Saturday, January 12, 2008


I was asked in both email and comments to elaborate on why I termed the name of the "Inspirations" series at San Francisco Performances "silly." I elaborated, and thought I'd put all of the comments out here on the blog.

First, I want to reiterate that I think the programming is superb, with each concert pairing two great string quartets, by Ravel, Bartok, Haydn, Carter, Harrison, and others. I plan to attend some of the concerts.

Here's what caught my eye in the press release:
Each of the five concerts pairs contemporary works by such groundbreaking composers as Lou Harrison and Elliott Carter with older works by masters like Hayden, Ravel and Bartók, who may have inspired them, either directly or indirectly.

Those last couple of clauses speak volumes: "who may have inspired them, either directly or indirectly."

I think the idea of "inspiration" is misused and overblown in discussing most music. It's a fuzzy word, and in terms of how it gets used in marketing - not just for music - it has all sorts of spiritual overtones and suggestions that don't particularly apply to how music is composed. I also dislike the idea that composition comes primarily from "inspiration." New music comes primarily from hard work. Sure, it's easier for some composers than others; we all gape in amazement at the endless stream of great songs seemingly tossed off by Schubert, but Beethoven's sketches speak to the hard work and endless revision it took for him to compose.

Moreover, composers listen to the important music of the past. They all take something from what they hear, whether it's a harmonic progression, an idea about form and structure, a thought about orchestration. Sometimes it's clear which past works and composers influenced a given work, sometimes not.

In terms of the string quartet, everyone who writes in the form knows what came before them, and it's a long and glorious history. I have a composer friend who is wary of writing a quartet, exactly because of the "footsteps of giants." As far as Haydn goes, he invented the format. His quartets are the ancestors of every string quartet written since then.

I'll be looking forward to hearing what lecturer Robert Greenberg will have to say about the lineage and sources of the quartets on the program - one of which is his own.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'm with you on this. "May have inspired them, directly or indirectly" is so vague as to be meaningless. They "may have bought them a prune Danish, directly or indirectly" too, and what of it?

Lisa Hirsch said...

SF Performances told me that it's based on something Robert Greenberg had said, and what he said was actually "implicitly or explicitly," which would have been better.

Anonymous said...

It's an unexamined truism that Haydn "invented" the string quartet. Check out Boccherini's Op. 2 (written in 1761), which precede Haydn's invention of the string quartet by some years. But Haydn had the entire German musicological/music historical establishment working for him, while Boccherini was "marginal".

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, thank you for that pointer. Yes, we would have a very different view of music history if Germans hadn't invented it as a professional field.