Thursday, November 14, 2013

World's Toughest Exam?

I was just browsing around and ran across an article about the Master Sommelier exam, which Forbes described in the headline as the "World's Toughest Test?" Oddly, people who have taken the test are apparently forbidden to discuss the actual questions, but it is described like this:
It’s not enough to know every wine region, village and district in the world, candidates also need to know which years were better than others for each region. The blind tasting of six wines requires not only identifying the grape varietal, but the region it came from and the year it was made. That’s merely scratching the testing surface though; during the service portion examinees have to recall facts about sake, spirits, distilling methods, apertifs and of course ideal food pairings.
I'm sure that this is a fair description, but I can't quite believe that it is quite this tough. It seems reasonable to be able to identify the varietal of the main French grapes and the village in the Médoc and, yes, perhaps the year. But it strains my credulity to imagine that they actually test all the hundreds and hundreds of different varietals that are grown, for example, in Italy, not to mention the thousands of villages! And I refuse to believe that anyone has comprehensive knowledge about the years of Italian vintages. How was the 1982 vintage for Primitivo de Manduria?

It reminds me of a fairly modest exam I encountered in graduate school. It came at the end of a seminar in the symphonies of Shostakovich. Since there was very little secondary material the professor indicated that he would structure the course a little differently. The first assignment was to learn the Cyrillic alphabet so we could find our way around the Collected Edition. We would also have a final listening exam, very unusual in a graduate seminar. That exam would consist of playing brief samples from the symphonies and we had to identify which symphony the theme was from, which movement, and in some cases if it was from the exposition, development or recapitulation.

In order to prepare for this I got together with another student in the seminar and we quickly found that we were ingenious enough to be able to pick samples that could completely stump one another! What we were dealing with was roughly fifteen CDs of symphonic music with dozens and dozens of movements and hundreds of different themes, to say nothing of their component motifs! Identifying a particularly obscure one was extremely challenging. So, after depressing one another, we went to the exam only to discover that the professor had actually picked themes that were pretty easy to identify. I think I got something like 100% on the listening exam as I wasn't in any doubt about any of the examples.

At the end of the course work in musicology one faces a series of comprehensive written and oral exams (known as the dreaded "comps") in which one's knowledge is rather thoroughly tested. For example, you are responsible for fairly thorough knowledge of eight out of the following sample topics:

Section I topics ("Early")
Ancient Greek Music
Troubadours and Trouveres
Renaissance Mass (1400-1600)
The French chanson from the 14th-16th centuries
The Motet
16th Century Italian madrigal
Baroque opera
Italian opera 1600-1800
Plainchant dissemination up to the 11th century
Polyphony up to the 13th century
Colonization / Decolonization theories (special emphasis on South America)
Medieval Motet from 1200-1400
Baroque dance (social, theatrical, dance suite)
Keyboard music in the 17th and 18th centuries
The cantata: from the beginnings to Bach

Section II topics ("Late")
Performance Practice 1750-1900
Romantic Pianism (Late Beethoven to Ravel)
Chamber music 1750-1850
Exoticism and Orientalism, 19-20th centuries
20th century art music and politics
Feminist theory and musicology
The symphony up to 1828
Women performers, pedagogues, and composers in the 19th century 19th-Century Women in Music
20th-century Opera
The effects of new technologies on popular music, c.1930-c.1980

Second Viennese School and its Legacy
Romantic Lieder (from Schubert to Wolf)
Classical solo keyboard music
Music in Colonial America (1770-1865)
American Popular Music and Politics (1945-present)
19th Century Opera and Nationalism
Programme Music in the 19th Century
20th-Century Dance
Nationalism, 19th and 20th-centuries
Music criticism in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The string quartet
Nationalism and music in the 19th century Neoclassicism
Aleatoric music

You could spend a lifetime studying any one of these! For example, I have been spending some of my spare time over the last eight or so years becoming familiar with the string quartet repertoire and I am beginning to know my way around the quartets by Shostakovich, Beethoven and Haydn. Those of Mozart I barely know and ones by people like Mendelssohn, Smetana and Morton Feldman I barely even know exist. So, preparing for a topic like "The String Quartet" would be a massive task. And you have seven others to work on. Ones like "Plainchant dissemination up to the 11th century" would involve familiarity with whole other systems of notation and an entirely unfamiliar historical context.

There is also an exam in which you have to identify excerpts from scores. Given something like this, could you identify the decade of composition? The name of the composer? The name of the individual piece?

Here, let me help. Here is what that sounds like. Just listen to the first eight seconds and don't look at the image!

To find the answer, highlight the space below.

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 6, second movement, opening theme.

Given any sufficiently complex field of study, I think that a particularly devious professor could construct an examination that would fail almost anyone! Luckily, most professors are not that unkind...

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