Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg

Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Joys of Bassi: Matti Salminen and Samuel Ramey

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the birth, on June 20, 1843, of the Russian operatic basso Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky.  Considered in his lifetime to be among the greatest bass singers of his time, Fyodor Stravinsky’s memory has been almost entirely eclipsed by that of his son, the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Fyodor Stravinsky died in 1902 at the age of 59.  Sadly, he never recorded.  But yesterday’s post on Fyodor Stravinsky got me to thinking about my favorite bassi, and thus today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes featuring Matti Salminen and Samuel Ramey.  (Yes, of course, there are tens of other bassi deserving of our attention.  In the spirit of sharing, I would ask you to name your favorite bass singers and recordings in the comments below.) The Bass The bass is the lowest male singing voice, the lowest vocal range of all voice types.  Leading bass roles run a certain dramatic gamut, from old, wise, and perhaps priestly men (Mozart’s Don Alfonso from Cosí fan tutte and Sarastro from The Magic Flute); to old and foolish men (Pergolesi’s Uberto in La Serva Padrona and Rossini’s Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville); to comic relief foolish men (Mozart’s Leporello in Don […]

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Music History Monday: Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky

We mark the birth on June 20, 1843 – 179 years ago today – of the Russia bass opera singer Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky, in the city of Minsk, which is today the capital of Belarus but was then part of the Russian Empire.  Considered one of the greatest singers of his time, Fyodor Ignatyevich has largely been forgotten because, one, he never recorded and, two, he’s been eclipsed by the fame of his son, the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). He was born of Polish descent in the “Government (province) of Minsk”, in what had been part of Poland until 1793, when the Russian Empire sliced off and annexed a large chunk of Poland in what is euphemistically called the “second partition of Poland.”  (Today, the “province of Minsk” is part of the “nation” of Belarus, which is advised to mind its P’s and Q’s, as Tsar Putin no more considers Belarus to be separate country than he does Ukraine.  Not that you need me to point this out, but I’ll do it anyway: the “annexation” of Crimea in 2014 and the present attempts to destroy Ukraine and annex the Donbas demonstrate that Russian actions towards its neighbors have not changed […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner, facsimile full scores

If we want to own a facsimile of one of Wagner’s handwritten, manuscript scores, we’ve got limited options, because a great many of Wagner’s manuscripts have not survived.  Their disappearance has everything to do with Wagner’s relationship with King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who was the subject of yesterday’s Music History Monday post.  We’ll get into the particulars of the disappearance (and likely destruction) of the manuscripts in a bit.  But first, let us contemplate the nature and importance of a composer’s hand-written manuscript scores. Composers’ Holographs A “holograph” is a manuscript or document written in its composer’s or author’s hand. There was a time when a composer’s most prized possessions were their holographs: their hand-written, autograph manuscripts: complete scores notated in pencil or ink.   (We pause to rue the passing of such hand-written manuscripts.  As a new generation of composers notates their music using computer programs, the art of music calligraphy is presently going the way of hand-copied illuminated manuscripts, and thus technology will soon claim another victory over a time-honored craft.  But even worse, we – as students and lovers of music – will lose an irreplaceable resource: hand-written manuscripts from which we can learn a remarkable amount about […]

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Music History Monday: The Ultimate Fanboy: The Mad King, Ludwig II

We mark the death (the most suspicious death) on June 13, 1886 – 136 years ago today – of the ultimate Richard Wagner fanboy King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The Running Man Richard Wagner was among the least-athletic looking people to ever grace a composing studio or a conductor’s podium.  Depending upon the source, he was between 5’ 3” and 5’ 5” in heights.  His legs were too short for his torso, and his oversized square head was perched on an otherwise frail body.  In his lifetime, an unknown wag referred to him as “that shovel-faced dwarf”, an unkind if not inaccurate description of the man. But despite his physical shortcomings, Wagner – believe it or not – could run like the wind for remarkable distances. These miracles of sustained athleticism were inspired by Wagner’s creditors and/or the law, from which Wagner was forced to flee on a regular basis.   For example, in April of 1836, following the failure of his opera Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love”; for your information, my spell check just tried to change “liebesverbot” to “lobster pot”).Again: in April of 1836, following the failure of his opera Das Liebesverbot in the central German city […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Johann Strauss – Father and Sons

In 2014, I was asked by The Great Courses/The Teaching Company to figure out a way to make a 24-lecture, 16-hour course that minimized the cost of licensing music for musical examples.  Upfront: I thought then – as I do now – that this was a case of penny wise and pound foolish, as a music course needs, in the end, to feature . . . music.   Whatever; I complied, and in 2015 we recorded Music as a Mirror of History, which explores certain works as personifying certain specific, historic events.  As such, Music as a Mirror of History is a history course with music, rather than a music course with history.  I read and learned a lot writing the course, and was tickled no end when, after its release, I received inquiries asking me how many research assistants I had employed in its making.  “Not a single one” was my repeated response.  “How do you know so much?”, I was asked in return. As the nerdish, CIA analyst Joseph Turner says in Joseph Grady’s Six Days of the Condor (shortened to Three Days of the Condor in the movie, starring Robert Redford), “I just read books.” Lecture 10 […]

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Music History Monday: Siegfried Wagner

We mark the birth of Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried Wagner on June 6, 1869 – 163 years ago today – in Lucerne, Switzerland.  Like the sons of so many great men groomed to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, he could never hope to measure up to or escape from his father’s shadow. Cliché We contemplate, for a moment, this thing called a “cliché.” Strictly defined, a cliché is: “an element of an artistic work, saying, or idea that has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.” Granted. But clichés didn’t become the tiresome, oft-repeated, over-used devices that – by definition – they are without carrying within them a kernel of truth. Admittedly, some clichés express stereotypes that may (or may not) be true, but the vast majority of them are analogies that do indeed express truisms.  In fact, when it comes to expressing a truism succinctly, nothing succeeds more quickly that a cliché. For example: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” (Parenthetically, some folks would tell us that “the apple doesn’t fall […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Benjamin Britten – War Requiem (1962)

Music History Monday for November 22, 2021, was entitled “Benjamin Britten: The Making of a Composer.”  The Dr. Bob Prescribes post that followed, on November 23, 2021, featured Britten’s String Quartet No. 1, which was composed in 1941.  Between them, those two posts outlined the first 29 years of Britten’s life, from his birth in 1913 through 1942.  In this post, we will push Britten’s biography forward to 1962, the year he completed his War Requiem, paying special attention to Britten’s life-long pacifism.  Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Edward Benjamin Britten was born on November 22, 1913, in Lowestoft, Suffolk, on the eastern coast of England, roughly 105 miles northeast of London.  He died in nearby Aldeburgh on December 4, 1976, at the age of 63.  He was not just the most important English composer of the twentieth century but arguably the most important English-born composer since Henry Purcell, who was born in London in 1659, 246 years before Britten.   Britten began piano lessons at seven. At the age of eight, he was enrolled in South Lodge Preparatory School just down the hill from his family home.  The headmaster of the South Lodge School was named Thomas Sewell, a Cambridge graduate […]

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Music History Monday: Benjamin Britten War Requiem

We mark the premiere performance on May 30, 1962 – 60 years ago today – of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.  Completed in early 1962, the War Requiem was commissioned to mark the consecration of the “new” Coventry Cathedral, which was built to replace the original fourteenth century cathedral that had been destroyed on the evening and night of November 14 and 15, 1940. Today’s post will deal entirely with the events that led up to the composition of Britten’s War Requiem: the destruction of Coventry’s Cathedral of St. Michael, the extraordinary spirit of forgiveness and redemption that came to be identified with its ruins, and the New Cathedral that was built between 1956 and 1962.  We cannot appreciate the meaning and spirit of Britten’s War Requiem unless we first come to grips with the meaning and spirit of the destruction and rebirth of Coventry Cathedral.  Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will get into the specifics of the Requiem itself, along with a recommended recording of the piece. Coventry and its Cathedral Coventry is a city in the West Midlands of England, 95 miles north-west of London.  Founded by the Romans, by the fourteenth century Coventry had become a major center […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Ludwig van Beethoven – Fidelio

In referring to Fidelio as Beethoven’s only opera, we often overlook the fact that for all its preliminary versions it was also his first opera.  As such, it has been pointed out that Fidelio, which Beethoven began composing when he was 34 years old, is “the best first opera ever written.”  Writes Paul Robeson in The Cambridge Opera Handbook: Fidelio: “Certainly, it surpasses the first efforts of better-known opera composers: Wagner’s Die Feen, Verdi’s Oberto, Puccini’s Le Villi, and Richard Strauss’ Guntram.” (We would observe that the little whippersnapper, Wolfgang Mozart, composed his first opera – La finta semplice – at the age of 12, so comparisons to Beethoven here are inappropriate.  We’d further observe that he was just 30 years old when he composed The Marriage of Figaro; 32 years old when he composed Don Giovanni; and 33 years old when he composed Cosí fan tutte.  Freak.) As his “first” opera and as a slow worker, Beethoven labored long and hard on Fidelio.  It began its life with the title Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (meaning “Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love”). The opera is a setting of a German-language libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner which was based […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Giuseppe Verdi – Rigoletto

Giuseppe Verdi and Teatro la Fenice Yesterday’s Music History Monday post – entitled “The Phoenix Rises” was about Venice’s fabled opera house, the Teatro la Fenice, “The Phoenix Theater.” Among the many operatic premieres that the Fenice has seen on its boards are five – count ‘em, five – by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901): Ernani (1844); Attila (1846); Rigoletto (1851); La Traviata (1853); and Simon Boccanegra (1857).   These operas are no strangers to this Patreon page. My Music History Monday post for March 6, 2017, focused on the 164th anniversary of the (disastrous) premiere of La Traviata, which took place at the Fenice on March 6, 1853.  My Dr. Bob Prescribes post for May 11, 2021, focused on Verdi’s fifth opera, Ernani, which received its premiere at the Fenice on March 9, 1844.  Today’s post will focus on yet another of Verdi’s Teatro la Fenice premieres, that of Rigoletto, which took place on March 11, 1851.  Specifically, this post will focus on how Verdi managed to get a highly charged political story past the Venetian/Austrian censors and into production.  (For our information: Austria ruled Venice and its home province of Veneto until 1866 when, after the Third Italian War of […]

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