Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg

Dr. Bob Prescribes The Last Waltz

The Band The group of five musicians that eventually became known as “The Band” began to gather in Toronto, Canada, in 1957.  However, it wasn’t until 1968 – after working as the backup group for the Canadian rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins and then Bob Dylan – that the band became “The Band.”  As “The Band,” the group recorded and released ten studio albums, becoming one of the most popular and influential rock ‘n’ roll ensembles of their time. Bruce Eder (born 1955), journalist, film writer, and audio/video producer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Newsday, Current Biography, Interview, the Oxford American, AllMusic, and AllMovie describes The Band as: “one of the most popular and influential rock groups in the world, their music embraced by critics as seriously as the music of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.” An exaggeration?  No.  The Band were the darlings of Rolling Stone magazine, which lavished more attention on them than any other group in the magazine’s history.  On January 12, 1970, The Band appeared on the cover of Time magazine, only the second rock group – after the Beatles – to be so honored.  Both George Harrison and Eric Clapton claimed that The Band had exerted […]

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Music History Monday: Johannes Ockeghem and the Oltremontani

We mark the death on February 6, 1497 – 526 years ago today – of the composer and singer Johannes Ockeghem, in Tours, France, at the age of 87 (or so).  He was born circa 1410 in the French-speaking city of Saint-Ghislain in what today is Belgium, about 5 miles from the border with France.  The title of this post – “Johannes Ockeghem and the Oltremontani” – employs a Italian word that may not be familiar to everybody: “Oltremontani.”  It’s a word that means, literally, “those from the other side of the mountains.”  The mountains in question are the alps, so in fact, generally, the word refers to people “from the other side of the alps”: from northern and northwestern Europe.  But when used in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it meant something quite more specific than that: it referred to musicians from what today are northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg.  Johannes Ockeghem was just such an oltremontano, having been born in Belgium close to the northern border of France. Johannes Ockeghem (circa 1410-1497) “Born circa 1410, died 1497.”  Back in the fifteenth century, if someone became famous – and at the time of his death, Johannes Ockeghem […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Francis Poulenc: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932)

The New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg offers this appraisal of the music of Francis Poulenc in third edition of his book, The Lives of the Great Composers (W. W. Norton, 1997): “It seems clear that Francis Poulenc has emerged as the strongest and most individual member of Les Six [that group of six Paris-based composers arbitrarily lumped together by a Parisian journalist in 1919: Georges Auric (1899–1983), Louis Durey (1888–1979), Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), Darius Milhaud (1892–1974), Francis Poulenc (1899–1963), and Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983)]. Nobody would have guessed it in the 1930s. The betting would have been on Milhaud or Honegger. Poulenc was considered a comic (he even had the marked facial and physical resemblance to the great French comic Fernandel).” Harold Schonberg facetiously continues: “[Poulenc was] the court jester, the sophisticate. So charming and amusing! So lightweight! So chic! As a corollary, so unimportant, au fond [basically]. To the world, Poulenc was the musical soft-shoe man, dancing away at his music-hall routines with not a care in the world, a grin perpetually plastered on his face.” Learning to Compose Lacking any formal training, in his early music Poulenc (1899-1963) fell back on what he did best, and that was write beautiful […]

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Music History Monday: Francis Poulenc: “a bit of monk and a bit of hooligan”

We mark the death on January 30, 1963 – exactly sixty years ago today – of the French composer and pianist Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc, in Paris.  A Parisian from head to toe, he was born in the tres chic 8th arrondisement in that magnificent city on January 7, 1899.  He died of a heart attack not far from where he’d been born, in his flat opposite the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris’ 6th arrondisement.  Before we can get down with the magnifique Monsieur Poulenc, we have an important event in rock ‘n’ roll history to mark. On January 30, 1969 – 54 years ago today – the Beatles, joined by the keyboard player Billy Preston, performed their final live concert.  The venue was unusual: a hastily constructed stage on the rooftop of their five-story Apple Corps (their record company) headquarters, at 3 Savile Row: smack dab in the middle of the fashion district in London’s tony Mayfair neighborhood.  (I cannot resist the joke: how do you get a rock band onto a roof?  You tell them the beer is on the house.) Badaboom. A couple of weeks before the rooftop concert eventually took place, Paul McCartney had suggested that the […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Criterion Collection – Paul Robeson, Portrait of the Artist

In 1965, the American writer James Baldwin wrote: “At a time when there seemed to be no hope at all, Paul Robeson [1898-1976] spoke out for all of us.” By “all of us,” Baldwin is, of course, referring to Black America. In 1998, the American scholar, historian, author, and social historian Lerone Bennett expanded on Baldwin’s comment, writing: “Before King dreamed, before Thurgood Marshall petitioned and Sidney Poitier emoted, before the big breakthrough in Hollywood and Washington, before the Jim Crow signs came down, and before the civil rights banners went up, before Spike Lee, before Denzel, before Sam Jackson and Jesse Jackson, there was Paul Robeson. One of the most phenomenally gifted men ever born in America, he lived one of the most extraordinary stories of the century. When he died, even his critics and detractors conceded that he was one of the immortals.” According to the American historian Dr. Clement Alexander Price, who was the Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of History at the Newark, NJ campus of Rutgers University: “Called by some ‘The Great Forerunner’ and others the ‘Tallest Tree in Our Forest,’ Paul Robeson is without peer in the annals of modern American civilization. His […]

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Music History Monday: Paul Robeson: Truly Larger Than Life

We mark the death on January 23, 1976 – 47 years ago today – of the American bass-baritone singer, stage and screen actor, civil rights activist, professional football player, and graduate of Columbia University Law School Paul Robeson at the age of 77, in Philadelphia.  Born in Princeton, New Jersey on April 9, 1898, the son of an escaped slave turned Presbyterian minister, Robeson had more intellectual, artistic, and athletic gifts and lived more lives than any 10 (20? 50? 100?) so-called “normal” people.  And he had to fight for every one of those lives, growing up a black person in early twentieth century America. “Larger than Life” The English-language idiom “larger than life” describes people “who are better and stronger and smarter than the average Joe”: individuals imbued with characteristics and abilities far beyond those of “ordinary” human beings. Typically, the idiom is reserved for fictional characters, who are gifted with superhuman (or nearly so) qualities and abilities. The heroes, warriors, gods, and goddesses of myths and legends are, by definition, “larger than life.” Achilles, Hercules, Zeus, Odysseus, Thor, Brünnhilde (and many, many more) would all qualify.  Comic book characters and superheroes are likewise, by their nature, “larger than […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner: The Flying Dutchman

Had I not taken a necessary holiday respite from both Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes, my January 2 and 3, 2023, posts would have featured Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, which received its premiere on January 2, 1843, in Dresden. The story of the opera, and the DVD I was going to feature in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post of January 3 are simply too good to pass up, and so here is the Dutchman, better late than never! In August of 1837, the 24-year-old Richard Wagner accepted the job of music director at the municipal theater in Riga, the present-day capital of Latvia.  For Wagner, who’d been moving around from one low-end musical job to the next for the previous three years, Riga was the bottom of the barrel, nowheresville, the end of the line: a predominately German-speaking burg that was, nevertheless, part of the Russian Empire and a gazillion miles from the centers of German culture he so longed for.  But Wagner, as he always did when he had to, persevered, and putting aside his despair, he made the Riga gig work, at least at first. To great local acclaim, he conducted fifteen different operas […]

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Music History Monday: The Blockhead – Anton Felix Schindler – and Beethoven’s Conversation Books

We mark the death on January 16, 1864 – 159 years ago today – of Anton Felix Schindler, in Frankfurt, at the age of 68.  Born on June 13, 1795, in the town of Medlov in today’s Czech Republic, Schindler was, for a time, Beethoven’s “factotum”: his secretary and general assistant.  He was also a scoundrel and a profiteer, who after Beethoven’s death lied about his relationship with Beethoven, stole irreplaceable objects and documents from Beethoven’s estate, and falsified and destroyed many of those documents (some of which he later sold off) in order to make himself look better in the eyes of history.  Boo-hoo for Schindler: the “making-himself-look-better-in-the-eyes-of-history” thing didn’t work, and today he is regarded as the patron saint of lying and thieving employees. Among the Beethovenian documents Anton Schindler took upon himself to “remove for safekeeping” were Beethoven’s so-called “Conversation Books.” Beethoven’s Conversation Books It took an agonizingly long time for Beethoven to go completely deaf. His hearing loss began in 1796, in his 26th year: a buzzing in his ears and a slow but progressive loss of high frequency hearing.  By the fall of 1802, Beethoven had cut himself off from much of his world out […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Memoirs of Sir Rudolf Bing

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post celebrated the birth of the opera impresario Sir Rudolf Bing in 1902 and, using excerpts from his memoir 5000 Nights at the Opera, sketched his life and career up to 1950: the year he took over as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Bing was not the first, nor – sadly – the last senior manager to take on a job only to find out that the institution he was hired to run was in much worse condition than he ever thought possible. For Bing, the Met was a Mess, and to his eternal credit and everlasting fame, it was a mess he cleaned up. He didn’t do it alone, though, and one of the things I admire about Bing’s memoir is the extent to which he credits others – his staff, board members, volunteers, etc. – with helping to turn the Met around. But then, Bing was clever enough to hire and then lead the right people, and so his modesty aside, we must give credit where credit is due. Dealing With Artists Rudolf Bings observes: “Dealing with artists is not like dealing with people in any other profession. Bank officials and law clerks […]

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Music History Monday: An Impresario for the Ages: Rudolf Bing

We mark the birth on January 9, 1902 – 121 years ago today – of the opera impresario Rudolf Bing, in Vienna Austria.  The general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York from 1950 to 1972, Bing died in Yonkers, New York in September 1997 at the age of 95.  His was a long life by any standard, but particularly by the standards of an opera impresario, whose professional livesare marked by a degree of life-threatening stress and anxiety that, perhaps, only has its equal in combat and divorce court.   Impresario The term “impresario” originated in the world of Italian opera in the 1750s.  Deriving from the Italian word “impresa,” which is “an enterprise or undertaking,” an impresario was that single individual who organized, financed, and produced operas (and later, concerts).  It was a job similar to what a film producer does today; a high stress job not for the faint of heart or weak of bladder. Apropos of the impresarios of his day, the great Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote in reference to how he went about composing his opera overtures: “Wait until the evening before the opening night.  Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it’s the […]

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