Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg

Music History Monday: A Life for the Tsar

On December 9, 1836 (or November 27, 1836 in the old style, Russian Julian calendar), Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar received its premiere at the Imperial Bolshoi Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. More than just an opera and a premiere, the opening night of A Life for the Tsar – 183 years ago today – marks the moment that a tradition of cultivated Russian music came into existence!

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) was the right musician at the right place at the right time. Born in the village of Novospasskoye, in the Smolensk Oblast (or “province”), he came from a wealthy, highly cultured, land-owning family. As a child he studied piano and violin and received a first-rate education, first at the hands of his governess Varvara Fedorovna Klammer, and then in St. Petersburg at the Blagorodny School, an exclusive private school for the children of nobility. When he graduated, he did what young men of his class did, and that was take a cushy civil service job. In Glinka’s case, he became assistant secretary of the Department of Public Highways.

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Turangalîla’ Symphony

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post noted and celebrated the premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony in Boston, on December 2, 1949, by the Boston Symphony conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Composed between 1946 and 1948, the Turangalîla Symphony caps the first part of Messiaen’s compositional career.  There’s nothing else like it in the repertoire, for which we should probably be grateful; frankly, given its climax laden expressive content, I’m not sure any of us could survive listening to two works like the Turangalîla Symphony back-to-back.  The Turangalîla Symphony is 10-movement, 80 minute (that’s 1 hour, 20 minute) long Tantric orgasm, “rapturous overkill” in the words of one critic, “a sonic Mount Everest”, an almost non-stop exercise in rhapsodic bliss, amazing and a tad freaky. If the Turangalîla Symphony were itself a prolonged erection, the time to seek medical attention would have long since passed.  Messiaen (1908-1992) was fascinated by various Eastern cultures: their spirituality, rituals, and music, all of which are reflected in the Turangalîla Symphony. “Turangalîla” is a compound word in Sanskrit, meaning something on the lines of “a hymn of love to the play of joy, time, life and death.” A “hymn of ecstatic love” the piece most surely […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Turangalîla

December 2 is – was – a great date for world premieres, as well as for one unfortunate and extremely notable exit.   Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 received its first performance on December 3, 1883 – 136 years ago today – in Vienna, when it was performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Hans Richter.   On this date in 1949 – 70 years ago today – Béla Bartók’s Viola Concerto, completed posthumously by Tibor Serly [TEE-bor SHARE-ly] (Bartók himself had died four years earlier, in 1945), received its premiere in Minneapolis, where it was performed by violist William Primrose and the Minneapolis Symphony, conducted by Antal Dorati.    We would note the unfortunate exit, on December 2, 1990, of the composer Aaron Copland.  He died at the age of 90 in North Tarrytown (known today as “Sleepy Hollow”), New York, about 30 miles north of New York City. There’s one more premiere to note, which will occupy the remainder of today’s post.  We mark the premiere, in Boston on December 2, 1949 – the same day as the premiere of Bartók’s Viola Concerto – of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Virgil Thomson: Symphony on a Hymn Tune

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post recognized the 123rd anniversary of the birth of the American composer and critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1989). That Music History Monday post focused on the particular pitfalls when a practitioner (in Thomson’s case, a composer) deigns also to become a critic. Today, we turn to Thomason’s music. As a composer, Thomson has been variously described as a “modernist”, a “neoclassicist”, and a “neoromantic”, terms that when taken altogether are pretty much neo-useless. Like Charles Ives (1874-1954) before him, Thomson was profoundly affected by the music he heard and played while growing up: popular parlor songs and dance music, Protestant hymns, ragtime, children songs, and band music. But unlike Ives, who spent his compositional life subjecting the musical experiences of his childhood to an increasingly modernistic musical treatment, Thomson’s music retained a certain childlike innocence and wonder to the end, displaying a directness of expression and simplicity of utterance that together elevate “naiveté” to a stylistic aesthetic. Thomson’s ability to employ musical Americana in a manner both naive and yet powerfully affecting is clearly demonstrated in his Symphony on a Hymn Tune of 1926-1928, a work that anticipates many aspects of Aaron Copland’s so-called “populist style”, which […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: A Critical Voice

We recognize the birth on November 25, 1896 – 123 years ago today – of the American composer and music critic Virgil Thomson in Kansas City, Missouri.

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: The Grand Journey

On November 18, 1763, 256 years ago today, the Mozart family – father Leopold, mother Anna Maria, daughter Marianne (12 years old) and son Wolfgang (7 years old) – arrived in Paris. They were in the midst of their “Grand Journey”, a 3½ year concert tour of Central and Western Europe that was to change the history of Western music.

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Arnold Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw

At its highest and ideal level, the purpose of art is to crystallize, summarize, epitomize and portray human experience in a manner universal and transcendent of its time and place of creation.  Some art is aesthetically beautiful and as such transports us to a “better” place, beyond this vale of tears that is our everyday existence. Some art resonates with our own experience, and thus helps us to understand ourselves and our lives more clearly even as it inspires us to go on and fight the good fight that is our lives. And some art delves into very dark places, places most “normal people” generally prefer not to go. We consume such art not because it entertains us; not because it is “attractive” in a traditional aesthetic sense but because it cuts to the bone of its subject matter and reveals truths – sometimes terrible truths – that are otherwise impossible to fathom or even describe.  Admittedly, such “dark art” forces us to feel and to comprehend – at a nonverbal, gut level – things that we might very well not want to have to feel or comprehend. But dreadfully trying though such art might be, we cannot turn away […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Barbara Strozzi: Now You Know!

We mark the death on November 11, 1677 – 342 years ago today – of the composer and singer Barbara Strozzi at the age of 58.

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Gabriel Fauré: Piano Quartet No. 1

Every one of us is, to some extent, the product and the victim of our education. The product, obviously, because we are all shaped by what we were taught, and (presumably) we use some of what we were taught to help us navigate our lives. Perhaps less obviously, we are also the victims of our education because it’s almost impossible for any teacher to impart any information without somehow coloring it/skewing it with his/her own opinions, prejudices and worldviews. It seems to me that in most cases this is inadvertent, though in some cases it is quite overt.

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: All Too Soon: The Death of Mendelssohn

On November 4, 1847 – 172 years ago today – Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn died in the Saxon/German city of Leipzig. He died all too soon; at the time of his death Mendelssohn was just 38 years old.

Continue Reading