Monday 25 March 2013

The question of influence

There are many ways to be introduced to Weinberg's music, but by far the most common must be by recommendation based on our current interests in similar composers. Throughout his works, we can hear parallels to many composers, some of whom Weinberg knew and some who formed an important part of his musical knowledge.

     As a listener, these similarities can often be striking. As a writer, however, the topic is notoriously difficult to pin down. It is certainly valuable to identify Weinberg's influences, and the music that gave him inspiration. Identifying parallels to other works is a good way to increase accessibility to his music, as well as helping to form our responses to it. But if a writer is not careful, a study of influence can easily turn into a list of similarities between works. In this post, I hope to sum up some of my current work on the concept of influence in music and to comment on some of the big influences in Weinberg's music itself.

Parallels between works

Shostakovich is the most obvious influence on Weinberg's music. Weinberg himself said that encountering his music was like 'the discovery of another continent'. Other notables include Prokofiev and Bartok, though the parallels can sometimes be more subtle.

   The most valuable musical influences for musicology are ones that are either:

a) - identifiable through comparison between musical scores themselves


b) - described directly in written sources by the composer

The ideal parallel then is a combination between the two.

Before I pick through some Weinberg influences, a few bits of theory on influence itself.

   An excellent book on the topic of influence in art is 'The anxiety of influence' by Harold Bloom. This work takes poetry as its focus, but Bloom's theories can be applied to any creative activity. In a nutshell, Bloom states that any poet who follows a great poet (or a 'genius') must wrestle with their predecessor's work and overcome it if they are to create anything worthy of following it. It is this pressure to overcome that is the 'anxiety' of influence. He goes on to say that the artist has such little room left for original thought that any creative endeavour they undertake must stem from a 'strong misreading' of the poetic tradition itself. Many writers have commented on the difficulty of escaping their overbearing influences in order to create an entirely new work. The notion of an oppressive predecessor can be found throughout art and music history (for example, the struggle to write a symphony after Beethoven). Of course, this brings up wide-reaching questions about our ideas of artistic progress, or even our idea of 'genius' itself.

   Bloom's book proved consequential in its claim that influence in art wasn't just something that critics and historians note but is an active concern in the creative process itself.

   When we apply this to music, there are several obvious implications. We know that musical works can be responses, and when we identify similarities between works we can conjecture about the origins of the composer's creative processes. If we can identify the influences on Weinberg's music, we can begin to understand his music's origins and his knowledge-base when contemplating the piece.

Weinberg and Shostakovich

As an introduction to Weinberg's links to Shostakovich, here's an abstract for a paper I'm working on detailing instances where Weinberg's music had an influence on Shostakovich's.

‘Weinberg & Shostakovich - competition or exchange?’

The close friendship between Weinberg and Shostakovich is well documented, particularly concerning their string quartets. The pair discussed their works during compositional gestation, and a friendly ‘competition’ for writing quartets started between them in the 1950s. Each was winning at different points in time, but Weinberg was the ultimate victor with seventeen by the time of his death in 1996. The strong influence of Shostakovich in Weinberg’s music has been grounds for criticism and even dismissal, but what is less known is the truly reciprocal nature of their creative relationship. Weinberg was thirteen years his junior, but his first quartet predates Shostakovich’s by a year. Weinberg’s early work was prolific, having written six quartets by the time of Shostakovich’s third in 1946. Examining Shostakovich’s scores following these works reveals a great exchange of ideas between the two friends, with an undeniable influence from Weinberg in several pieces. This paper explores this complex relationship, with specific examples from the music of both composers.
The 'undeniable' influence from Weinberg is based on strong parallels between scores, and in several cases is also documented in Shostakovich's correspondence.  As work on the paper continues, I'll post a full break-down on this blog.


I hope that the above proves for interesting reading. In discussions of specific works, please feel free to comment on the posts with your suggestions for parallels between pieces.

I'll leave you with these two pieces. The first is from Weinberg's Fourth Quartet. The second is Bernard Herrmann's suite from the film 'Psycho'. Following a few weeks writing on the Fourth Quartet, all I can hear in my head is Herrmann's music to the film. Share your thoughts!

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