Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg

Music History Monday: Dr. Burney

We mark the death on April 12, 1814 – 207 years ago today – of the English music historian and composer Charles Burney, in London. One rarely achieves much fame or fortune as a music historian; you can trust me on this; it’s something I know about firsthand. Nevertheless, Dr. Burney (he was awarded an honorary Doctor of music degree from Oxford) achieved a bit of both fame and fortune in his lifetime and immortality since. That’s because he didn’t just write blogs or record podcasts about music history; it’s because he lived it. Lots more on this once we (quickly) get through his biographical preliminaries.  He was born on April 7, 1726 in the market town of Shrewsbury, some 150 miles northwest of London. (For our information, Shrewsbury was, as well, the hometown of Charles Darwin.) The artistic gene was in the family: Burney’s father James was a musician, dancer, and portrait painter. Young Charles was trained on the organ, harpsichord, violin and in composition. For three years he was apprenticed in London with Thomas Arne (1710-1778), the most important English-born composer of theater music in the eighteenth century. (Many of us might not have heard of Arne, but […]

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Dr. Prescribes Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 is the first of his “mature” piano concerti. While he had sketched bits and pieces of it as far back as 1799, he didn’t get to the nuts and bolts/nitty-gritty/down ‘n’ dirty essentials of composing the thing until early 1803, by which time – in response to the suicidal depression over his hearing he experienced in October 1802 – he had reinvented himself as a hero battling fate through music. The concerto received its premiere on April 5, 1803, at an Akademie (public concert) held at Vienna’s Theater-an-der-Wien. Anxious to get as much of his new music before the public as possible, Beethoven, true to form, overloaded the concert with way too much music: a repeat performance of his Symphony No. 1 and the premieres of his Symphony No. 2, Piano Concerto No. 3, and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. (According to Beethoven’s friend and student Ferdinand Ries, the concert was originally slated to be even longer: “The concert began at six o’clock, but it was so long that a couple of the pieces were not performed.” Try as I might, I have not been able to track […]

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Music History Monday: “Three’s the Charm”

We mark the premiere on April 5, 1803 – 218 years ago today – of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor at a public concert held at the Theater-an-der-Wien, in Vienna. Beethoven was the piano soloist and conducted the Theater-an-der-Wien Orchestra from the piano. The title of this post – “Three’s the Charm” – is meant in no way to diminish Beethoven’s piano concerti nos. 1 and 2. Rather, it would indicate that this third concerto, completed when Beethoven was 32 years old, is the first piano concerto of his compositional maturity and is thus packed with the sorts of modernity and expressive range that the phrase “Beethoven’s maturity” implies. Beethoven’s “Akademies” In the Vienna of Beethoven’s time, public concerts – to which anyone could “subscribe” (that is, buy a ticket in advance) – were called “Akademies”. When a composer staged an Akademie, the concert was additionally referred to as a “benefit” in that the profits went directly into the pocket of the composer.  Staging a benefit concert was a big deal, though not without risk. It was a “big deal” because such concerts were usually the only way for a composer to put his music before the […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven – Funeral Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II

Whether we choose to like her or dislike her (not that she would have cared a whit one way or the other), Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina, Habsburg Empress and German Queen was a remarkable person. She was the only woman to ever rule the Habsburg Empire (for 40 years; from 1740 until her death in 1780), the absolute sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Croatia, Transylvania; Lodomeria and Galicia (in present day Poland and Ukraine); the Austrian Netherlands; and the duchies of Milan, Mantua, and Parma (in present day Italy). She was born on May 13, 1717, the oldest surviving child of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. In January of 1737, the not-quite 20-year-old Maria Theresa was married to Francis Stephen, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Maria Theresa’s father, Charles VI died on October 20, 1740 at the age of 55, poisoned by a mushroom. Despite the fact that she was slated to succeed her father, very little had been done to prepare her to rule; rather, it was assumed that on her ascension she would be a royal figurehead and that the actual business of ruling the empire would fall to her father’s ministers and to her husband. […]

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Music History Monday: Beethoven’s Funeral

We mark the funeral of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) on March 29, 1827 – 194 years ago today – in Vienna. It was a grand affair; tens of thousands of people lined the route of the funeral cortege. The funeral itself was attended by Viennese luminaries of every stripe, from the aristocracy to such composers as Franz Shubert, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and Carl Czerny. Speaking strictly for myself, Beethoven’s virus-compromised 250th birthday celebration continues to rankle. As I have previously stated (with tiresome regularity, I fear), it is my intention to continue that celebration, which should have concluded on the occasion of his 250th birthday on December 16, 2020, well into 2021. Just so: my Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes posts for the next two weeks will feature the B-man and his music. This is all good. Funerals in Vienna The Viennese have traditionally had a “thing” about funerals. Far from being merely ritualized grief or memorials to those who have passed, traditional Viennese funerals – elaborate affairs with their grand caskets, long, parade-like processions and impassioned, theatrical eulogies – seem as much like Mardi Gras parades as they do “funerals.” Vienna even has a funeral museum, called […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Stephen Sondheim: The Making of a Theatrical Life, Part Two

We pick up where we left off in yesterday’s Music History Monday with part 2 of “Stephen Sondheim: The Making of a Theatrical Life.” In 1946, at the age of 16, Sondheim went away to Williams College, a small, very exclusive private liberal arts school in the western Massachusetts burg of Williamstown. He was attracted to Williams’ theater program, and was unconcerned about its tiny music program because, by his own admission, “I didn’t care about music.” Instead, he enrolled as an English major and took music courses as electives. The “English-major” thing didn’t last for long. All it took was a first-year harmony class with a professor named Robert Barrow: “Barrow made me realize that all my romantic views of art were nonsense. I had always thought an angel came down and sat on your shoulder and whispered in your ear ‘dah-dah-dah-DUM.’ [It] never occurred to me that art was something worked out. And suddenly it was skies opening up.” What “opened up” for Sondheim was the realization/revelation that music is not just an art but a language and a craft, one with its own syntax and structure. Inspired, Sondheim switched his major to music and began to compose […]

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Music History Monday: Stephen Sondheim: The Making of a Theatrical Life, Part One

We mark the birth on March 22, 1930 – 91 years ago today – and the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Alive and we trust well, living in his brownstone townhouse in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay neighborhood on the East Side of Midtown (also the home of the Chrysler Building and the United Nations), we can only hope that Maestro Sondheim is spending the day doing what he does best: writing a song. What a wonderful coincidence: for the second week in a row, I get to write about one of my favorite subjects: the American musical theater. Last week it was the team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and their masterwork, My Fair Lady. In today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes, I get to write about Stephen Sondheim. What a pleasure!An upfront statement. Stephen Joshua Sondheim has lived a long, complex, incredibly productive and well-documented life. To attempt to tell his entire story in one or two 2500-word blog/podcasts can only trivialize his life story and his work. So instead, today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes posts will tell the painful story of his early life and explore the mentorships and experiences […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady is a fifth-generation work: an adaption of adaption of an adaption of an adaption, a musical that many top-end talents believed – for reasons we will discuss – could never be successfully written. The original story of King Pygmalion comes from Greek myth and legend. It was the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (known in the English-speaking world as Ovid; March 23, 43 B.C.E. – 18/18 C.E.) who gave the story form and substance in his Metamorphoses, which he wrote around 8 C.E. (For our information: Metamorphoses is a Latin poem in 15 books. It’s a collection of myths and legends in which metamorphosis – transformation – plays some sort of role. The stories themselves are unrelated, though they are presented in chronological order, from the creation of the world (with the metamorphosis of chaos into order) to the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E. (and his subsequent metamorphosis from a mortal to a god). In Ovid’s version of the story at hand, Pygmalion is a sculptor. He carves a statue that represents what is, for him, the perfect woman. He names the statue Galatea and proceeds to fall in love with it/her. In answer to […]

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Music History Monday: My Fair Lady and the Making of a Partnership

We mark the opening performance on March 15, 1956 – 65 years ago today – of the Broadway musical My Fair Lady at the Mark Hellinger Theater, which was located at 237 West 51st Street in mid-town Manhattan, New York City. (For our information, since 1989, the theater has been the home of the Times Square Church.) Originally starring Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, and Stanley Holloway, this first Broadway production of My Fair Lady (there have been four Broadway revivals) ran for what was then a record-breaking 2717 performances – for 6½ years! – until September 29, 1962. (Because we all want to know: the current record holder is Phantom of the Opera, which opened on January 26, 1988 and continues to run at the Majestic Theater. Currently suspended due to the pandemic, the Broadway production of Phantom has thus far racked up an astonishing 13,370 performances. Whoa!) My Fair Lady is routinely called “the perfect musical”, and who are we to argue with that appraisal? Speaking for myself, I saw that first Broadway production in April of 1962; attendance was my eighth birthday present. Though Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, and Stanley Holloway had long before left the show, it […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Hector Berlioz: Requiem

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was not just a great composer, but a wonderful writer as well. He left behind a not-insignificant body of prose. In the 1830s he made much of his living writing reviews and essays (and continued to write reviews almost to the end of his life, even when he no longer needed the income). He wrote a famous book on orchestration which was first published in 1844; and in 1865 he completed his Memoirs at the age of 62. His writing is remarkable for its devastating wit, incision, clarity, and stylistic elegance. Berlioz begins his Memoirs with the following passage. His sense of irony, his ego and his self-deprecatory/facetious sense of humor are all on immediate display: “I was born on the 11th of December 1803 at La Cote Saint André, a very small town in France situated between Vienne, Grenoble, and Lyon. During the months that preceded my birth, my mother never dreamt, as Virgil’s did, that she was about to bring forth a branch of laurel. However painful to my beloved mother this confession may be, I ought to add that neither did she imagine, like Olympias, the mother of Alexander, that she bore within her […]

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