Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg

Music History Monday: Béla Bartók’s American Exile

We mark the death on September 26, 1945 – 77 years ago today – of the pianist, composer, and Hungarian patriot Béla Bartók. Born in what was then the Hungarian town of Nagyszentmiklós(now Sînnicolau Mare in Romania) on March 25, 1881, Bartók died – during what he called his “comfortable exile” – in New York City. Before moving on to Bartók’s “American Exile”, let’s establish –as we can from our vantage point in 2022 – his creds as a great and influential twentieth century composer! In 1961, 16 years after Bartók’s death, Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) – composer, conductor, and, in the words of his teacher Olivier Messiaen, the great insufferable one – wrote this about Bartók’s music: “The pieces most applauded are the least good; his best products are loved in their weaker aspects. His work triumphs now through its ambiguity. Ambiguity that will surely bring him insults during future evaluation. His work has not the profound unity and novelty of Webern’s or the vigorous controlled dynamism of Stravinsky’s. His language lacks interior coherence. His name will live on in the limited ensemble of his chamber music.”  Boulez was not just wrong; he was snotty wrong.  But the degree of […]

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Music History Monday: Day Gigs

“Don’t give up your day gig.” Along with “don’t eat yellow snow” and “fake it ‘til you make it”, “don’t give up your day gig” remains one of the oldest, hoariest, clichéd pieces of advice anyone can give or receive. But unless you were lucky/wise enough to heed the other greatest piece of advice any musician can receive, that being “marry rich”, “don’t give up your day gig” is still among the very best pieces of advice a musician can receive. Very few of us get our dream job right out of school; hell, very few of us ever get our dream job. All too rapidly, reality intrudes on youthful artistic idealism and no matter how much one wants to compose, or play violin, or sing, unless we can find someone willing to pay us to do so, we must all do something to make money. And then, as we get older and develop a taste for the finer things in life – like feeding, clothing, and housing our children – our day gigs become not just a matter of survival for ourselves but for those around us. Now, here and there and every now and then, someone gets very […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Robert Schumann: Kreisleriana

Romanticism The nineteenth century saw the emergence of a new sort of European literature.  The cutting-edge writers of the time were consumed by a number of particular themes: the glorification of extreme emotion, particularly love; nostalgia for a distant, mystical, legendary past; and a passionate enthusiasm for nature wild and free, unspoiled by humanity and its bourgeois values! Soon enough, visual artists and composers embraced these themes as well.  For many such nineteenth century writers, poets, visual artists, and composers, over-the-top expressive content, nostalgia for the past, personal confession and the depiction of nature wild and free were the vehicles for achieving what their art – at its essence – was all about: spontaneous and magnified emotional expression. The adjective “Romantic” came to be used to describe such emotionally charged and self-expressive art. And no nineteenth century, “Romantic era” composer believed more fervently in music as personal, emotional, and spiritual confessional than did Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Robert Schumann: Early Life He was born in the central German town of Zwickau on June 8, 1810, the fifth and last child of August Schumann and Joanna Christiana Schumann (née Schnabel).    We are told that if we do what we love, we’ll […]

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Music History Monday: Robert and Clara, Sittin’ in a Tree…

We mark the marriage on September 12, 1840 – 182 years ago today – of the pianist and composer Clara Wieck (1819-1896) to the composer and pianist Robert Schumann (1810-1856).  The couple were married the day before Clara’s 21st birthday (September 13, 1840), for reasons that will be explained in detail in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post. Not for the Timid I ask: what are the most difficult things any person can attempt?  To summit K2 and return alive?  To win Olympic gold?  To overcome addiction?  To row solo across the Pacific?  All tough things to accomplish, no doubt.   What are the scariest things anyone can do?   Swim with piranhas? Eat at a barbecue restaurant next to a cat hospital?  Urinate on Mike Tyson?  Scary stuff, dangerous stuff, that. But to my mind, nothing is more soul-searingly difficult-slash terrifying than one, raising children and two, staying in a first marriage.  (Okay; I’ve probably told you more about my life than I intended to, but there it is.) Children are to people what water is to a house: children will find and reveal every flaw in your “structure” – your personality – while simultaneously sucking dry your money, patience, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a prodigiously gifted pianist and composer.  All in all, he composed 5½ piano concerti.  (That was not a typo; an explanation will follow in a bit.) The first two of his piano concerti were composed while Prokofiev was still a student at the Petrograd/Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which he attended from 1904 until 1914; from the ages of 13 to 23.  On May 11, 1914, Prokofiev performed his Piano Concerto No. 1 (composed in 1912) at his Conservatory graduation ceremony. The ceremony was nothing less than a Prokofiev lovefest, as he graduated with high honors and was awarded the prestigious Anton Rubinstein Prize in piano, a prize that included a brand new Shreder grand piano. (“Shreder” was a Russian-made piano that was “based” on American Steinway pianos, a not unfamiliar example of Russian appropriation of American technology.) Prokofiev chose to play his Piano Concerto No. 1 at his graduation ceremony rather than his Piano Concerto No. 2 (of 1913) because the premiere of that second piano concerto – 8 months prior, on September 5, 1913 – had created a scandal.  Prokofiev, ordinarily as sensitive to such things as a lump of basalt, decided that the Second: “would […]

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Music History Monday: Fire

We mark the premiere on September 5, 1913 – 109 years ago today – of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  Prokofiev (1891-1953) composed the piece while still a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory; it was completed in April of 1913.  (For our information, Prokofiev still had another year to go at the Conservatory; he didn’t graduate until May of 1914.)   The concerto received its premiere – 109 years ago today – at the Vauxhall at Pavlovsk, Pavlovsk being a sprawling Imperial palace, park, garden, and summertime concert venue some 19 miles south of St. Petersburg.  The orchestra was conducted by Alexander Aslanov, who for many years led the summer concert series there at Pavlovsk. The piano solo – with its spectacularly difficult piano part – was performed by the then 22-year-old Prokofiev himself. That premiere performance provoked quite an uproar from the audience.  That uproar will be discussed at length in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, which will be built around Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2.   For now, we are going to talk about what happened to the actual score of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto.  But first, some historical background without which there would be no […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Charlie Parker

The Way He Lived and Played In the parlance of the sports world, Charlie Parker “left it all on the field.” The unstoppable, overwhelming intensity with which he played the saxophone was mirrored in the way he lived his life as well. When he died in the New York City apartment of Baroness Panonnica de Koenigswarter at the Hotel Apartments Stanhope (at Fifth Avenue and 81st Street) on March 12, 1955, he was just 34 years old. Based on Parker’s appearance at the time of his death, the attending physician, Dr. Robert Freymann, estimated his age as being between 55 and 60; the coroner who conducted his autopsy put an age of 53 on his death certificate. Parker’s immediate cause of death was unclear, because after a lifetime (albeit a short lifetime) of living at the very edge, his body had simply given out. His stomach wall was perforated by a peptic ulcer; he was suffering from lobar pneumonia; his cirrhotic liver had stopped functioning; and he suffered a massive heart attack, pretty much all at once. It has been said that Charlie Parker wasn’t so much as dead as he was used up. According to the founder of Dial […]

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Music History Monday: Bird

We mark the birth on August 29, 1920 – 102 years ago today – of the alto saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker. The trumpet player (and one-time member of Charlie Parker’s quintet) Miles Davis (1926-1991) famously said: “You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.” Miles Davis never minced words, and he does not mince them here. Along with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker was (and remains) the most innovative, influential, and technically brilliant jazz musician to have yet lived. However, before moving on to Parker, we have one other piece of date-related musical business. I know, I know: I am most aware that having broached the subject of Charlie Parker, it behooves us – out of awe and respect – to get on with his story. But along with Parker’s birth, one other event occurred on this date that demands – demands! – our attention. So please, allow me this brief excursion. On this Day in Music History Stupid On August 29, 1977 – 45 years ago today – three people were arrested in Memphis after trying to steal Elvis Presley’s body. (The New York Post headline pictured above indicates that four people were […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Claude Debussy

Picking Up from Where We Left Off from Monday’s Music History Monday . . . Claude Debussy (1862-1918), preternaturally talented little cocker that he was, entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1872 at the age of ten. He remained there for twelve years, until 1884, when at the age of 22 he won the vaunted Prix de Rome (“Rome Prize”) for his cantata, The Prodigal Son. Having won the Prix de Rome, Debussy was expected to reside and compose at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in the Villa Medici in Rome for two years. Poor Debussy: having won a prize that everyone else coveted he complained bitterly about having to leave his beloved Paris for what he considered a “foreign exile”, something for which not a single one of us feels sorry for him. Debussy recalled his pique at having won the prize this way: “’You’ve won the prize’, someone said, tapping me on the shoulder. Whether you believe it or not, I can nonetheless assert that all my joy collapsed! I saw clearly the boredoms, the irritations that [such a prize] brings.” Debussy did indeed reside in the Villa Medici in Rome between 1885 and 1887, and he claimed to have […]

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Music History Monday: Debussy

We celebrate the birth on August 22, 1862 – 160 years ago today – of the French composer and pianist Claude Debussy.  Born in the Paris suburb of St. Germain-en-Laye, he died in Paris on March 25, 1918, at the age of 55.  Let’s tell it like it is: Monsieur Debussy was one of the great ones.  For all of its sensual beauty – and Debussy did indeed compose some of the most gorgeous music ever written – his music is among the most original, revolutionary, and influential ever composed.  At a time when young composers like Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) were casting about for new musical models, it was Debussy’s music that became their essential inspiration. Along with Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) Debussy was the most influential composer of the twentieth century. Among the radical triumvirate of Debussy, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky, it was Debussy who was the “breakout” composer, the first composer to cultivate a musical language that broke free of the melodic and harmonic traditions of tonality, traditions that had governed Western music since the fifteenth century.  That the musical revolution started in France is most significant, for reasons to be discussed in a […]

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