Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg

Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde – Part 1

Sooner Than Later My Dr. Bob Prescribes post for May 14, 2024 (four weeks ago) was entitled “Fluids of Choice and Drinking Songs.” Among the featured “drinking songs” was the famous “quaff the presumed poison” scene from Act I of Tristan und Isolde.   That May 14 post offered a video link to the scene, from a performance recorded live at La Scala in Milan in 2007. Featuring Waltraud Meier as Isolde and Ian Story as Tristan, and conducted by Daniel Barenboim, it is hands down my favorite recording of the opera on DVD.  I promised to feature the performance in a post of its own “sooner than later.”   I trust today is soon enough. Today’s double-length Dr. Bob Prescribes post will deal with Act I of Tristan und Isolde.  Next week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes will pick up from  there, with Acts II and III.  Write What You Know: Tristan und Isolde as Autobiography The aspiring writer is advised to “write what you know.”  What Richard Wagner (1813-1883) “knew” during the late 1850s was an unquenchable passion for the wife of his benefactor.  That benefactor was a wealthy businessman named Otto von Wesendonck; his wife (and the object of […]

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Music History Monday: Let Us Quaff from the Cup: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

On June 10, 1865 – 159 years ago today – Richard Wagner’s magnificent and groundbreaking music drama Tristan und Isolde received its premiere in Munich under the baton of Hans von Bülow (whose wife, Cosima Liszt von Bülow, Wagner was enthusiastically shtupping at the same time).  Oh Goodness; Did I Just Write That? I did.  I know, right?  Here I am, introducing Tristan und Isolde – one of the most awesome, incredible works of art ever created – and I still couldn’t resist a cheap dig at Wagner the person.  As we have discussed in the past and will do so again, the same personality flaws that made Richard Wagner an often despicable narcissist allowed him the conceit to reject the operatic clichés and conventions of his time and to create a body of dramatic musical art unfathomable in its originality, beauty, dramatic power, and imagination. Of course, had he not been the towering genius he was, and had he not risked everything – including his sanity, over and over again – to create his unparalleled body of work, well, he would just have been another loathsome crank, writing nasty letters to newspaper editors and shouting at people in the […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Johann Joseph Fux

Johann Joseph Fux? Yes, Johann Joseph Fux.  And please, let us try to refrain from joking about Herr Fux’s fuxing name.  There’s nothing we can say that hasn’t already been said by generations of young music composition students, including – to my enduring shame – yours truly. Yes: for generations of undergraduate music composition students, a thorough study of Fuxian Counterpoint has been – and for all I know, continues to be – de regueur.  When I was a university freshman, the required freshman-level music theory class taught by a composer named Peter Westergaard (1931-2019) was a thorough study of something called Fuxian species counterpoint. Westergaard’s book was largely based on Johann Joseph Fux’s instructional treatise Gradus ad Parnassum which was first published in 1725. Fux’s Gradus was, in turn, based on the compositional techniques of the great Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (circa 1525-1594).  It is no small irony that Fux, who was considered among the greatest (and was certainly among the most honored) composers of his time is known today – to the degree that he is known at all – as a result of his instructional manual. So: Why Fux, Here, Today? What, you might rightly ask, made me think […]

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Music History Monday: Ludwig von Köchel and the Seemingly Impossible Task

We mark the death on June 3, 1877 – 147 years ago today – of the Austrian lawyer, botanist, geologist, teacher, writer, publisher, composer, and “musicologist” Ludwig Alois Friedrich Ritter (“Ritter” meaning “Knight”) von Köchel, of cancer, in Vienna.  Born on January 14, 1800, he was 77 years old at the time of his death. Ludwig Köchel and the Archduke Herr Köchel wasn’t born a “Ritter” – a “knight” – a “von” – with all the privileges and perks that such a title brought.  Rather, he was born to the middle class in the Lower Austrian town of Krems an der Donau (meaning “At the junction of the Kremas and Danube Rivers”) some 43 miles west of Vienna. Smart and ambitious, he studied law in Vienna and went on to earn a Ph.D. in 1827, at the age of 27. Köchel was a polymath, someone who knew a lot about a lot of things.  As such, despite having a law degree, he chose a career as a teacher.  But he was not just any teacher, and he didn’t teach just any students.  For 15 years, Köchel was the tutor to the four sons of Archduke Charles of Austria. This requires […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes – Wolfgang Mozart, Ein musikalischer Spaß, K. 522

Inappropriate Revisited Subtitled as being a “divertimento for two horns and string quartet” and generally (if rather inaccurately) translated as “A Musical Joke,” Ein musikalischer Spaß is, in my humble opinion, the single strangest work ever written by a major composer, particularly a major composer in his absolute prime who had not a minute to waste.  It is a PDQ Bach-type, four movement musical parody in which Mozart (1756-1791) imitates a bad composer composing badly.  According to Stanley Sadie, writing in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians: “[its] harmonic and rhythmic gaffes serve to parody the work of incompetent composers.”    Given that the “joke” was composed by Wolfgang-freaking-Mozart, it is, of course, devastatingly clever and often laugh-out-loud funny; which was no doubt Mozart’s intention from the get-go. Okay; fine: purposely artless music intended to be funny. But why would Mozart choose to inappropriately waste his time and energies on such a parody (a parody that no one asked for or commissioned) at a time he was at the very top of his game, composing some of his most lucrative music?  That is the $64.00 question. Mozart in 1789, at the age of 33 The 31-year-old Mozart entered “A Musical Joke” in […]

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Music History Monday: “Inappropriate”

There Must Be Something in the Air Have any of you done – or anticipate doing – anything particularly foolish today, anything particularly inappropriate? If you do, know that you will be in good company.  Perhaps it’s the angle of the sun; perhaps it’s something in the air or water, because as dates go, May 27 is ripe with musical stories and actions that we shall deem as being “inappropriate.” For example. On May 27, 1964 – 60 years ago today – four of the eleven 16-year-old boys suspended from Woodlands Comprehensive School in Coventry, UK, for having Mick Jagger haircuts complied with their headmaster’s demand that they cut their hair, and returned to school.  The other seven lads put their hair (or at least the allegiance to Mick Jagger!) before their schooling and remained suspended.  According to an article in the Coventry Evening Telegraph: “their headmaster Mr. Donald Thompson has said that he would not object if they returned to school with a ‘neat Beatle cut.’            Mr. Thompson told the Coventry Evening Telegraph today that he was not against boys having modern hair styles, but he did object to the ‘scruffy, long hair style of the Rolling Stones with hair curling into […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Music of Clara Wieck Schumann

Friedrich Wieck could be a first-class creep.  Nevertheless, we – meaning posterity, taken as widely as we please – owe him a debt of gratitude for the education he gave, the musical opportunities he afforded, and the professional contacts he made for his spectacularly gifted daughter, Clara (1819-1896). In 1815, the thirty-year-old Friedrich Wieck moved to the Saxon city of Leipzig.  Ferociously ambitious, he set himself up as a piano teacher and proprietor of a piano shop.  His timing could not have been better.  Leipzig was rebuilding from the Napoleonic Wars, and as a commercial center the city was filled with cash and a growing number of middleclass families who wanted pianos for their parlors and lessons for their kids. Within a year – his business prospering – Wieck decided it was time to reproduce.  On June 23, 1816, he married Marianne Tromlitz (1797-1872) who, at 19, was 12 years Wieck’s junior. Marianne was an extremely talented singer and piano player.  She took on singing students and, because she was by far the better pianist in the Wieck household, she also took on the more advanced piano students.  Friedrich and Marianne had a whole cottage industry going: sell the piano, […]

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Music History Monday: A Difficult Life

Before we get to the principal topic of today’s post, we must note an operatic disaster that had nothing to do with singers or the opera being performed on stage.  Rather, it was a disaster that inspired Gaston Leroux to write the novel The Phantom of the Opera, which was published in 1909. On May 20, 1896 – 128 years ago today – a counterweight helping to hold up the six-ton chandelier at Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera House fell into the audience during a performance of Étienne-Joseph Floquet’s opera Hellé (composed in 1779).  We don’t know how the opera performance was going, but the counterweight was a big hit: one woman in the audience was killed and a number of other audience members were badly injured. The disaster was covered by a reporter for the Parisian daily Le Matin named Gaston Leroux (1868-1927).  The accident – to say nothing for the Paris Opera House itself and the lake beneath it – made quite an impression on Monsieur Leroux. About that underground “lake.” Writing in The New York Times on January 24, 2023, Sam Lubell tells us that: “When digging the foundations [for the Paris Opera House], workers hit a hidden arm of the Seine, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Fluids of Choice and Drinking Songs

We pick up where we left off in yesterday’s Music History Monday. May 13th – yesterday’s date – has been designated by those fine people who designate such things as “World Cocktail Day” (as well as the first day of “American Craft Beer Week”).  I used the occasions to begin a discussion about the drinking habits of some of our favorite composers.  As I pointed out yesterday and would point out again today, I am in no way promoting the consumption of alcohol, especially in excess.  Rather, as is my usual schtick, I am seeking to render human composers who have been pedestalized and, as such, de-humanized. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Franz Schubert always liked to hoist a glass (or two, or three).  His favorite wine was a rosé called “Schilcher.” It was (and still is) produced in the Austrian region of Western Styria from Blauer Wildbacher grapes. Sadly, “self-medication” due to illness put his drinking well over the top. It was sometime in the late summer of 1822 that the 25-year-old Schubert contracted syphilis, almost certainly from a male prostitute during a pleasure-jaunt with his friend and periodic roommate, the homosexual and sometime female impersonator Franz von Schober (1796-1882). The first symptoms of the […]

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Music History Monday: What Day is Today?

We recognize May 13th as being, among other “days” here in the United States, National Frog Jumping Day, Leprechaun Day, International Hummus Day, National Crouton Day, and – wait for it – World Cocktail Day! National Days, Weeks, and Months! Who creates these damned things? We’ll get to that in a moment.  But first, let’s distinguish between a national holiday and a national day (or week or month). In the United States, national (or “federal”) holidays are designated by Congress and/or the President.  There are presently a total of ten national/federal holidays, meaning that federal employees get to take the day off.  However, anyone can declare a national day (or week or month).  The trick is getting enough people to buy into the “day” that it actually gains some traction and has some meaning.  Such national days are created by advocacy groups; lobbying groups; industry groups; government bodies; even individuals. According to the “National Day Calendar,” today, May 13, 2024, is – along with those “days” listed at the top of this post – National Women’s Checkup Day; National Fruit Cocktail Day; and National Apple Pie Day.  May 13 of this year is also the first day of Bike to Work Week; of […]

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