Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Adventures in Geekdom

I am, uncharacteristically, presently screaming with joy; alternately dancing and weeping and generally making a scene in the thankful privacy of my home office/studio. What – pray tell – should have inspired such a broad and sustained outburst of emotion? Have I won the Lottery? Been the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Grant? Finally binge-watched “The Complete Gilligan’s Island” DVDs (complete with secretly filmed NC-17 outtakes of the Professor and Mary Ann playing doctor)? As you have no doubt guessed, my present euphoria cannot – sadly – be attributed to any of the above (boy, I’d love to see those outtakes). Rather, it has been caused by a new (and incredibly inexpensive) music playback system I installed on my computer last month, a system that has already changed my life. Before I spill the beans and tell you about this miracle app, I would reveal some unbelievably geeky autobiographical info. A thousand apologies if I bore the living daylights out of you, but it’s important that you get a sense of my hi-fi bona fides before I offer up this week’s prescription. I would confess that from a young age I have had pretentions to audiophilia. (No; that is not… 

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Music History Monday: The Best of Intentions or With Friends Like These…

On December 10, 1896 (or November 28 in the old-style Russian Julian calendar) – 122 years ago today – Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s rewritten and re-orchestrated version of Modest Mussorgsky’s greatest masterwork, the opera Boris Godunov, received its premiere in St. Petersburg Russia at the Great Hall of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Rimsky-Korsakov’s version of Boris – which presumably corrected all sorts of technical errors and flaws real or imagined in Mussorgsky’s original – held the stage until the last decades of the twentieth century, at which point Mussorgsky’s original version was finally embraced for the masterwork that it always was.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s reworking of Boris Godunov was both an act of love made with the best of intentions and a terrific disservice to a masterwork. Let’s talk! Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) Mussorgsky was born into a wealthy, land-owning family in the Russian district of Karevo, roughly 250 miles south of St. Petersburg. He began piano lessons at six, and his progress was such that at the age of 9 he performed a piano concerto by the then-fashionable composer John Field. When Modest was 10, his family relocated to St. Petersburg so that Modest and his brother Filaret could enter the military as… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Hummel: Piano Concertos Opp 89 & 85

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) Hummel was born in Pressburg – what is now Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia – on November 14, 1778. He died in Weimar, in what today is central Germany, on October 17, 1837, where he held the position of Kapellmeister for eighteen years.  Hummel was a spectacular child prodigy as both a pianist and as a violinist. His father, Johannes, was a string player, conductor, and the director of the Imperial School of Military Music in Vienna, a position that gave his amazing young son access to the highest levels of Viennese musical culture.  In 1785, at the age of seven, Hummel played for Mozart. Mozart was so impressed that not only did he insist on giving Hummel daily piano lessons for free, but, as was standard procedure for the best students back then, Hummel moved into Mozart’s place on the Grosse Schulenstrasse, where he lived for two years. The two became (and remained) close friends, and it was through Mozart that Hummel met and performed for the cream of Viennese aristocracy. Further piano lessons with Muzio Clementi, organ lessons with Joseph Haydn, vocal composition lessons with Antonio Salieri, and even a few piano lessons with… 

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Music History Monday: A Concerto, by George!

On December 3, 1925 – 93 years ago today – George Gershwin’s Concerto in F for piano and orchestra received its world premiere at Carnegie Hall, with Gershwin at the piano and the New York Symphony Society Orchestra under the baton of Walter Damrosch.  Statement: George Gershwin is among the handful of greatest composers the United States has ever produced, and his death at the age of 38 (of a brain tumor) should be considered an artistic tragedy equal to the premature deaths of Schubert (at 31), Mozart (at 35), and Chopin (at 39).  He was born Jacob Gershovitz (though his birth certificate reads “Jacob Gershwine”), the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, on September 26 1898 at 242 Snediker Avenue in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (For our information: in 1963, a bronze plaque commemorating Gershwin’s birth was affixed to the building. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had fallen on very hard times: the plaque was stolen – it is still MIA – and the building vandalized. It burned down in 1987, and all that remains of the neighborhood today is a blighted area of warehouses and junkyards.) Rarely has a major composer begun his life in an… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Superbo di me stesso

I recorded my first course for The Teaching Company (now branded as “The Great Courses”) in May of 1993. That was the first edition of How to Listen to and Understand Great Music. To date, I’ve recorded 666 forty-five minute lectures for The Teaching Company/The Great Courses, and virtually every single one of them features any number of musical examples.  Licensing recordings for use in my courses has been – and continues to be – the single greatest (and most expensive!) headache in creating a courses. It’s a topic I’ve written about and whined about many times, and I’m not going to get into it at length here except to point out that for many years, the terms of our licensing agreements forbade me from identifying on camera the particular recordings I was using. (I know: this is totally counter-intuitive. You would think that the record companies would want me to identify recordings I was excerpting and by doing so drive sales of those recordings. But there you go: it’s just another instance of “go figure.”)  I bring all of this up because the vast majority of mail and emails I receive from my viewers and listeners include a request… 

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Music History Monday: That Infernal Beast!

We mark today the 258th anniversary of the marriage of Joseph Haydn to Maria Anna Aloysia Apollonia Keller in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the great city of Vienna. The groom was 28 years old and his blushing bride 31. We contemplate the institution of marriage. Marriage is like swinging a golf club: it looks so easy on TV. But when we actually pick up a golf club and/or get married, we learn soon enough how very, very, very challenging marital reality can be. I know of what I speak. I am in my fourth marriage, though I’d hasten to point out that that’s not because I’m a disagreeable monster (although my first wife, from whom I am divorced, might beg to disagree), but because I’ve lost two wives to cancer.  When I married for the fourth and final time to Dr. Nanci Tucker – a real doctor, one who can write a prescription – my old friend and colleague Dr. Frank LaRocca – not a real doctor; he cannot write a prescription – said to me “you win”. You see, Frank has been married three times, and with my fourth marriage he figured that the person with the greatest number… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Vocal Sampling

You’re going to thank me for this It was Wednesday, September 18, 2002 (I didn’t remember that date; I looked it up). I was stuck in the car, driving somewhere. (Generally but accurately speaking, when you’re driving anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, you are very like stuck in the car, meaning stuck in traffic.) In those days before GPS and Waze and Google Maps and such, the only way to find out what the traffic was like was to turn on the car radio and listen to your local all-news station. Of course, by the time you actually heard that traffic report, you were likely already caught in traffic or were about to be. Since there are few things more maddening then being stuck in traffic and then being told via the airwaves that hey, guess what?, you’re stuck in traffic, I did what I always did under such circumstances, and that was tune in our local NPR affiliate, KQED. All Things Considered was on the air. The stories aired that afternoon described a depressing litany of the world’s problems at the time, and included stories on the Congressional hearings on Iraq; school vouchers in Maine; pre-September 11… 

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Music History Monday: Schubert’s Death

November 19 is a sad day for us all. On November 19, 1828 – 190 years ago today – Franz Schubert died in Vienna at his brother Ferdinand’s third floor flat at Kettenbrückengasse 6 (in Schubert’s day, the address was Firmiansgasse 694). The building looks almost exactly the same today as it did when Schubert died there; the red and white flags in front of the building today surround a tablet that reads “Schubert Gedenktafel”: “Schubert Memorial Plaque.” On the facing directly below the bust at Schubert’s original grave in Vienna’s Währing Cemetery (what is now called “Schubert Park”) is an inscription written by the Viennese dramatist Franz Grillparzer: “The art of music here interred a rich possession/But still far fairer hopes.” Ain’t that the truth. In the last sixteen years of his brief life, this composer of really unparalleled lyric gifts composed, among other works: 8 finished and “unfinished” symphonies (not 9, which is the number typically bandied about); 10 orchestral overtures; 22 piano sonatas; 6 masses; 17 operas; over 1000 works for solo piano and piano four-hands; around 145 choral works; 45 chamber works, including some drop dead string quartets, and 637 songs. But in fact, the 31… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes (sort of): Beethoven, Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7, as “retouched” by Gustav Mahler

In November 1899 the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) told his friend, the violist Natalie Bauer-Lechner:  “Beethoven’s First, Second, and Fourth Symphonies can still be performed by modern orchestras and conductors. All the rest, however, are quite beyond their powers. Only Richard Wagner and I myself have done these works justice. And even I can manage it only by terrorizing the players; by forcing each individual to transcend his little self and rise above his own powers.”  Mahler goes on to say that: “Beethoven’s symphonies present a problem that is simply insoluble for the ordinary conductor. I see it more and more clearly. Unquestionably, they need re-interpretation and reworking. The very constitution and size of the orchestra necessitates it: in Beethoven’s time, the whole orchestra was not as large as the string section alone today. If, consequently, the other instruments are not brought into a balanced relationship with the strings, the effect is bound to be wrong. Wagner knew that very well; but he too had to suffer the bitterest attacks because of it.”   Mahler (who, I will gladly confess, is one of my very favorite composers) did not just talk-the-talk but eventually put his pencil where his… 

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Music History Monday: A Birthday, Some Critters, and a Fern!

On November 12, 1945 – 73 years ago today – the singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, producer, director, screenwriter, humanitarian, entrepreneur, inventor and environmentalist Neil Percival Young was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  Upfront: I would tell you that Maestro Neil Young has been part of my life since my coming of age (which I count to 1966, when I was 12 years old). His songs, his voice, his guitar work and the bands in which he has played helped to define my teenage years and as such, my lasting musical sensibilities. His work with Buffalo Springfield (1966-1968); Crazy Horse (1968-1969); Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (1969-1970); and his acoustic work in the early seventies remains – for me – some of the best folk rock and rock ‘n’ roll ever played and recorded. (Just for the heck of it, I’d point out that Young entered and then worked in the United States illegally, and only received his Green Card in 1970, making him one of the countless “illegal aliens” who have gone on to enrich the American cultural gene-pool. Just sayin’.) (Another parenthetical observation. On October 31, 2018 – 12 days ago – Young admitted to having married the 57… 

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