of it as something more like a book review rather than a review of a theater performance.)

When you write your own review, you have a similar range of possibilities. Your review is short, so I’m not expecting you to address everything—performance quality, musical work, etc.—but please don’t feel you need to limit yourself to discussing execution of the work at the premiere: the work itself is fair game, too.

In past semesters, students have asked about the creative side of this assignment, specifically whether you can construct details concerning the performance at the premiere given that we don’t have a detailed record of what exactly happened that evening. The answer is yes, as long as your inventions are historically sound. That is, there’s a difference between saying “the trumpets sounded strange” (an “invented” detail) versus saying the trumpets sounded strange because of the music’s obvious difficulty (and you’d expand a bit there) or the obvious lack of rehearsal. In the latter case, I’m tying the invented observation to actual historical details we know about the premiere of the Ninth.

Finally, I’ll reiterate what I’ve already stated above: remember that much of Beethoven’s music seemed unusual or was challenging for audiences in the 1820s. That is to say that there was something unconventional or unexpected about the musical work itself. As a hypothetical nineteenth-century critic, you have a keen sense of what was conventional (and as a twenty-first-century IAH student, you’ve read a lot about musical conventions—symphonic structure, sonata form, instrumentation, etc.) and it is from that prospective that you can say X is new or Y is striking or Z doesn’t make sense. So again, you’re being creative, but your observations should always be tied back to the historical context you know about from your reading and listening.

The details:

This is a very short review. Your text should be no shorter than 800 words and no more than 1,000 (roughly 3-4 double-spaced pages, but please rely on a word count rather than length). Give your review a short but witty title. This should be in bold-face and occupy the first line of your first page, the review proper starting on line two (no cover pages, please). Use Times New Roman font, 12pt. Double-space Upload your review to the dropbox on D2L as a Word document. You may reference any material we ve covered in class this far; obviously unit four will be most important. Since you are writing as a critic, you need not cite material directly (nor should you need to quote directly from any source), but you must display a clear familiarity with Beethoven’s Symphony and its context. You should not consult any outside sources. Some things to keep in mind as you write:

Your reviews will be graded using a rubric similar to that used for the discussion forums. Thus keep in mind the qualities of an excellent job:

You offer convincing points that are grounded in a clear understanding of the course material. Your supporting evidence is appropriate and necessary (in other words, you are not including irrelevant facts/sources/information). Your writing is clear, to the point, and does not include any superfluous passages. You have devoted clear attention to editing and proofreading (you should plan to draft your review and then edit it at least three times, checking for grammatical mistakes, spelling errors, and awkward passages). It is immensely helpful to have someone else read your work before you submit it.

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