Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Oscar Peterson

It’s a story I told before, in a blog dated July 28, 2013. Since it’s been almost six years I will be forgiven for telling it again. It was sometime in the spring of 1980. I was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, living in a studio apartment in a dilapidated brown shingle house south of campus, across from a package store. I made my dollars as a teaching assistant in the music department and by giving private lessons. When folks called the music department looking for a theory or composition teacher, I was the person to whom they were referred. As a result, I received a lot of calls from prospective students, only a few of whom actually took a lesson. So I didn’t pay all that much attention when in the spring of 1980 I received such a call from a guy who identified himself as “Anthony”. Anthony told me that he wanted nothing less than the equivalent of an undergraduate music education, from start to finish. I no doubt rolled my eyes while telling him that that would take years. He told me that he was prepared to do whatever it took, including taking… 

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Music History Monday: Boogie Fever

On June 24, 1374 – 645 years ago today – the men, women, and children of the Rhineland city of Aachen began to dash out of their houses and into the streets, where – inexplicably, compulsively and uncontrollably – they began to twist and twirl, jump and shake, writhe and twitch until they dropped from exhaustion or simply dropped dead. Real disco inferno, boogie-fever stuff. It was the first major occurrence of what would come to be known as “dancing plague” or “choreomania”, which over the next years was to spread across Europe. There had been small outbreaks before, going back to the seventh century. An outbreak in 1237 saw a group of children jump and dance all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in what today is central Germany, a distance of some 13 miles. It was an event that might very well have given rise to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. But the outbreak in Aachen 645 years ago today was big: before it was over thousands upon thousands of men, women and children had taken to the streets as the “dancing plague” spread from Aachen to the cities of Cologne, Metz, Strasbourg, Hainaut, Utrecht,… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Paul Creston

When I and my compositional colleagues were ignorant graduate students (yes, ignorant and arrogant: I thought I was so freakin’ smart in my mid-twenties, only to realize, as real life unfolded, how colossally naïve I really was), when we were ignorant graduate students, among the nastiest things me or my colleagues could say about a piece of music was that “it sounded like movie music.” Putting aside for a moment the fact that there’s some really fine movie music out there, this statement was meant to address music of melodramatic expressive content characterized by super-extreme degrees of contrast and seemingly pedestrian thematic content. Music about which one could blithely say “oh, that sounds like a chase scene”; or “that sounds like lonely, dark streets noire music”; or “that sounds like a fight scene” or a “love scene”, or a “knifing in the shower scene”, etc.: music of seemingly obvious, usually over-the-top expressive content.  I’ve grown up, and speaking generally and entirely for myself, I no longer consider movie music to be intrinsically inferior to stand-alone, self-contained concert music. It’s just different, because it serves a different purpose than concert music. The overweening importance in movie music is to create a… 

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Music History Monday: Igor Stravinsky

We offer up our very best birthday wishes to Igor Stravinsky, who was born 137 years ago today, on June 17, 1882. A word of warning: saying Happy Birthday! to a Russian born before February 14, 1918 — as Stravinsky was — is an exercise in asterisks and parentheses. This is because it wasn’t until February 14, 1918 that Russia stopped using the Julian Calendar (which was named for Julius Caesar and went into effect on January 1, 45 B.C.E.) and joined pretty much the rest of world in using the Gregorian Calendar (which was introduced in October 1582 and named for Pope Gregory XIII). According to the old-style Julian Calendar, Stravinsky was born on June 5, 1882. For reasons entirely his own, Stravinsky made everything that much more complicated by celebrating his birthday on June 18. Whatever; June 17th is Stravinsky’s Gregorian Calendar birthday and a happy birthday we wish him. Stravinsky was the defining composer of the twentieth century. He began his compositional life as a Russian musical nationalist, writing in the style of his teacher, the great Russian nationalist composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. But even as he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, the young Stravinsky fell under the spell of Claude Debussy, and so… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Igor Stravinsky – Pulcinella Suite

We will return to the music of mid-century American symphonists next week. For now, we celebrate Igor Stravinsky’s spectacular and spectacularly influential Pulcinella in anticipation of his 139th birthday, which we will mark on June 17th in next week’s Music History Monday post. Bad Times The First World War (which ran from July 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918) was an unfathomable catastrophe. It laid waste to huge swatches of Western, Central, and Eastern Europe. It destroyed four multi-ethnic Empires: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, and German empires. It created the preconditions for the civil war and the triumph of Bolshevism (soon to be known as Communism) in Russia and for civil war and the triumph of National Socialism (best known as Nazism) in Germany. In 1918 and 1919, a planetary population weakened by food shortages and wartime hardship succumbed to the Spanish influenza pandemic, which infected roughly 500 million people (about one-third of the world’s population at the time) and killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people worldwide (a number comparable to those killed by the Black Death in the fourteenth century).  The War and the flu pandemic together killed nearly an entire generation of young Western men. The… 

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Music History Monday: Tristan und Isolde

On June 10, 1865 – 154 years ago today – Richard Wagner’s magnificent music drama Tristan und Isolde received its premiere in Munich under the baton of Hans von Bülow (with whose wife, Cosima, Wagner was carrying on an affair).  (The parts of Tristan and Isolde were sung by the real-life husband and wife team of Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Having sung the role of Tristan four times, Ludwig dropped dead on July 21, 1865, prompting the rumor than the role of Tristan – one of the most difficult in the repertoire – had flat-out killed him. Malvina was so distraught that though she lived for another 38 years, she never sang again.)   Tristan und Isolde is a three-act music drama, or what Wagner himself called “eine Handlung” (which means “a drama” or“an action”; by mid-career Wagner refused to use the word “opera”, claiming that it represented the debased pseudo-art of anyone not named “Wagner”.) Tristan und Isolde’s libretto (or “poem”, as Wagner would have us call it) was written and its music composed by Wagner between 1855 and 1859. Wagner based his “poem” on a twelfth-century romance entitled Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg, who died circa 1210.… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Amy Beach

Amy Marcy Cheney was born in Henniker, New Hampshire on September 5, 1867. She was a phenomenal child prodigy as both a pianist and composer. (She “composed” her first piece – a set of three waltzes – in her head at the age of four at her grandfather’s house, at which there was no piano. She was able to play them only after having returned home.)  Ms. Cheney made her official concert debut in October of 1883 – at the age of 16 – at Boston’s Music Hall. She performed Chopin’s virtuosic Rondo in E-flat, Op. 16 and then, along with the Boston Symphony under the baton of Adolf Neuendorff, she was the soloist in a performance of Ignaz Moscheles’ Piano Concerto No. 3 in G Minor. According to her biographer Adrienne Fried Block, the audience reaction was “enthusiastic in the extreme.” That “extreme enthusiasm” was to follow Amy Cheney wherever she performed, and there’s no doubt that were she alive today she would have a successful – perhaps even a spectacular – international concert career. But in late nineteenth century New England that was out of the question.… Learn more about Amy Beach and get Dr. Bob’s Prescription –… 

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Music History Monday: Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hope

We mark the death of the French composer Georges Bizet, who passed from this vale of tears on June 3, 1875, 144 years ago today. He was but 36 years, 7 months, and 9 days young when he passed. The title for today’s post is the epitaph that appeared on Franz Schubert’s original tombstone, written by Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872): “Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hope.” Ain’t that the truth. Schubert’s life-span was even shorter than Bizet’s: 31 years, 9 months, and 20 days.  (Grillparzer was a Vienna-born dramatist who, despite his contemporary fame as a playwright, is best remembered today for having written Beethoven’s funeral oration and Schubert’s epitaph!) We contemplate “regret”. I am a collector of certain antique/vintage items, and I have learned the hard way the truism that “you only regret that which you do not buy.” For example, I will go to my grave regretting the fact that I walked away from a complete, pristine Sterling Silver Erik Magnussen “Skyscraper Cocktail Set” in 2003.  I had my reasons (financial) for not buying the set at the time, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, never to be had again; should a like set come… 

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Dr. Bob Recommends: Aaron Copland, Short Symphony

Thus far, this post series has celebrated eight mid-twentieth century American composers – Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Samuel Barber, Henry Cowell, David Diamond, Peter Mennin, William Schuman and Walter Piston – each and every one of whom deserves to be respected and his music embraced. For better or for worse, the one mid-century American composer who has come to overshadow them all is Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Yes, for both the American public and professional music community, Copland is considered the most representative “American” composer of the twentieth century. Having said that, we’d also observe that Copland was a genuinely nice man, someone who believed deeply in the essential role of the arts in a free society, and he would be nothing less than mortified by the present obscurity of so many of his contemporaries. Barber, Diamond, Mennin, Schuman and Piston (and Morton Gould and Roger Sessions and Irving Fine and Virgil Thomson, etc.) were not just Copland’s fellow mid-century composers; they were also his colleagues, his collaborators, and his friends. See the post and celebration of Copland’s little-known masterpiece – his Short Symphony of 1933, only on Patreon!

Music History Monday: The Little Pagan

We mark the death of the violinistic wizard, composer, and showman extraordinaire Niccolò Paganini, who died 179 years ago today in the Mediterranean resort city of Nice on May 27, 1840. Marfan Syndrome (or “MFS”) is a genetic disorder of the connective tissue. The syndrome is named after the French pediatrician Antoine Marfan, who first identified it in 1891. For those – like me – who must know, the gene linked to the condition was identified in 1991 by Francesco Ramirez at New York City’s Mount Sinai Medical Center. Folks with Marfan Syndrome are characteristically tall and slim; with long arms, legs, fingers and toes. Their joints are typically flexible; sometime crazy flexible, the sort of crazy flexible that makes the rest of us squirm with discomfort when we see such a person casually twist him or herself up like a human pretzel. Marfan Syndrome can affect the heart as well, and thus the American Heart Association, ever the Helpy Helperton, has made recommendations regarding the sorts of activities folks with Marfan can and should not engage in.  The American Heart Association lists as “high risk” activities for Marfan sufferers bodybuilding, weightlifting (non-free and free weights), ice hockey, rock climbing,… 

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