Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg

Dr. Bob Prescribes William Schumann

In last week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, I asserted that the composers Roy Harris (1898-1979) and his student William Schuman (1910-1992): “are generally considered to be the two greatest American composers of symphonies to have yet graced our planet.” I have received no evidence in the intervening week that that statement isn’t as true today as it was on April 9. Accordingly, I will (and not for the first time) repeat myself even as I flesh that statement out just a bit: “Roy Harris (1898-1979), who composed 13 numbered symphonies between 1933 and 1974 and his student William Schuman (1910-1992), who composed 10 numbered symphonies between 1935 and 1976, are generally considered to be the two greatest American composers of symphonies to have yet graced our planet.” Does anyone want to argue with that? Good. William Schumann William Howard Schuman, known to everyone as “Bill”, was born on the upper West Side of Manhattan Island, New York, New York (a.k.a. “the Big Apple”, “the city so big they had to name it twice”) on August 4, 1910. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish household; by his own account, a happy, regular kid.  He taught himself to play the violin… 

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Music History Monday: The Empress

Today we celebrate the birth – on April 15, 1894, 125 years ago today, in Chattanooga, Tennessee – of the American contralto Bessie Smith. We Reflect on “GOAT” When I was growing up, the word “goat” had two distinct meanings. First, there was the animal: a quadruped mammal, a member of the family Bovidae and subfamily Caprinae. There are presently over 300 distinct breeds of goat, both wild and domesticated. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2011 there were more than 924 million goats alive across the planet. (One can only wonder why there hasn’t been a more recent census.) When I was growing up, the second meaning of the word “goat” was a loser: a derisive term for an athlete who, as a result of some monumentally boneheaded mistake, was responsible for his or her team’s loss. For example: Mike Torres, the Boston Red Sox pitcher who gave up a three-run homer to light-hitting, New York Yankee second baseman Bucky Dent in a one-game playoff following the 1978 regular season; or Bill Buckner, the Boston Red Sox first baseman who booted an easy grounder to lose game six of the 1986 World Series against the… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Roy Harris

I continue on my self-avowed mini-mission to bring to you some of the most glorious music (and recorded performances) I know, music by mid-century, so-called American “populist” composers. This week and next will feature symphonies by two composers who are generally considered to be the two greatest American composers of symphonies to have yet graced our planet: Roy Harris (1898-1979) and William Schuman (1910-1992). Never heard of them? AAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!! (That was primal.)  During the salad days of the American symphony – the 1930s, 40s and 50s – Harris and Schuman were musical household names. Their music was played and replayed live by symphonies great and regional; recorded, reviewed and celebrated; and broadcast constantly on the concert music/classical radio stations that at that time so dominated the airwaves. Today we might have smart phones and tablets and readers and YouTube and Adele, but in comparison to the mid-twentieth century we here today in the U.S. of A. are culturally and nationally bereft. That we, as a listening public, have, for the most part, forgotten the names and music of Roy Harris and William Schuman is nothing short of a cultural tragedy. Harris’ life-story reads like a rags-to-riches novel, and Harris himself… 

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Music History Monday: The Daughters of Atlas

I am aware – nay, more than aware – that this present post is an example of unconscionable conceit and vanity. Of this I stand justly accused; my head droops in shame and my present auto-flagellation will continue for minutes – perhaps for even the half-an-hour – to come. What, you rightly ask, could have prompted this pre-emptive outburst of self-loathing? (“Pre-emptive” in that having abused myself, it is my hope that you will feel no need to do so as well.) What has brought this on? Just this: I am dedicating this week’s “Music History Monday” to an event that at the time of this writing has not yet occurred and once having taken place – on Monday evening, April 8, 2019 – will almost certainly not qualify as “music history.”That event? The world premiere of my piano trio, The Daughters of Atlas this evening in Berkeley, California. Talking about your own music is like talking about your children or, worse, your grandchildren: it is almost impossible to do so without becoming a soporific bore, inducing drooling paralysis in those within earshot. Nevertheless, I am asked constantly how I go about writing a piece of music. Since I know… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin died penniless and all but forgotten on April 1, 1917 in an asylum in New York City’s gigantic Manhattan State Hospital, his brain reduced to black-currant jelly by syphilis. He left behind him a “terminally unproduced opera” entitled Treemonisha and a body of piano rags that virtually defined the genre and are as important and representative a set of national piano works as are Chopin’s Mazurkas and Polonaises, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (which were indeed originally piano works, albeit for piano duet).  With his death began the big chill for Joplin’s wonderful music. In the half century-plus that followed, a tiny coterie of loyal disciples kept his name and music alive, including the pianist Max Morath (born 1926) and the scholars Rudi Blesh (1899-1985), Harriet Grossman Janis (1898-1963), and the pianist and musicologist Vera Brodsky Lawrence (1909-1996). (Rudi Blesh’s and Harriet Janis’ book, They All Played Ragtime, first published in 1950, was the first serious scholarly study of the subject; my revised fourth edition was published in 1971.) Enter the American musicologist, pianist, and conductor Joshua Rifkin, who was born on April 22, 1944 in New York City. A crazy-talented dude, he received degrees from… 

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Music History Monday: An American Original and an American Tragedy

On April 1, 1917 – 102 years ago today – the American composer and pianist Scott Joplin died at the Manhattan State Hospital on New York City’s Ward’s Island, which straddles the Harlem River and the East River between Manhattan and Queens. He was 48 years old. During the course of his compositional career – which spanned the nineteen years from 1896 to 1915 – Joplin composed 44 ragtime works for piano, a ragtime ballet and two operas. (A musical “vaudeville act”, a musical comedy, a symphony and a piano concerto were purportedly composed as well near the end of Joplin’s life. These works were never published, and the manuscripts have, presumably, been lost, leading some to wonder whether they ever really existed at all.) Embraced today as being among the greatest and most original of American composers; creator of the single most famous ragtime work of them all, Maple Leaf Rag of 1900; inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970; awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976; and featured on a first-class postage stamp in 1983; Joplin died in almost total obscurity there at the Manhattan State Hospital, which was then – with 4,400 beds – the largest… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Walter Piston

There was a time not long ago when you could not turn over a musical rock without finding a copy of Walter Piston’s book Harmony underneath. First published in 1941, Piston’s Harmony was ubiquitous; my first copy was a yellow-jacketed third edition, published in 1969. (It is now in its fifth edition; the fourth and fifth editions have been “revised and expanded” by Mark Devoto, a music professor emeritus of Tufts University). When I was in high school, I did my level best to teach myself harmony out of that third edition of Piston’s Harmony. At the time, I thought I had sort of succeeded, though looking back I realize that I failed miserably. In kindness to myself, though, my failure was not entirely my fault; it was just as much the fault of the nonsensical (if traditional) assumption that the study “harmony” (the simultaneous sounding of different pitches) was somehow separable from melody, counterpoint, phrase structure, and form, which as I’ve come to realize in my maturity it is most certainly NOT. The composer and music theorist Walter Piston (1894-1976) was a professor of music at Harvard University from 1926 until his retirement in 1960. Despite some dabbling with… 

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Music History Monday: Four Birthdays and a Painful Death

Some birthday greetings to four wonderful musicians before diving into the rather more grim principal subject of today’s post. Four Birthdays A buon compleanno (“happy birthday” in Italian) to the legendary Italian conductor (and cellist) Arturo Toscanini, who was born on March 25, 1867 – 152 years ago today – in the north-central Italian city of Parma (the home of Parmigiano-Reggiano, or “parmesan” cheese and the simply exquisite cured ham known as Prosciutto di Parma). Toscanini was as famous for his incendiary temper as he was for his streamlined, rhythmically propulsive, honor-the-composer’s-score-at-all-costs performances. Decorum and good taste precludes me from sharing many of the nicknames he was awarded by his performers; one such nickname I can share is “The Towering Inferno.” A boldog születésnapot (“happy birthday” in Hungarian) to the killer-great Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Bartók, who was born on March 25, 1881 – 138 years ago today – in what was then the town of Nagyszentmiklós, in the Kingdom of Hungary in Austria-Hungary. (It was a source of ever-lasting pain for the adult Bartók that the town and district in which he grew up was ceded to Romania in 1920 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up by the… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 2

I invoke Ridley Scott’s 1979 Sci-fi masterwork, the movie Alien. It was the first movie in that storied franchise, with the killer tag line, “in space no one can hear you scream” (40 years later, I still love that line!). I set final scene. Warrant Officer Ellen Louise Ripley (played by the indomitable Sigourney Weaver) is the last surviving member of the crew of the commercial space tug Nostromo. In the final scene we find Ripley on the Nostromo’s shuttle craft; she has just destroyed the Nostromo itself and – so she thinks – with it, the Alien on board (a.k.a. the Xenomorph or Internecivus raptus [meaning “murderous thief”], a endoparasitoid extraterrestrial lifeform, for those of you like me who must know). But the alien, of course, is not dead; it has managed to wedge itself into a small crevise on the shuttle. Having stripped down to her skivvies Ripley discovers the Alien, and in a manner most satisfying manages to finally destroy it. As she lowers herself (and her cat Jonesy, a.k.a. “Zunar-J-5/9 Doric-4-7”) into her suspended animation/stasis pod for her trip back to earth and the closing credits roll, we hear a three minute-long musical passage: gorgeous; mysterious; and as… 

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Music History Monday: Transfigured Night

On March 18, 1902 – 117 years ago today – Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (meaning Transfigured Night) for string sextet received its premiere in his native city of Vienna. Considered today to be Schoenberg’s first “major” work, the music prompted what are euphemistically called “disruptions” (meaning catcalls and hisses) and even some fisticuffs among the audience, though it evoked respect and admiration as well.  About those disruptions and fisticuffs. In fact, Transfigured Night is a fastball down the middle of the late-Romantic era musical plate. Typical of so much nineteenth century music, it is a piece of “program music”: an instrumental work that “describes” a literary story. Typical of so much late-nineteenth century German music, it employs an advanced harmonic language based on that of Wagner and Brahms. So why all the fuss at the premiere of Transfigured Night? I would suggest that much more than the music itself, that disapproval had to do with the ethnicity of its composer and the political atmosphere in Vienna in 1902. And therein lies our story. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) Schoenberg was born on September 13, 1874 in the Leopoldstadt ghetto (or the “2nd district”) of Vienna, into a poor Jewish family of Hungarian… 

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