Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Oscar Peterson

It’s a story I told before, in a blog dated July 28, 2013. Since it’s been almost six years I will be forgiven for telling it again. It was sometime in the spring of 1980. I was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, living in a studio apartment in a dilapidated brown shingle house south of campus, across from a package store. I made my dollars as a teaching assistant in the music department and by giving private lessons. When folks called the music department looking for a theory or composition teacher, I was the person to whom they were referred. As a result, I received a lot of calls from prospective students, only a few of whom actually took a lesson. So I didn’t pay all that much attention when in the spring of 1980 I received such a call from a guy who identified himself as “Anthony”. Anthony told me that he wanted nothing less than the equivalent of an undergraduate music education, from start to finish. I no doubt rolled my eyes while telling him that that would take years. He told me that he was prepared to do whatever it took, including taking… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Paul Creston

When I and my compositional colleagues were ignorant graduate students (yes, ignorant and arrogant: I thought I was so freakin’ smart in my mid-twenties, only to realize, as real life unfolded, how colossally naïve I really was), when we were ignorant graduate students, among the nastiest things me or my colleagues could say about a piece of music was that “it sounded like movie music.” Putting aside for a moment the fact that there’s some really fine movie music out there, this statement was meant to address music of melodramatic expressive content characterized by super-extreme degrees of contrast and seemingly pedestrian thematic content. Music about which one could blithely say “oh, that sounds like a chase scene”; or “that sounds like lonely, dark streets noire music”; or “that sounds like a fight scene” or a “love scene”, or a “knifing in the shower scene”, etc.: music of seemingly obvious, usually over-the-top expressive content.  I’ve grown up, and speaking generally and entirely for myself, I no longer consider movie music to be intrinsically inferior to stand-alone, self-contained concert music. It’s just different, because it serves a different purpose than concert music. The overweening importance in movie music is to create a… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Igor Stravinsky – Pulcinella Suite

We will return to the music of mid-century American symphonists next week. For now, we celebrate Igor Stravinsky’s spectacular and spectacularly influential Pulcinella in anticipation of his 139th birthday, which we will mark on June 17th in next week’s Music History Monday post. Bad Times The First World War (which ran from July 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918) was an unfathomable catastrophe. It laid waste to huge swatches of Western, Central, and Eastern Europe. It destroyed four multi-ethnic Empires: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, and German empires. It created the preconditions for the civil war and the triumph of Bolshevism (soon to be known as Communism) in Russia and for civil war and the triumph of National Socialism (best known as Nazism) in Germany. In 1918 and 1919, a planetary population weakened by food shortages and wartime hardship succumbed to the Spanish influenza pandemic, which infected roughly 500 million people (about one-third of the world’s population at the time) and killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people worldwide (a number comparable to those killed by the Black Death in the fourteenth century).  The War and the flu pandemic together killed nearly an entire generation of young Western men. The… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Amy Beach

Amy Marcy Cheney was born in Henniker, New Hampshire on September 5, 1867. She was a phenomenal child prodigy as both a pianist and composer. (She “composed” her first piece – a set of three waltzes – in her head at the age of four at her grandfather’s house, at which there was no piano. She was able to play them only after having returned home.)  Ms. Cheney made her official concert debut in October of 1883 – at the age of 16 – at Boston’s Music Hall. She performed Chopin’s virtuosic Rondo in E-flat, Op. 16 and then, along with the Boston Symphony under the baton of Adolf Neuendorff, she was the soloist in a performance of Ignaz Moscheles’ Piano Concerto No. 3 in G Minor. According to her biographer Adrienne Fried Block, the audience reaction was “enthusiastic in the extreme.” That “extreme enthusiasm” was to follow Amy Cheney wherever she performed, and there’s no doubt that were she alive today she would have a successful – perhaps even a spectacular – international concert career. But in late nineteenth century New England that was out of the question.… Learn more about Amy Beach and get Dr. Bob’s Prescription –… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: David Diamond

David Leo Diamond (1915-2005) composed eleven symphonies. When he died at 89 of congestive heart failure on June 13, 2005 in the Town of Brighten – located on the southeastern border of his native city of Rochester, New York – he left no family or heirs. A prolific composer, his greatest output are his songs, his ten string quartets and, most importantly, his eleven symphonies. Diamond was wont to refer to his symphonies as his “children”, and if that be so, then he did indeed leave family behind: lots of family. And unlike many of our families, filled (as they usually are) with all sorts of problematic individuals, there is not a single delinquent among Diamond’s “children”. Together they constitute one of the great symphonic legacies in the repertoire, taken as widely as we please.   So why is the name David Diamond so vague – even unrecognizable – to so many lovers of concert music?  A number of explanations have been put forth. Some say the blame lays with Diamond himself and his famously testy personality. In an interview conducted by the New York Times in 1990, the then 75-year-old Diamond admitted that: “I had a reputation as a… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell was an American iconoclast: a maverick composer who created his own most original musical language in response to a particular, uniquely “American” experience. A list of such radical American composers begins with Cowell’s personal hero and role model, Charles Ives and continues with Cowell’s own students John Cage and Lou Harrison; such a list would include such compositional renegades as Roy Harris, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and Morton Subotnik. The list goes on; I shall not. With the exception of Charlie Ives, what all of these composers have in common is that they are either natives of California (Cowell, Cage, Partch, Riley, Subotnik) or spent a formative period of their musical lives in California (Harrison, Harris, and Oliveros).  Henry Cowell (1897-1965) Cowell was born on March 11, 1897 in Menlo Park, California: as the bird flies about 25 miles south of San Francisco. His Irish immigrant father and Iowa-born mother were both writers, and authentic proto-hippies in their attitudes towards life and childrearing.  Cowell began playing the violin at age 5, began composing at 10, and bought himself his first piano when he was 13. According to the composer and Cowell biographer Bruce Saylor, writing in… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Schubert, String Quartet No. 14

I am taking a one-week hiatus from my celebration of mid-century American orchestral composers because of something I wrote yesterday in Music History Monday for May 6, 2019. That post was about the inception of the song (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by Keith Richards.  Here’s the “something” I wrote in yesterday’s post: “Satisfaction went on to become one of the most important rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time; in 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine went so far as to rate it number two on its list of ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.’”  Permit me to say that again: in 2004 (and then again in 2010), Rolling Stone Magazine rated Satisfaction number two on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. The second greatest song of all time? Really? How very . . . absurd. I know Rolling Stone Magazine focuses on popular culture, but still, number two on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”? Given the actual songs on the list, it should have been entitled “The 500 Greatest Songs of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Era.” But no, the good people at Rolling Stonedecided to shoot for the moon and… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Samuel Barber – Symphony No. 1

Let’s get this out of the way right away: Samuel Barber is among the greatest composers ever born in the United States, a composer of operas, symphonies, concerti, numerous other orchestral works and piles of chamber music, piano music, choral works and songs. Almost all of his music has been published and recorded. He is the recipient of an American Prix de Rome, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two Pulitzer Prizes. The Pulitzer Prize-winning chief music critic for the New York Times, Donal Henahen, stated regarding Barber that: “probably no other American composer has ever enjoyed such early, such persistent and such long-lasting acclaim.” Then “why-oh-why” I cry – tearing at my hair and renting my tee-shirt – why-oh-why has he been reduced today to a one-hit wonder, the composer of Adagio for Strings, which is in fact an arrangement of the slow movement of his String Quartet Op. 11 of 1936 (and a piece of music so ubiquitous that it might rightly be called the “Pachelbel’s Canon” of the twentieth century). Yes; Barber’s Adagio for Strings is a beautiful, masterfully crafted work. Yes, yes: when Arturo Toscanini became director of the NBC Orchestra in 1938, the first American work he… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Peter Mennin

Peter Mennin was a symphonist: of his 26 works, 9 were symphonies.  (Let’s get this “the curse of the 9-thing” out of the way here and now. Mennin completed his Ninth Symphony in 1981, at the age of 58. In 1982, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died on June 17, 1983, one month after his 60th birthday. What is it about completing a numbered Ninth Symphony that spells doom for so many composers? Beethoven, Ludwig Spohr, Antonin Dvořák, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Alexander Glazunov, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Kurt Atterburg, Elie Siegmeister, Alfred Schnittke, Roger Sessions, Egon Wellesz, Malcolm Arnold, and David Maslanka would all like to have known. Perhaps they would have stopped at eight. Bad for posterity but good for them.) According to Arnold Schoenberg, who was himself something of a numbers freak and suffered from “Triskaidekaphobia”, the fear of the number 13: “It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes William Schumann

In last week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, I asserted that the composers Roy Harris (1898-1979) and his student William Schuman (1910-1992): “are generally considered to be the two greatest American composers of symphonies to have yet graced our planet.” I have received no evidence in the intervening week that that statement isn’t as true today as it was on April 9. Accordingly, I will (and not for the first time) repeat myself even as I flesh that statement out just a bit: “Roy Harris (1898-1979), who composed 13 numbered symphonies between 1933 and 1974 and his student William Schuman (1910-1992), who composed 10 numbered symphonies between 1935 and 1976, are generally considered to be the two greatest American composers of symphonies to have yet graced our planet.” Does anyone want to argue with that? Good. William Schumann William Howard Schuman, known to everyone as “Bill”, was born on the upper West Side of Manhattan Island, New York, New York (a.k.a. “the Big Apple”, “the city so big they had to name it twice”) on August 4, 1910. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish household; by his own account, a happy, regular kid.  He taught himself to play the violin… 

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