This guide is in four parts: The first is a run-down of the three basic kinds of "secondary" music clues, how to choose them effectively, and what pitfalls to watch out for. The second is a discussion of the general approach to the technical language of music. The third is a run-down of the basic kinds of musical-content-based clues, talking about which kinds are useful under which circumstances, and with detailed advice on how to write them and how to spot clues that are meaningless. Finally, Auroni has kindly agreed to send me his sources for a particular tossup from this year's Nats; I will dissect this tossup from the perspective of an inexperienced editor who has received this tossup and needs to figure out which clues to reject, rewrite, or keep.
My sincere hope is that this can serve as a sort of reference guide for writers and editors. That someone thinking of writing a particular kind of clue can return to this post, and re-read the paragraph on that subject to help them choose a clue effectively. And that an editor can return to this post to help them evaluate particular clues.
One final note: throughout this guide, I refer repeatedly to a practice called "reverse clue look-up", a phrase that I think may have been coined by Eric Mukherjee. This refers to the practice of researching whether the contents of a particular clue you have written actually points directly to your answer, or is actually a generic thing that could apply to very many pieces. Just getting into the habit of doing this will eliminate a lot of problems.
Part I: Clues from Outside the Text of the Piece Itself
1. Academic Criticism: Because I suspect there are very few players who read academic journal articles on music or major academic books, I would not suggest using these as anything other than lead-ins unless you are very sure that the interpretation or quote you are using has trickled down into mainstream music knowledge. Use one clue of this type at maximum.
(The exception to this are academics who were responsible for naming/organizing a composer's catalogue: Kochel for Mozart, for example. These are often fine middle clues, and usually are too well-known to be lead-ins.)
How you phrase an academic criticism clue can make a big difference. I find that the ideal clue type takes the form:
Opening with "this composer/piece" gets the player to prick up his ears immediately. Putting the thesis of the critical work next (before the author's name) gives the player a chance to buzz off of knowledge of the actual work, if he knows it. Dropping the author last saves for the end the buzz from the person who has merely heard of the author."This composer/piece was described as [thesis of critical work] by [author of critical work]"
The best criticism clues are often taken from the works of academics known for specializing in one particular composer. You should verify this by looking the academic up in a music encyclopedia (or Wikipedia), if they are a historical critic; if they are a living/working professor, visit their faculty page to see what kind of work they do, and to make sure you don't write a clue that could lead players towards multiple composers/pieces.
(An example: I didn't hear the moderator say Jeffrey Kallberg's name on the Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2 tossup at this year's Nats. Even though I didn't know that specific clue for the sonata, it would have helped me get the tossup eventually, as I would have begun to suspect that it was on a work by Chopin, because Kallberg is famous for writing on Chopin. So, even though I didn't know his commentary on that piece (and, actually, the question itself did not convey his thesis as helpfully as it could have) that is an excellent choice of scholarly clue.)
2. Biographical / Cultural Context: Obviously, pieces don't spring up from the ground. They were composed by real people living in real societies, and we continue to value them for the impact they have on the world. Naturally, one can find biographical and cultural context for any piece. And as a general area of interest, this is obviously legitimate.
However, these types of clues are not equally helpful for all pieces. Things nearly every composer of the 19th century did include: write a piece dedicated to a Central European noble, go on vacation and get inspired by some local custom or phenomenon in nature (especially an animal), and write a piece out of love for their wife or mistress. For some pieces, these clues will be very helpful, and for some virtually useless. The fact that a clue might appear in program notes is not symptomatic of anything one way or the other, because program notes tend to default to this kind of stuff (it's part of the genre). So, how do you distinguish if a clue is useful?
Here are the circumstances under which these kinds of clues are most useful:
(a) The elements of context have an audible manifestation in the piece itself.
(b) The circumstances of production determined some basic qualities of the production. (Stories about how the demands of a particular patron's request or combination of instruments available changed how the composer wrote the piece might fall in this category.)
(c) The biographical/contextual information is routinely a part of how the piece has been interpreted since. (Usually, related to a very major event in the life of the composer.)
(d) The context being reflected in the piece is a really major historical event.
(e) The piece had a large and unique impact on the culture in which it was produced. (This is going in the opposite direction: instead of talking about how culture is reflected in the piece, you talk about how the piece has been reflected onto its culture.)
So, examples of context-based clues that incorporate these feature: The Italian cavalry bugle call in Capriccio Italien is in category (a), because we can hear it in the piece. The Curse of the Ninth causing Mahler to write Das Lied von der Erde as a vocal work rather than a symphony with vocal interpolations might be an example of (b), since it changed the nature of the piece. Mozart's Piano Sonata K. 310 is hopefully never going to get tossed up, but in a world in which it could, the fact that people see Mozart's mother's recent death as affecting the mood of the piece would make for a good clue. The effect of the November Uprising on the Revolutionary Etude is a mix of (a) and (d); it is both a major event and somewhat reflected in the piece's sound. The relationship between La Muette de Portici and the Belgian Revolution is a mix of (d) and (e).
The bottom line here is that these are all instances where it is clear how knowledge of the context has affected the piece's history and/or can still enrich listening to the piece in the present. You always want to keep this perspective in mind when choosing clues. Do not just pick a piece of historical context and hope that it sticks.
Where this can get you into trouble is that you read an article or some program notes that claims that a piece was inspired by such and such thing, even though that is really just the opinion of the one author you have read. This is why you should always use some form of "reverse clue look up" to verify that any clue you find in an article or set of notes is not just the opinion of one or two authors.
3. Performances / Recordings: Just as all pieces had contexts in which they arose, so too are (almost) all pieces eventually performed and recorded. Once again, this is an area that's totally legitimate, but these sorts of clues will not be equally useful for any piece.
If you are using a work's premiere as a clue, it is helpful if there was something about that premiere that had a large long-term effect on the shape of the piece, or the piece's reception. Such things include:
- The conductor or soloist gave the composer specifications that affected how he wrote the piece
- The conductor or soloist did certain things at the premiere that either threatened the piece's canonicity (e.g. Glazunov's drunken premiere of Rachmaninoff's First Symphony) or which ensured the piece's canonicity
- The conductor or soloist established certain performing traditions that affected how the piece is still performed today.
Likewise, if you are using a recording, you shouldn't just pick your favorite recording of a work and hope for the best. You want it to match similar criteria as those I outlined above for the premiere clues. Such things include:
- The performance did something revolutionary with regards to the interpretation of the piece
- The performance was responsible for popularizing the piece or rescuing it from obscurity
- The performance had broad historical or cultural significance (e.g. Van Cliburn's performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1)
The big caveat I have to add is that most performers in any era performed huge swathes of repertoire and premiered tons of works. It is very rare that the performer's name will be enough to make a good clue. In situations where the performance is significant for one of the above reasons, you want to explain that reason. You should also perform "reverse clue look-up" to determine what other famous performances and premieres that performer may have given, and then make sure to distinguish between these performances.
For example, Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh premiered very many of the 20th century's greatest violin concertos. However, they did so with different conductors, in different times and places, under different historical circumstances. Without this extra detail, no clue about a premiere they gave will be effective. Together with these contextual details, they have a good shot of being good clues.