Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Mozart’s Piano Quartets

Statements of superlatives are dangerous because they can ride roughshod over the sorts of important details that would otherwise force us to qualify those superlative statements. For example. The consensus “greatest baseball player” of all time is Babe Ruth (1895-1948), whose stats as a power hitter were so far ahead of his contemporaries as to put him in a league of his own. (His stats as a pitcher – had he continued to pitch regularly throughout his career – might very well have put him in a league of his own as well; pitching for the Boston Red Sox in 1916 and 1917, he threw 650 innings and won 47 games with an ERA of 1.88.)  But. Babe Ruth’s stats must be taken within the context of his time. Players today are significantly bigger, faster, and better conditioned than were the players of Ruth’s time. Professional baseball today draws from a much wider population base than did baseball in Ruth’s time; Ruth never had to play against Black American players, or Dominican, Venezuelan, Mexican, Japanese, or Korean players. And the Babe rarely had to face middle and late-relief pitchers throwing 100 mile-per-hour fastballs. Would the Babe Ruth of 1920 dominate […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: A Day That Can Mean Only One Thing!

We mark the birth on January 27, 1756 – 264 years ago today – of Wolfgang Mozart.  There are certain dates that are so universally recognized that once invoked they can mean only one thing for a majority of people living on this planet. For example. Did we all know that January 1 is, among other things, Apple Gifting Day? It is also Bonza Bottler Day, Copyright Law Day, Ellis Island Day, Global Family Day, National Bloody Mary Day, and Public Domain Day. Did we all know that? And really, do any of us care? Because January 1 is New Year’s Day and every other observance shrinks to insignificance by comparison (excepting, perhaps, “National Bloody Mary Day”). Despite the fact that December 25 is Constitution Day in Taiwan and National Pumpkin Pie Day in the United States, the mention of that date can mean only one thing in much of the world: Christmas Day. May 1 is, in the northern hemisphere, May Day: a traditional celebration of spring. Planet wide, it is International Workers’ Day.  Since at least the fourteenth century, April 1 has been “international prank day”: April Fool’s Day. From its beginnings as a Celtic harvest festival, Halloween […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes ‘Die Fledermaus’

Yesterday’s Music History Monday marked the occasion, on January 20, 1982, when Ozzy Osborne bit the head off of a dead and decaying bat during a performance at the Des Moines Veterans Memorial Auditorium. To his credit, Osbourne thought that the bat-like other such rodents and reptiles tossed on stage during his performances – was a toy. However, this fact should not absolve him of being a disgusting, drug-and-alcohol addled, pee-in-your-beer-mug (a favorite game of his) slime bucket; on other occasions Osbourne was known to have purposely consumed living creatures. For example, in 1981, smashed off his gourd during a meeting with record company executives in Los Angeles, he bit the heads off of two live doves to show his displeasure with the progress of the negotiations. In 1984, on tour with the heavy metal and umlaut-abusing band Mötley Crüe, Osbourne participated in gross-out competitions with the bass guitarist Nikki Sixx. It was during such a contest that Osbourne snorted a line of ants from the pavement and then allowed them to crawl out of his mouth. That’s a winner. But back to the bat. I’d suggest that we do not perceive them as the sweet, furry, adorable, pug-nosed creature […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Fine Dining

January 20 is indeed an interesting day in music history, particularly notable for anniversaries of births and deaths. Among those born on this day was the outstanding Polish/American pianist Józef Hofmann, born in 1876 (and died in 1967; my grandmother took some lessons with Hofmann at the New York Institute of Musical Art between 1914 and 1916, after which he went on to became the director of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, from 1927-1938); also born on this date in 1888 was the 12-string blues guitarist Huddie William Ledbetter (a.k.a. “Leadbelly”; he died in 1949); the Russian/American violinist Mischa Elman was born on January 20, 1891 (and died 1967); the American composer Walter Piston was born on this date in 1894 (he died in 1976 and was featured in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post on March 19, 2019); and Yvonne Loriod, an exceptional French pianist and wife of the composer Olivier Messiaen, was born on this date in 1924 (and died in 2010).  Notable deaths on this date include the Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, who died at the age of 80 in 2014, and the composer, publisher, writer, singer, visual artist, illustrator, patron of young talent, and social activist (wow) […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes The Tango Project

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post focused on the accordion, an important patent for which was granted to the Philadelphia-based inventor Anthony Foss on January 13, 1854: 166 years ago yesterday. As detailed in yesterday’s Music History Monday, for reasons having to do with class politics and pure snobbery, the accordion is often looked down upon – even derided – as a third-class instrument in the United States, something the high snark-content of my post did little to obviate. Part of the problem, as I explained, is that the accordion never inspired a critical mass of composers to create for it a repertoire of its own. And while this is true in the world of concert music, it doesn’t tell the whole story.  That whole story is this: there are certain genres of music that are entirely dependent upon the sound of the accordion (or one of its close relatives, like the concertina and bandoneón), to create their characteristic sonic ambience. For example, the polka: a moderately up-tempo dance in 2/4 time that originated in Czech lands in the early nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, what was called “polkamania” had spread across Europe, though it was most powerfully felt in […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: How to Identify a Gentleman

We would recognize a number of date-worthy events before moving on to the admittedly painful principal topic of today’s Music History Monday. Johann Christoph Graupner We recognize the birth on January 13, 1683 – 337 years ago today – of the German harpsichordist and composer Johann Christoph Graupner in the Saxon town Kirchberg. (He died 77 years later, in Darmstadt, in 1760.) Herr Graupner was known as a good and conscientious man, highly respected by his employers and students alike. He was also a competent and prolific composer, with more than 2000 surviving works in his catalog. Nevertheless, he would be totally forgotten today but for a single event in 1723. In 1722, Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) – the chief musician for the churches and municipality of Leipzig – went on to that great clavichord in the sky. The famous Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), unhappy with his salary in Hamburg, applied for and was offered the job in Leipzig. But it was all a ploy to leverage a higher salary in Hamburg, which he received and where he remained. In early 1723, the paternal units of Leipzig then offered the job to Graupner, who accepted but whose boss – the Landgrave Ernst […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 5

Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915) composed a total of ten numbered piano sonatas in the 21 years between 1892 and 1913. He composed, as well, an “unnumbered” piano sonata in E-flat minor in 1889, when he was 18 years old. These eleven piano sonatas form a virtual musical diary, and as such map Scriabin’s extraordinary artistic trajectory from the time he was a student at the Moscow Conservatory to the end of his all-too-short life, by which time he was no small bit loony (looners?).  As we observed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, which celebrated the 148th anniversary of Scriabin’s birth, the man went through an early mid-life crisis in 1902 at the age of 30 that makes buying a Corvette and taking a girlfriend look like BUPKISS. He quit his teaching job, abandoned his wife and four children, took up with a former piano student of his named Tatiana Schloezer, immersed himself in an esoteric philosophy called “Theosophy”, and came to the conclusion that he was god. That’s what I call a mid-life crisis! Theosophy and Revelation The philosophy of “Theosophy” (I’m a poet and I’m unaware of the fact) that Scriabin went literally “crazy” over around 1902 considered visual […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: The Odd Person Out

On January 6, 1872 – 148 years ago today – the composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin was born in Moscow. He died in Moscow just 43 years later, on April 27, 1915. Scriabin was not just “the odd person out” of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Russian composers; he was, very arguably, one of the two or three “oddest-people-out” in the history of Western Music. Scriabin didn’t start out as an oddball. He was a piano prodigy and a friend and classmate of Sergei Rachmaninoff, first in the piano studio and private school of Nikolai Zverov and later at the Moscow Conservatory. When they graduated together in 1892 (at which point Rachmaninoff was nineteen and Scriabin was twenty), Rachmaninoff received the “Great Gold Medal” and Scriabin the “Little Gold Medal”, somehow appropriate given that Rachmaninoff stood 6’6” tall while Scriabin stood just over 5’ tall. (That variance of physical stature notwithstanding, the Moscow Conservatory Class of 1892 was pretty impressive!) Scriabin’s early career was not marked by any particular “oddness” either. He began his career as a touring pianist and composed charming piano miniatures a la Chopin. He married and quickly fathered four children. When he wasn’t on tour, he taught at the Moscow Conservatory. […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Beethoven Lieder

Beethoven Songs Beethoven’s songs? Yes indeed, Beethoven composed over 90 songs for voice and piano and arranged an additional 179 Irish, Scottish, Welsh and other folksongs for voice, piano, violin and cello. Beethoven’s songs are among his least known and least appreciated works, and this must and will stop, at least here on the cyber-pages of Dr. Bob Prescribes!  Here’s what I intend to do about it. Over the course of the next two months, I will dedicate three posts – starting today – to Beethoven’s songs. Today’s post will establish Beethoven’s bona fides as not just a composer of songs but as a composer for the voice. The next post will deal with his folk song arrangements and finally, the third post will celebrate a brilliant performance of Beethoven’s greatest single vocal work, the song cycle An die ferne Gelibte (“To the Distant Beloved”), Op. 98, of 1816. Readers of this post are aware that I usually begin with the background of the work in question before moving on to the recommended recording. We’re going to do things differently here by beginning with the recommended recording and then moving on to something of a tutorial on Beethoven’s songs. This […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Richard Rodgers and the American Crucible

We mark the death on December 30, 1979 – 40 years ago today – of the American composer Richard Rodgers at the age of 77. A life-long New Yorker, Rodgers was one of the most prolific American composers of all time, having written the music for – among other works – 43 Broadway musicals and over 900 songs. He is one of only two people to have scored an EGOT, meaning that he received an Emmy, a GRAMMY® (three of them, actually), an Oscar, a Tony (seven in all) along with a Pulitzer Prize (for the musical South Pacific, in 1950). (For our information, the only other person to have won all five awards was the phenomenal Marvin Hamlisch, 1944-2012.) We will discuss Maestro Rodgers as an exemplar of the “American crucible” in a bit. But first, permit me some first-person information that, believe it or not, will eventually have a direct bearing on this post. An observation: we all do things to our bodies when we are young (or relatively young) that, in retrospect, we should not have. For me it was fairly serious weightlifting, which I took up in my early 30’s and continued until I was 51. […]

Continue Reading