Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Author Archive for Robert Greenberg – Page 2

Dr. Bob Prescribes Carl Ruggles: Sun-Treader

The backstory: in 1970, the 26-year-old Tilson-Thomas conducted Ruggles’ masterwork – Sun-Treader – in concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  (That performance was followed by Tilson-Thomas’ recording of Sun-Treader with the BSO recommended above.)  At the time, Carl Ruggles was 94 years old and living in a nursing home in Bennington, Vermont (he died the following year, in 1971).  We’ll let MTT tell the story from here: “Ruggles, enigmatic and granitic man – how his music and spirit have haunted me.  I first heard his music at age thirteen.  The piece was Men and Mountains and I remember how stunning it was.   Years later I began to perform Mr. Ruggles’ music and to discover more of his remarkable testimony in each new performance. The fascination continued over the years and turned to awe and appreciation as through repeated performances I began to understand the depth of the music and power of its testimony.  It was in this mood that following a performance of Sun-Treader with the Boston Symphony, I set out to meet Mr. Ruggles.  Syrl Silberman of WGBH-TV in Boston had worked on a film about him and had become friendly with the old man, who even then […]

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Music History Monday: Carl Ruggles

Before moving on to Carl Ruggles, the featured composer of today’s post, we would offer the warmest of happy birthdays to one of the most brilliant composers of the twentieth century, who also happened to be one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met, George Crumb.  He was born in Charleston, West Virginia on October 24, 1929 – 93 years ago today – and died at his home in the Philadelphia suburb of Media, Pennsylvania, on February 6, 2022, at the age of 92. I offered up an appreciation of Crumb in my Music History Monday post on the occasion of his 87th birthday on October 24, 2016.  We will revisit Crumb in my Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes posts for March 13 and 14, 2023 (yes, I plan ahead!) when we tackle his Black Angels for electric string quartet. On to the featured event for today’s post. We mark the death on October 24, 1971 – 51 years ago today – of the American composer, teacher, and painter Charles Sprague (“Carl”) Ruggles, in Bennington Vermont.  Born in Marion, Massachusetts on March 11, 1876, Ruggles was 95 years old at the time of his death. C-level People […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Selected Piano Music of Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) was, in his lifetime, considered Beethoven’s equal as a pianist and, if not his equal as a compositional innovator, then a rather more listenable alternative.  The former head music critic for The New York Times, Harold Schonberg, put it this way: “He [Hummel] was a highly regarded composer in his day – overrated then, underrated now.” A snooty but not inaccurate appraisal.  And it is true that as a composer – particularly as a composer of piano music – Hummel remains far underrated today.  When his music is discussed, on those fairly rare occasions when it is discussed at all, it is assigned to that strange, in-betweeny netherworld as being “transitional.” In the case of Hummel’s music, it is blithely classified as being “proto-Romantic” or “post-Classical,” as if it were a lesser hybrid (half-breed?) between two otherwise “pure” musical styles, a cross between old music and new music; between the Classical era ideal of the composer as craftsperson and the Romantic era vision of artist-as-hero.  Well, pooh on all of that, and double-pooh on these useless categories so casually bandied about by program annotators and presumed music historians.   As both a pianist and composer, Hummel […]

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Music History Monday: Name the Composer/Pianist

Name the Composer/Pianist: he was a student of Wolfgang Mozart, Antonio Salieri, Muzio Clementi, and Joseph Haydn; friend to Franz Schubert and a friend (and rival!) of Ludwig van Beethoven; and teacher of – among many others – Carl Czerny, Ferdinand Hiller, Sigismond Thalberg, and Felix Mendelssohn; in his lifetime considered one of the greats and in ours almost entirely forgotten? With a title like that, the subject of this post better be good. And good he was! We mark the death on October 17, 1837 – 185 years ago today – of the composer and pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel in the Thuringian city Weimar.  Born in Pressburg (today Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia) on November 14, 1778, Hummel was 59 years old at the time of his death. A Preliminary: What’s in a Name? Listen, the last thing in the world I want to be accused of (okay, maybe not the last thing . . .) is name shaming: making fun of someone’s name.  But let’s be serious: what sort of middle name is “Nepomuk”?  And it’s not just Hummel: “Nepomuk”, a name that most certainly does not ring beatific for native English speakers, was a fairly common middle […]

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Music History Monday: Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky, AKA “Vernon Duke”

We mark the birth on October 10, 1903 – 119 years ago today – of the Russian-American composer of concert music Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky.  As a composer of popular music, and as a major contributor to the Great American Songbook, he is known as Vernon Duke. The Great American Songbook The Great American Songbook refers to neither a book nor a specific list of songs.  Rather, the phrase encompasses the repertoire of American popular song, written between about 1915 and 1955 that are today collectively referred to as the “standards.”  According to what should be the unimpeachable source, the “Great American Songbook Foundation”:  The “Great American Songbook” is the canon of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century that have stood the test of time in their life and legacy. Often referred to as “American Standards”, the songs published during the Golden Age of this genre include those popular and enduring tunes from the 1920s to the 1950s that were created for Broadway Theater, musical theater, and Hollywood musical film.” Now, you didn’t have to be born in America to be a contributor to the Great American Songbook.  In fact, some […]

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Music History Monday: Carl Nielsen

We mark the death on October 3, 1931 – 91 years ago today – of the Danish composer and violinist Carl Nielsen in Copenhagen, at the age of 66. Nielsen had what we colloquially call “a bad ticker.”  He suffered his first heart attack in 1925, when he was sixty years old.  A nasty series of heart attacks put him in Copenhagen’s National Hospital (the Rigshospitalet) on October 1, 1931.  He died there at 12:10 am on October 3.  Surrounded by his family, his last words were: “You are standing here as if you were waiting for something.” (We could take those last words a variety of ways.  For example, we might assume that Nielsen, suffering from delirium, was genuinely curious as to why his entire family was gathered around his bed.  But knowing Nielsen as we do – he was a salty, funny, straight-shooting person and a proud family man, married to a famous sculptress and the father of five kids – we’d like to think that Nielsen went to his death cracking an ironic joke.  Not quite as ironic as Chicago’s founding guitarist and vocalist Terry Kath’s last words, “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded”, but ironic enough.) Despite […]

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Music History Monday: Béla Bartók’s American Exile

We mark the death on September 26, 1945 – 77 years ago today – of the pianist, composer, and Hungarian patriot Béla Bartók. Born in what was then the Hungarian town of Nagyszentmiklós(now Sînnicolau Mare in Romania) on March 25, 1881, Bartók died – during what he called his “comfortable exile” – in New York City. Before moving on to Bartók’s “American Exile”, let’s establish –as we can from our vantage point in 2022 – his creds as a great and influential twentieth century composer! In 1961, 16 years after Bartók’s death, Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) – composer, conductor, and, in the words of his teacher Olivier Messiaen, the great insufferable one – wrote this about Bartók’s music: “The pieces most applauded are the least good; his best products are loved in their weaker aspects. His work triumphs now through its ambiguity. Ambiguity that will surely bring him insults during future evaluation. His work has not the profound unity and novelty of Webern’s or the vigorous controlled dynamism of Stravinsky’s. His language lacks interior coherence. His name will live on in the limited ensemble of his chamber music.”  Boulez was not just wrong; he was snotty wrong.  But the degree of […]

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Music History Monday: Day Gigs

“Don’t give up your day gig.” Along with “don’t eat yellow snow” and “fake it ‘til you make it”, “don’t give up your day gig” remains one of the oldest, hoariest, clichéd pieces of advice anyone can give or receive. But unless you were lucky/wise enough to heed the other greatest piece of advice any musician can receive, that being “marry rich”, “don’t give up your day gig” is still among the very best pieces of advice a musician can receive. Very few of us get our dream job right out of school; hell, very few of us ever get our dream job. All too rapidly, reality intrudes on youthful artistic idealism and no matter how much one wants to compose, or play violin, or sing, unless we can find someone willing to pay us to do so, we must all do something to make money. And then, as we get older and develop a taste for the finer things in life – like feeding, clothing, and housing our children – our day gigs become not just a matter of survival for ourselves but for those around us. Now, here and there and every now and then, someone gets very […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Robert Schumann: Kreisleriana

Romanticism The nineteenth century saw the emergence of a new sort of European literature.  The cutting-edge writers of the time were consumed by a number of particular themes: the glorification of extreme emotion, particularly love; nostalgia for a distant, mystical, legendary past; and a passionate enthusiasm for nature wild and free, unspoiled by humanity and its bourgeois values! Soon enough, visual artists and composers embraced these themes as well.  For many such nineteenth century writers, poets, visual artists, and composers, over-the-top expressive content, nostalgia for the past, personal confession and the depiction of nature wild and free were the vehicles for achieving what their art – at its essence – was all about: spontaneous and magnified emotional expression. The adjective “Romantic” came to be used to describe such emotionally charged and self-expressive art. And no nineteenth century, “Romantic era” composer believed more fervently in music as personal, emotional, and spiritual confessional than did Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Robert Schumann: Early Life He was born in the central German town of Zwickau on June 8, 1810, the fifth and last child of August Schumann and Joanna Christiana Schumann (née Schnabel).    We are told that if we do what we love, we’ll […]

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Music History Monday: Robert and Clara, Sittin’ in a Tree…

We mark the marriage on September 12, 1840 – 182 years ago today – of the pianist and composer Clara Wieck (1819-1896) to the composer and pianist Robert Schumann (1810-1856).  The couple were married the day before Clara’s 21st birthday (September 13, 1840), for reasons that will be explained in detail in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post. Not for the Timid I ask: what are the most difficult things any person can attempt?  To summit K2 and return alive?  To win Olympic gold?  To overcome addiction?  To row solo across the Pacific?  All tough things to accomplish, no doubt.   What are the scariest things anyone can do?   Swim with piranhas? Eat at a barbecue restaurant next to a cat hospital?  Urinate on Mike Tyson?  Scary stuff, dangerous stuff, that. But to my mind, nothing is more soul-searingly difficult-slash terrifying than one, raising children and two, staying in a first marriage.  (Okay; I’ve probably told you more about my life than I intended to, but there it is.) Children are to people what water is to a house: children will find and reveal every flaw in your “structure” – your personality – while simultaneously sucking dry your money, patience, […]

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