Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg

Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Buddy Rich Big Band

A confession: when it comes to jazz bands large and small, I generally dislike drum solos. My bad; color me a bore. But here’s the thing: if I buy a Keith Jarrett album, for example, I want to hear Keith Jarrett and not, with all due respect to the brilliant drummer Jack DeJohnette, extended drum solos. Speaking generally, I find most drum solos to be monochromatic, lacking – as they do – a melodic and harmonic profile, and formally incoherent, as the phrase structure of the piece under performance is almost always abandoned during a drum solo. There are exceptions, of course, and for me those exceptions are Tony Williams and Buddy Rich. I’ve written recently about my friend and student Tony Williams, who played the drums as if his trap set was a full orchestra, so colorful and melodic and structurally coherent were his solos. And then there’s Buddy Rich: a skinny Jewish kid from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York who had a black belt in Judo (as a United States Marine he taught Judo until he was Dishonorably Discharged from the corps); someone whose virtuosic drumming had the drive and power of a Formula One race car,… 

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Music History Monday: The Gig of a Lifetime!

On August 19, 1613 – 406 years ago today – Claudio Monteverdi was appointed Maestro di Capella di San Marco: the director of music at Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica. It was the gig of a lifetime!

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Galina Ustvolskaya

I have been appointed the “dramaturge” (or “dramaturg”) of The Phoenix Symphony (TPS). As far as Scrabble words go, “dramaturge” isn’t worth a whole lot: just 14 points barring any Premium Squares (which double or triple the value of letters or words). It is, however, a rather more useful crossword puzzle word, with or without its final “e”; I have encountered it in puzzles a number of times over the years. The term was created in the eighteenth century for a German writer, philosopher, critic, dramatic, and public relations guru named Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). In 1767, Herr Lessing was hired by the Hamburg National Theater (later the Seyler Theater Company) as the theater’s in-house critic of plays and actors. In time, he became known as the theater’s “dramaturge.” Today, there is no single job description for a dramaturge; it depends on the type of performing arts organization (theater company, opera house, orchestra) and the particular needs of that organization. Having said that, at very minimum a dramaturge is “a literary editor on the staff of a theatre, opera house, or symphony who liaises with authors, composers, and performers and edits texts.” My duties for TPS are as follows. One:… 

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Music History Monday: John Cage, we miss you

On August 12, 1992 – 27 years ago today – the American composer, inventor, philosopher, facilitator, agent provocateur, shaman, clown, and guru, John Cage died in New York City at the age of 79.

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Otello

We begin by picking up where we left off last week, with the triumphant premiere of Verdi’s Requiem for Manzoni in 1874. Verdi proceeded to tour Europe conducting the Requiem to ecstatic audience responses everywhere. He was truly at the very top of his game, in his absolute prime. Consequently, it came as a thunderbolt when, in late 1875 (or so), the 62-year-old Verdi did the unthinkable: he informed his nearest and dearest – his wife, his friends, and his publisher – that as a composer he was through, finito. After 24 operas and one Requiem, after a lifetime of 16 to 18-hour days, impossible deadlines, harried constantly by librettists, producers, singers, critics and conductors, Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was done. When his great friend Clarina Maffei told him that he had a moral obligation to compose, Verdi wrote: “Are you serious about my moral obligation to compose? No, you’re joking, since you know as well as I that the account is settled.” He had been thinking about retiring for decades. In 1845 – at the age of just 32 – he was retirement was already on his mind. He wrote to a friend: “Thanks for remembering poor me, condemned… 

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Music History Monday: One of the Great Ones!

We celebrate the birth on August 5, 1397 – 622 years ago today – of the composer Guillaume Du Fay. He was, by every standard, one of the greatest composers to have ever lived and was admired as such in his own lifetime.

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Giuseppe Verdi, Requiem for Manzoni

In June of 1870, the 57-year-old Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) agreed to compose an opera for the brand-new Cairo Opera Theater. The Khedive Ismail Pasha of Egypt handled the negotiations personally; the opera was to celebrate nothing less than the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. No expense was spared, either on the opera or on Verdi, who received the unheard-of commissioning fee of 150,000 gold francs: roughly $1,935,000 today! Aida received its premiere in Cairo on December 24, 1871. The real premiere, as far as Verdi and the opera world were concerned, took place six weeks later, at La Scala in Milan on February 8, 1872. It was a triumph, the greatest of Verdi’s career to date; he received 32 curtain calls. The only artist in Italy as popular and beloved as Verdi at the time was the novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1883). Manzoni’s most famous work is a novel entitled I promessi sposi (“The Betrothed”), which was written initially between 1821 and 1827; Manzoni completed the final, “definitive” version in 1842. Manzoni wrote this final version in what was (and still is) considered the stylistically superior Italian dialect of Tuscany. This final, “Tuscan” version of “The Betrothed”… 

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Music History Monday: A Very Bad Ending

We mark the death on July 29, 1856 – 163 years ago today – of the German composer, pianist, and music critic Robert Schumann at the age of 46. The actress Valerie Harper was back in the news this week. Now nearly 80 years old (her birthday is on August 22nd), she is best remembered for her role as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then its spin-off, Rhoda, in the 1970s. Ms. Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer back in 2009, and she has fought like the proverbial tiger since. Her time is almost up; this week’s news was about her husband’s refusal to ship her off to a hospice. During the course of her illness, she has pointed out – correctly, if painfully for us all – that we are all “terminal.” I know, I know, I know: it’s not something anyone wants to think about, especially not on a Monday, which by itself is depressing enough. Yes, our time will come when it comes, but I, for one, want to spend as little energy as possible thinking about it. But having buried three beloved family members long before their time should have been up,… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Beethoven, Mass in C, Op. 86

I trust we are all preparing for it: that we’re stockpiling party hats, noisemakers, birthday candles and those blowy-things consisting of a mouthpiece and a flattened, coiled paper tube that extends obscenely when blown into, something variously called a “party horn”, “party blower”, “party pipe”, or a “blow tickler.” We’ll want to have this stuff in hand in quantity because we have a year-long birthday celebration coming up, as the year 2020 will mark Ludwig/Louis/Luigi van Beethoven’s 250th (or Semiquincentennial, meaning literally “half-of-500”) birthday. Roughly once-every-other-month through the end of 2020 – starting today – I’m going to offer up posts on some of Beethoven’s more obscure works and recordings of those works that we should all own. We begin with Beethoven’s Mass in C of 1807, which is much less well known and less frequently performed than his “Solemn Mass”, the Missa Solemnis, of 1823. Beethoven’s Mass in C was first performed on September 13, 1807, in Eisenstadt, Austria, by the musical establishment of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II. It did not go well. The mass had been commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II (1765-1833), an excessively-wealthy Hungarian Prince. Today, we rightly consider the Mass to be the masterwork that it is (although… 

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Music History Monday: Can We Blame the Weather?

On July 22, 1969 – 50 years ago today – Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) was arrested for disorderly conduct in Highland Park, Michigan, a community within the metropolitan area of her native Detroit. She had been involved in a minor traffic accident in a parking lot. Two Detroit policemen had responded; Ms. Franklin took offense at something or other, swore at the officers and then tried to slap them. Never, ever a good idea. She was placed under arrest and hauled off to the local police station, where she posted $50.00 bail and was released. On driving away from the station, she ran down a road sign; not a good idea, either. Franklin was, admittedly, going through a rough patch in her life at the time. Her meteoric rise to stardom in 1967 had changed her life almost entirely, and not necessarily for the better. In 1968 she separated from her physically abusive husband (and manager) Ted White; they were divorced in 1969. Following the separation, she was reportedly drinking heavily (although alcohol was not cited in her parking lot fracas with the police).  That Aretha Franklin was a passionate and potentially temperamental woman is obvious to anyone who has ever… 

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