Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes Giuseppe Verdi: Ernani

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post about the riot at the Astor Place Opera House noted that the house opened on November 22, 1847 with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Ernani. In fact, it was the first American performance of Ernani, which had received its premiere in Venice on March 9, 1844. Ernani was Verdi’s fifth opera, and it followed on the heels of two great successes: Nabucco (or “Nebuchadnezzar” of 1842)and I Lombardi alla prima crociata (“The Lombards on the First Crusade” of 1843). Nabucco and I Lombardi made Verdi’s reputation. But even more than Nabucco and I Lombardi, Ernani made Verdi’s fame, and remained the most popular of his operas until the premiere of Il Trovatore in 1853. (Factoid: Ernani was also the first opera to be recorded in its entirety, in 1904.) We’ll get to Ernani in a bit. But first, I’d like to use the occasion of its American premiere at the Astor Place Opera House to explore what was Verdi’s formative decade, what he called his “years of the galley slave.” The Years of the Galley Slave On March 20, 1843, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) – seven months shy of his 30th birthday – left his apartment […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Leonard Bernstein: Fancy Free and On the Town

Leonard Bernstein is very like the most talented, all-around musician ever born in the United States. I prevaricated a bit by adding “very likely” (above), if only to assuage those who might consider Charles Schulz’s Schroeder or Snoop Dog (Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr., born 1971) to be, instead, the greatest all-around musicians this nation has yet produced. But really, in terms of his prodigious musical range and versatility and tremendous cultural impact, Leonard (born Louis) Bernstein is indeed the most gifted musician ever born in the U.S.: America’s Mozart. He was born on August 18, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of Ukrainian Jews. Bernstein’s hard-working immigrant parents had indeed found America’s streets paved with gold; his father, Samuel Joseph Bernstein, was the owner of “The Samuel Bernstein Hair and Beauty Supply Company”, which held the New England franchise for the immensely popular “Frederick’s Permanent Wave Machine.” When he was 10, Bernstein’s Aunt Clara parked her upright piano at his house. He began teaching himself to play and then, we are told, he began “clamoring for lessons.” However, Samuel Bernstein had no intention of encouraging Lenny’s musical foolishness; as his eldest son, he was going to follow his father into […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Works Conducted in America

Pronunciation! Before we can get to the extraordinary man whose beneficence built America’s premiere concert hall and brought Tchaikovsky to New York in order to break it in, we must deal with a sticky issue of pronunciation. Andrew Carnegie’s surname is pronounced Car-NEH-gie, with an accent on the second syllable. Likewise, the Car-NEH-gie Corporation of New York; the Car-NEH-gie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; the Car-NEH-gie Foundation for International Peace, and so forth. Car-NEH-gie. Except when it comes to the music hall. So many generations of well-meaning folks have mispronounced Car-NEH-gie’s name when referring to CAR-ne-gie Hall that the mispronunciation must be defacto accepted, just as we have come to accept – grudgingly, I admit – jew-lery (instead of “jew-wel-ry”) and re-la-tor (instead of “real-tor”). So, his name: Car-NEH-gie. The music hall: CAR-ne-gie. Carnegie’s rags-to-untold-riches story is the stuff of legend, the “American Dream” writ in CAPITAL LETTERS. Born on November 25, 1935 in a one-room weaver’s cottage in Dunfermline, Scotland, the Carnegie family emigrated to Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1848 in search of a better life. Through intelligence, hard work, perseverance, vision, zero risk aversion, and no small bit of luck, Carnegie became one of the richest men in […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Dave Brubeck Quartet

It took me some time to find it but find it I did: my “Senior Lifesaving and Water Safety” card, issued on August 29, 1969 when I was 15 years old.  The thing would never have survived the last 50-plus years had it not come in most handy on August 17, 1970. That was the day that along with my friend Craig Denning and his father Allan, I attended a concert at “St. John Terrell’s Music Circus” in Lambertville, New Jersey. The “Music Circus” was (and is) a summer-only theater-in-the-round under a tent (a very big tent). The act that evening was the Dave Brubeck Quartet featuring the baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, Jack Six on bass, and Alan Dawson on drums (the “classic” Brubeck quartet that made the album Take Five that featured the alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright on bass, and Joe Morello on drums had disbanded in 1967).  We got there early and walked around the field outside the big top tent, and who was out taking a walk as well but Maestro Brubeck himself. I froze: I was 16 years old and Dave Brubeck was my hero. Craig and his dad encouraged me to talk to […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Samuil Feinberg Piano Sonatas

Odessa is the fourth largest city in Ukraine, after Kiev, Kharkov, and Donetsk. Located on the northwestern coast of the Black Sea, Odessa is an important seaport, transportation hub, and a major tourist destination, the so-called “Pearl of the Black Sea.” What today is the city of Odessa has been occupied for nearly 3000 years by a bewildering variety of peoples. The ancient Greeks, various semi-nomadic tribes, the Crimean Taters, Cossacks, and Ottoman Turks have all called the area home over the centuries. The Russian defeat of the Ottoman Turks in the Russian-Turkish War of 1787-1792 saw the region incorporated into the Russian Empire. In 1795, the Russian authorities named the settlement Odessa after the Greek colony of Odessos which was (erroneously, as it turned out) believed to have been located in the area. With the official Russian creation of the “city” of Odessa, the population exploded, increasing 15-fold between 1795 and 1814. Much of this explosive growth was due to the region and the city’s governor, Duc de Richelieu, who served in that capacity from 1803 to 1814. A refugee from the French Revolution, he oversaw the large-scale grid design of the city (which remains to this day) and […]

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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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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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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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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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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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