Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg – Page 2

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Blame it on the Bossa Nova

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post acknowledged the birth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil of the Brazilian singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Antônio Carlos Jobim. That’s all the excuse we require for today’s foray into the music of Brazil, samba, and bossa nova! The name “Brazil” comes from the Portuguese word pau–brasil, meaning “brazilwood”: an East Indian tree from which a bright red dye is extracted. Sixteenth century Portuguese explorers found the coastal areas of what today is Brazil filled with these commercially valuable trees, which gave the territory – and eventually the country – its name. If Brazil wasn’t locked into South America, it could be a continent on its own. In terms of sheer landmass, Brazil – at 3,287,956 square miles – is the fifth largest country in the world, behind Russia (the largest), Canada, the United States, and China. (For our information, the landmass of the 28 nations of the former European Union – yes, including the United Kingdom, Brexit be damned – totals 1,669,808 square miles: half the size of Brazil.) The relative size of today’s five largest countries – of which Brazil is the fifth – is, in fact, misleading. Unlike Russia, Canada, and the United States, all of which have […]

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Music History Monday: When Richard Strauss was “Modernity”: ‘Salome’ and ‘Elektra’

We mark the world premiere – on January 25, 1909 – 112 years ago today – of Ricard Strauss’ opera Elektra at the Semperoper, the opera house of the Sächsische Staatsoper – the Saxon State Opera – in Dresden. Today acknowledged as one of the masterworks of the operatic repertoire, the premiere of Elektra uncorked a degree of critical controversy equaled only by Strauss’ own opera Salome in 1905 and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913. If I were to ask you who was the most famous and controversial living composer in 1909, who would you name? Gustav Mahler, born in 1860? No: Mahler was then best known as a conductor and a composer of long and rarely performed symphonies. Igor Stravinsky, born in 1882? No: Stravinsky didn’t appear on Europe’s artistic radar until 1910, when his ballet The Firebird was premiered in Paris on June 25th of that year. Arnold Schoenberg, born 1874? In 1909, Schoenberg was hardly known outside of his native Vienna, and many (if not most) of those Viennese who did know his music considered him a crackpot; okay, a talented crackpot. You know where this is going. The most famous, controversial, and (not […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Absurdity

“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” As hoary old aphorisms go, this one is right up there on the tiresome scale with “a penny saved is a penny earned”, “you miss 100% of the shots you do not take”, “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping:” and “insinuations are lavender, nearly.” Nevertheless, I have a particular fondness for “the grass is always greener on the other side” because its sentiment cuts so closely to my own life, psyche, and existential feelings of victimization: well, duh, of course everyone else’s life is better than mine, of course I’m missing out on something everyone else has, of course everything always happens to me, of course I’m a fraud and everyone else is not. “The grass is always greener on the other side” addresses, perfectly, that generative emotion held so dear by so many composers, authors, poets, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, singers, and actors (to say nothing for the rest of the population) and that is envy. What we might call “the grass-is-always-greener syndrome” is surely as old as humanity itself: “the cave is always bigger on the other side.” For our information, the first […]

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Music History Monday: Concerts I Would Like to Have Attended (and One I am Glad to have Missed!)

January is usually a concert-heavy month, following, as it does, the holiday-heavy month of December. In a non-COVID environment, theaters thrive in the cold and early darkness of January, as folks look for something to do while they wait out the winter in anticipation of warmer, longer days and baseball season.  January 18th is particularly notable for concerts that have taken place on this date, concerts that with one glaring exception I personally would have been thrilled to attend. Stuck at home as we presently are thanks to you-know-what, let us live vicariously through these January 18 concerts, even as we anticipate – hungrily, hopefully – the soon-enough-to-be attended concerts of January 2022.  We will focus primarily on the first of these concerts – the premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose – after which we’ll do a quick prance through five other January 18-specific concert events of note. The Nose We mark the premiere performance on January 18, 1930 – 91 years ago today – of Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose, which was performed by the Maly Opera Theater in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). Completed in 1928 when Shostakovich was just 22 years old, The Nose is based […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post focused on Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), his ballet Romeo and Juliet, and his permanent return to the Soviet Union in 1936 at precisely the time Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror was shifting into full gear. Today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes explores Prokofiev’s explosive and in all ways awesome Piano Sonata No. 7 (completed in 1942), one of the great masterworks of his “Soviet years.” BUT EVEN MORE THAN THAT! I absolutely believe, without qualification, hedging, prevarication, equivocation or any other description of lily-livered middle-of-the-roading (where dwells nothing but dead skunks and yellow lines) that the prescribed recording is not just the best available of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 but the best possible recording of Prokofiev’s sonata on what is, in my humble but not ill-informed opinion, the greatest single solo piano album ever recorded. Deep breaths. I find it hard to believe that only now, in my 128th (consecutive) Dr. Bob Prescribes post, am I getting around to this album. Better late than never. Sergei Prokofiev was born on April 11, 1891 in the village of Sontsovka, in Ukraine. His father managed a large estate, and it was on that estate that Prokofiev grew up an isolated, […]

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Music History Monday: Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet, and the B***h Goddess

We mark the first performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet on January 11, 1940 – 81 years ago today – by the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad, what today is St. Petersburg. Prokofiev was born on April 23, 1891 in Ukraine. He attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory as both a pianist and composer and graduated in 1914, first in his class. His rise to fame as both a pianist and composer was meteoric, and by 1917, the 26-year-old Prokofiev had come to be considered among Russia’s very best and brightest. Unfortunately, that’s also when current events had their way him. By 1917, World War One had been raging for three years. As the only son of a widow, Prokofiev had not been called up into the Russian army; a good thing, considering that four million Russians died in combat between 1914 and 1917. Violent frustration over the Russian war effort led Czar Nicholas II to abdicate on March 2, 1917. An armed insurrection brought Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party to power in November of 1917, and the Russian Civil War began. The Civil War would last for five horrific years and kill an additional 9 million Russians. In 1918, deciding […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes George Gershwin, Concerto in F

A statement I’ve made before and will gladly make again: George Gershwin is among the handful of greatest composers the United States has produced, and his death at the age of 38 (of a brain tumor) should be considered an artistic tragedy comparable to the premature deaths of Schubert (at 31), Mozart (at 35), and Chopin (at 39). He was born Jacob Gershovitz (though his birth certificate reads “Jacob Gershwine”), the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, on September 26, 1898 at 242 Snediker Avenue in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (For our information: in 1963, a bronze plaque commemorating Gershwin’s birth was affixed to the building. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had fallen on very hard times: the plaque was stolen – it is still MIA – and the building vandalized. It burned down in 1987, and all that remains of the neighborhood today is a blighted area of warehouses and junkyards.) Rarely has a major composer begun his life in an artistically less promising manner. Tall, athletic, and charismatic, Gershwin was the leader of various tenement gangs, played street ball, roller skated everywhere and engaged in petty crime. By his own admission, he cared nothing for music […]

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Music History Monday: A Rockin’ Day

What July 4th is for Americans; what Bastille Day on July 14th is for the French; what St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th is for the Irish, and what the Black-Necked Crane Festival on November 11th is for the Bhutanese, so January 4th is for fans of rock ‘n’ roll: a day when so much stuff happened as to enshrine it as a major, rock ‘n’ roll holiday! What, pray tell, happened on this day? Thank you for asking. Elvis Presley and Sam Philips It was on January 4, 1954 – 67 years ago today – that Elvis Presley, four days short of his 20th birthday (on January 8), came to the attention of the record producer and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips (1923-2003). It was the singular event that vaulted Elvis to stardom. Here’s what happened. On this day in 1954, Elvis made his second visit to the studios of the Memphis Recording Studio, which shared an office with Sun Records. On his first visit – six months before, on July 18, 1953 – Presley had recorded two songs (at his expense) on a two-sided, 10-inch acetate disc, claiming that the recording was a “gift for his mother.” […]

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Dr Bob Prescribes: Maurice Ravel, ‘Valses nobles et sentimentales’

The “Waltz” Experienced ballroom dancers aside, I would suggest that most of us consider the “waltz” to be a stodgy thing, a choreographic burden to be born at weddings and such during which we shuffle out an approximation of a three-step, attempting to lead a partner who would rather not be lead (at least not by me), to the scintillating strains of such triple meter standards as the Anniversary Waltz and Sunrise, Sunset. It is easy, today, to forget that at the time of its creation, the waltz was considered a lewd and lascivious dance, one that led to moral degradation in this world and damnation in the next! The waltz originated in eighteenth century Austria as a peasant’s dance. What distinguished it from the beginning was its wide, gliding steps and the fact that the dancers held each other as closely as possible (at a time when courtly dancing forbade almost any touching at all). The relative simplicity and physicality of this new, gliding and whirling dance made it extremely popular among the lower classes, who were no more likely to dance the more sophisticated Minuet than Ozzie Osborn a Virginia Reel. By the late-eighteenth century, the gliding and […]

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Music History Monday: Maurice Ravel

We mark the death on December 28, 1937 – 83 years ago today – of the French composer and pianist Maurice Ravel, in Paris, at the age of 62. We will get to the magnifique and formidable Monsieur Ravel in a moment, but first, we’ve a birthday to acknowledge. We mark the birth on December 28, 1896 – 124 years ago today – of the American composer and teacher Roger Huntingdon Sessions, in Brooklyn New York. He died, at the age of 88, on March 16, 1985, in Princeton, New Jersey. I myself never studied with Roger Sessions; he had retired from the Princeton faculty in 1965, while I was in attendance from 1972 to 1976. Nevertheless, the “old man” cut a wide swath on campus. And why the heck not? A multiple Pulitzer Prize winner; friend of Arnold Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, and Thomas Mann; Norton Fellow at Harvard: there was hardly an American musical event that took place during the twentieth century that Sessions wasn’t in some way involved with. While I never studied with Sessions, I did indeed study with his protégé Andrew Welsh Imbrie (1921-2007) when I was a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley; […]

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