Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg

Dr. Bob Prescribes Paderewski: Piano Concerto in A minor, OP. 17 (1888)

Relatively late pianistic bloomer though he may have been, when Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) performed, audiences went wild. It’s no exaggeration to say that when Paderewski made his international debut in Vienna in 1887 at the age of 27 he became a legend almost overnight. Not since Franz Liszt (1811-1886) had concert-goers seen and heard such a complete, made-for-the-stage package: over-the-top pianistic flamboyance; tremendous stage charisma; striking, movie-star good looks; a head of hair that reminded his admirers of a golden halo; and a composer able to wow audiences with his own music as well as the “classics”. Among the concert-going public, the name “Paderewski” soon became synonymous for supreme pianism.  (Really, how many concert pianists are referenced in popular songs? In 1916, Irving Berlin [Music History Monday, May 11, 2020 and Dr. Bob Prescribes, May 12, 2020] wrote a song entitled I love a Piano which includes these words: “And with the pedal,  I love to meddle, When Paderewski comes this way. I’m so delighted,  when I’m invited, To hear that long-haired genius play!”) The uncritical adoration Paderewski received from the concert-going public was not shared by his fellow professionals. Certainly, some were envious of his success, but in […]

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Music History Monday: I Left My Heart in Doylestown, Pennsylvania

On June 29, 1941 – 79 years ago today – the Polish pianist, composer, philanthropist, vintner, and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski died in New York City. He was 80 years old. Before moving on to the story of that truly remarkable man’s life, we would grudgingly allot 230 words to a story so wonderfully ridiculous that I’d wager not a one of us could have made it up. On this day in 2000, Marshall Bruce Mathers III (born 1972) – better known by his stage name of “Eminem” – was sued for $10 million for slander and defamation of character by his mother Debbie Mathers-Nelson (born 1955). She had taken offense from a line in Eminem’s breakthrough single “My Name Is” (from his 1999 debut album The Slim Shady LP). The offending line? “My mom smokes more dope than I do”.  For his part, the rapper maintained that his lyric about his mother was totally true: that she did smoke more dope than he did. By her conduct during the suit, Ms. Mathers-Nelson provided all the evidence necessary to support her son’s assertion. According to her attorney Fred Gibson “she was the most high-maintenance client I’ve had in my legal career.” […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mahler, Symphony No. 3

Mahler composed the great bulk of his Symphony No. 3 during the summers of 1895 and 1896. (Mahler was a “summer break” composer, who had to work around his conducting schedule.) It is a huge, sprawling, 6-movement work, roughly 100 to 105 minutes in performance. (The recommended performance, conducted by Claudio Abbado, runs 102 minutes and 42 seconds: that’s 1 hour, 42 minutes, and 42 seconds.) Not only is the third Mahler’s longest work, it is also the longest symphony in the standard repertoire.  (For our information, Mahler originally intended the symphony to be longer: he planned to include a seventh movement, an orchestral setting of the song “The Heavenly Life.” In the end he chose not to include the song here in the Third Symphony; instead it became the fourth and final movement of his Symphony No. 4.) Among the many things Mahler told Natalie Bauer-Lechner about his Third Symphony-in-progress was its programmatic plan, a plan he later withdrew and wished to god he’d never mentioned at all. Nevertheless, it is the key to understanding his expressive intentions and the dramatic progression of movements as the symphony unfolds, and we press it joyfully to our collective bosoms in gratitude. […]

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Music History Monday: The Damrosch Dynasty: Where Would We Be Without Them?

We mark the birth on June 22, 1859 – 161 years ago today – of the German-born American conductor and educator Frank Heino Damrosch.   Permit me, please, a personal reminiscence before moving on to establish why Frank Damrosch, his father Leopold, his brother Walter and his sister Clara were nothing less than the first family of American music from the 1870s through the 1920s.   It was one of those days I will never forget.  We all have them – a wedding; a graduation; the birth of a child; heaven help us, the death of someone dear – days during which events occur that by their sheer magnitude become indelibly printed in our memories.  Many thousands of us had just such a day on Sunday, October 19, 1991.  It was a hot, martini-dry, cloudless and very windy day in the San Francisco Bay Area; fire weather, as it is colloquially known.  We were at the end of our so-called “dry season”; it hadn’t rained since March.  We were also in the midst of a multi-year drought, and dead trees, dried out eucalyptus bark (eucalyptus trees molt/shed like Siberian Huskies in July); dried leaves and brush and pine needles had […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Ella Fitzgerald

Here’s what happened: On November 21, 1934, the 17 year-old Ella Jane Fitzgerald participated in one of the first “Amateur Nights” held at the Apollo Theater, the famed music hall located at 253 West 125th Street in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood. Fitzgerald and a friend named Charles Gulliver had created a dance routine that they performed in local clubs, and it was as a dancer that she intended to perform at the Apollo.  Young Ella was preceded on stage by a local dance duo called the Edwards Sisters. The sisters must have been good, because the excessively shy and most definitely gawky Ella Fitzgerald was intimidated down to her cockles (don’t ask) and decided on the spot not to dance but instead, to sing a couple of songs. From such serendipitous events do the greatest of things often develop.  Fitzgerald’s decision to sing instead of dance didn’t come completely out of the blue; she’s been singing on the streets of Harlem for roughly a year for the loose coin or two. She sang in the style of her hero, Connee Boswell (1907-1976), later saying that: “My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I […]

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Music History Monday: Ella Fitzgerald: Singer and Musician

We mark the death on June 15, 1996 – 24 years ago today – of the singer and musician – the First Lady of Song, the Queen of Jazz, Lady Ella – Ella Jane Fitzgerald at the age of 78.  We contemplate singers. I would begin by making a couple of distinctions, distinctions that might trouble any number singers. My apologies, then, in advance (though, frankly, if I was worried about upsetting singers I would never have become a composer in the first place). Distinction one: in the world of music, there is often a divide – a big divide – between musicians and singers. A musician is someone who can not only sing and/or play a musical instrument and/or compose, but someone who knows something of music. Whether a concert violinist, a rock guitarist, an operatic soprano, or a jazz saxophonist, someone who “knows something of music” is a musician who is familiar with the repertoire and the history of her discipline, and has attained a working technical knowledge of the vocabulary of music: rhythm, melody, harmony, etc.  Many singers grow up as musicians, who studied voice and/or a musical instrument as children. But not infrequently, singers are laypeople […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Flamenco

“Flamenco” is a genre of Spanish song and dance that originated in the southern Spanish region of Andalucía. It is an utterly remarkable, physically and expressively thrilling hybrid/synthesis/melding of native Spanish, North African, Arab, and especially gypsy influences. In my humble (but well-informed) opinion, Flamenco is – along with jazz – the most viscerally exciting music to be found on this planet. I would go so far as to suggest that if Andalucía were a media giant equal to the U.S. of A., we’d all be singing and dancing to Flamenco and not that north American-born hybrid called rock ‘n’ roll. (For our information: on November 16, 2010, UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – declared Flamenco to be one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”) Damn straight. For reasons geographic and cultural, Flamenco could only have evolved in Spain. A Country Apart With the Pyrenees (topping out at 11,168 feet high) to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the West and the Mediterranean Sea to the south and east, Spain (and its Iberian sibling Portugal) stands physically apart from the remainder of Western Europe. In terms of the abundance, variety, and […]

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Music History Monday: The One Who Doesn’t Want Me Can Lick My [expletive deleted]

We note the death on June 8, 1839 – 181 years ago today – of the German soprano Aloysia Weber Lange. Don’t know who she is? You will soon enough. Our story begins in March of 1777, in the city of Salzburg, in the spacious 8-room apartment at No. 8 Markartplatz that the Mozart family called home. It was there and then that it was decided that Salzburg was no place for someone as talented as the 21 year-old Wolfgang, and that a job commensurate with his great talents could only be found in that greatest of cities: Paris. On March 14, 1777, Mozart’s father Leopold petitioned the Prince of Salzburg – Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo (1732-1812) – for permission to take Wolfgang “on tour” to Paris. Such leaves-of-absence had never been a problem in the past, as young Mozart’s European tours had brought tremendous prestige to his hometown of Salzburg. But it was a problem now; the archbishop had had enough of his Kapellmeister (Leopold) gallivanting around Europe with his snotty little son. The archbishop turned down the petition and threatened Leopold with dismissal. Wolfgang, likewise threatened, quit his job as concertmaster of the court orchestra before he could be […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Robert Helps

I will be forgiven, please, the overtly autobiographical nature of todays post. In a number of ways I was something of a late-bloomer as a musician. Sure, I started piano at a fairly young age and played the “classics” that come with piano lessons; yes, my grandmothers – one a professional pianist and the other a professional actress – exposed me to a wide range of piano music and orchestral music when I was growing up; and indeed, my father’s record collection was an unending delight. But what passed for my “music education” as a child was a slapdash affair, and in fact, I knew very little. When I got into jazz at the age of 14 (or so) I abandoned practicing my dead Germans entirely. So when I went away to college and suddenly encountered kids who went to high school at Juilliard Prep; or had just returned from participating in the music camps/festivals at Aspen, Tanglewood, Graz, and Spoleto; and met classmates like Stefan Kozinski (1953-2014), who already had a thriving career as a professional organist and piano soloist, and Eric Moe (born 1954), who had memorized all of Beethoven’s music and could give you a proper opus […]

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Music History Monday: Elvis Presley’s Birth House

It was on June 1, 1971 – 49 years ago today – that the two-room shotgun house in Tupelo Mississippi in which Elvis Presley (1935-1977) was born was opened to the public as a tourist attraction. The house, located at 306 Old Satillo Drive (today 306 Elvis Presley Drive) was built by Presley’s father Vernon, his grandfather Jesse, and his uncle Vester in 1934 for $180. It was designated a State Historical Site by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History on January 8, 1978, on what would have been Elvis’ 43rd birthday. The house is but one small step removed from the fabled log cabin birth houses of such American icons as Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses Grant (and yes, Millard Fillmore). In total, Presley’s birth house can’t occupy much more than 600 square feet.  Behind the front door is the house’s one-and-only bedroom, in which Elvis was born. Behind the bedroom is the kitchen, and that’s it: a rear door leads to the back yard where the outhouse once stood. It was a difficult birth for Gladys Presley (1912-1958). Elvis was a twin. He was born some 35 minutes after his identical twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, […]

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