Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde – Part 2

We began our examination of Tristan und Isolde in last week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post.  Our prescribed performance – as featured above – will continue to supply our video examples as we move through Acts II and III.  As mentioned in last week’s post, our examination of Tristan und Isolde is focusing on Isolde, and three particular episodes – one from each of the three acts – that demonstrate her ongoing metamorphosis across the span of the drama: from viciously angry and depressed in Act I, to agitated and love struck in Act II, to transfigured in Act III. Act II Wagner’s stage instructions set the scene: A garden with tall trees in front of Isolde’s apartment with steps at one side.  A pleasant summer’s night. At the open door is placed a burning torch. Sounds of hunting. Brangäne, on the steps to the apartments, looks out after the hunting party as their sounds fade away into the distance. Isolde comes out of the apartment in wild agitation.”  Act II consists of three continuous scenes.  Scene one is a dialogue between Isolde and her maid, Brangäne.  Scene two is dominated by the conversation (which I’ve italicized because it’s some conversation!) […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde – Part 1

Sooner Than Later My Dr. Bob Prescribes post for May 14, 2024 (four weeks ago) was entitled “Fluids of Choice and Drinking Songs.” Among the featured “drinking songs” was the famous “quaff the presumed poison” scene from Act I of Tristan und Isolde.   That May 14 post offered a video link to the scene, from a performance recorded live at La Scala in Milan in 2007. Featuring Waltraud Meier as Isolde and Ian Story as Tristan, and conducted by Daniel Barenboim, it is hands down my favorite recording of the opera on DVD.  I promised to feature the performance in a post of its own “sooner than later.”   I trust today is soon enough. Today’s double-length Dr. Bob Prescribes post will deal with Act I of Tristan und Isolde.  Next week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes will pick up from  there, with Acts II and III.  Write What You Know: Tristan und Isolde as Autobiography The aspiring writer is advised to “write what you know.”  What Richard Wagner (1813-1883) “knew” during the late 1850s was an unquenchable passion for the wife of his benefactor.  That benefactor was a wealthy businessman named Otto von Wesendonck; his wife (and the object of […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Johann Joseph Fux

Johann Joseph Fux? Yes, Johann Joseph Fux.  And please, let us try to refrain from joking about Herr Fux’s fuxing name.  There’s nothing we can say that hasn’t already been said by generations of young music composition students, including – to my enduring shame – yours truly. Yes: for generations of undergraduate music composition students, a thorough study of Fuxian Counterpoint has been – and for all I know, continues to be – de regueur.  When I was a university freshman, the required freshman-level music theory class taught by a composer named Peter Westergaard (1931-2019) was a thorough study of something called Fuxian species counterpoint. Westergaard’s book was largely based on Johann Joseph Fux’s instructional treatise Gradus ad Parnassum which was first published in 1725. Fux’s Gradus was, in turn, based on the compositional techniques of the great Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (circa 1525-1594).  It is no small irony that Fux, who was considered among the greatest (and was certainly among the most honored) composers of his time is known today – to the degree that he is known at all – as a result of his instructional manual. So: Why Fux, Here, Today? What, you might rightly ask, made me think […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes – Wolfgang Mozart, Ein musikalischer Spaß, K. 522

Inappropriate Revisited Subtitled as being a “divertimento for two horns and string quartet” and generally (if rather inaccurately) translated as “A Musical Joke,” Ein musikalischer Spaß is, in my humble opinion, the single strangest work ever written by a major composer, particularly a major composer in his absolute prime who had not a minute to waste.  It is a PDQ Bach-type, four movement musical parody in which Mozart (1756-1791) imitates a bad composer composing badly.  According to Stanley Sadie, writing in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians: “[its] harmonic and rhythmic gaffes serve to parody the work of incompetent composers.”    Given that the “joke” was composed by Wolfgang-freaking-Mozart, it is, of course, devastatingly clever and often laugh-out-loud funny; which was no doubt Mozart’s intention from the get-go. Okay; fine: purposely artless music intended to be funny. But why would Mozart choose to inappropriately waste his time and energies on such a parody (a parody that no one asked for or commissioned) at a time he was at the very top of his game, composing some of his most lucrative music?  That is the $64.00 question. Mozart in 1789, at the age of 33 The 31-year-old Mozart entered “A Musical Joke” in […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Music of Clara Wieck Schumann

Friedrich Wieck could be a first-class creep.  Nevertheless, we – meaning posterity, taken as widely as we please – owe him a debt of gratitude for the education he gave, the musical opportunities he afforded, and the professional contacts he made for his spectacularly gifted daughter, Clara (1819-1896). In 1815, the thirty-year-old Friedrich Wieck moved to the Saxon city of Leipzig.  Ferociously ambitious, he set himself up as a piano teacher and proprietor of a piano shop.  His timing could not have been better.  Leipzig was rebuilding from the Napoleonic Wars, and as a commercial center the city was filled with cash and a growing number of middleclass families who wanted pianos for their parlors and lessons for their kids. Within a year – his business prospering – Wieck decided it was time to reproduce.  On June 23, 1816, he married Marianne Tromlitz (1797-1872) who, at 19, was 12 years Wieck’s junior. Marianne was an extremely talented singer and piano player.  She took on singing students and, because she was by far the better pianist in the Wieck household, she also took on the more advanced piano students.  Friedrich and Marianne had a whole cottage industry going: sell the piano, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Fluids of Choice and Drinking Songs

We pick up where we left off in yesterday’s Music History Monday. May 13th – yesterday’s date – has been designated by those fine people who designate such things as “World Cocktail Day” (as well as the first day of “American Craft Beer Week”).  I used the occasions to begin a discussion about the drinking habits of some of our favorite composers.  As I pointed out yesterday and would point out again today, I am in no way promoting the consumption of alcohol, especially in excess.  Rather, as is my usual schtick, I am seeking to render human composers who have been pedestalized and, as such, de-humanized. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Franz Schubert always liked to hoist a glass (or two, or three).  His favorite wine was a rosé called “Schilcher.” It was (and still is) produced in the Austrian region of Western Styria from Blauer Wildbacher grapes. Sadly, “self-medication” due to illness put his drinking well over the top. It was sometime in the late summer of 1822 that the 25-year-old Schubert contracted syphilis, almost certainly from a male prostitute during a pleasure-jaunt with his friend and periodic roommate, the homosexual and sometime female impersonator Franz von Schober (1796-1882). The first symptoms of the […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington

My Music History Monday post back on June 15, 2020, marked the death on June 15, 1996, of the the “First Lady of Song,” the “Queen of Jazz,” “Lady Ella”: of Ella Jane Fitzgerald, at the age of 79.   Music History Monday for April 29, 2024 (just last week!), marked the birth of “The Duke”: Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, on April 29, 1899. Ella and Duke.  They knew each other, loved each other, and performed and recorded music together for half a century.  They were, the cliché, be damned, a musical marriage made in heaven.  And thus, in my self-proclaimed “Year of Popular American Song,” this album of songs associated with Duke Ellington – which, BTW, is one of the greatest recordings ever made (no hyperbole that; just fact) – just screams to be examined and prescribed.   And so we shall. Ella and Duke Up Close and Personal I would introduce you all to Leonard Geoffrey Feather (1914-1994). He was a London-born jazz pianist, composer, and producer, who nevertheless is best known today for his books and essays about jazz and his jazz criticism (he was the chief jazz critic for the Los Angeles Times from the 1960s until his […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was an American jazz pianist and composer, someone who led his eponymous jazz band (or “orchestra,” as he preferred to call it), for what was a record-making 51 years: from 1923 until his death in 1974. He was born and raised in Washington D.C.  He moved permanently to New York City in 1923, and it was there that he became famous: as the leader of the house band at Harlem’s Cotton Club from 1927 to 1931. A brilliant composer of songs – many of which are today standards of the Great American Songbook – Ellington began composing extended works (what he generally referred to as “suites”) in the mid-1930s.  By the time of his death in 1974, he had written and collaborated on over one thousand musical works, by far the single largest body of written work in the jazz repertoire. When we left off in yesterday’s Music History Monday, Ellington had just become a household musical name thanks to his band’s weekly national broadcasts from the Cotton Club in New York City.  Ellington remained at the very top of the American musical heap through the 1930s and mid-1940s.  And then. And then came the late-1940s and […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Yehudi Menuhin

Monday’s Music History Monday post marked the birth – on April 22, 1916 – of the distinguished American-British violinist, conductor, and teacher Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999).  During the course of that post, I wrote that Menuhin: “was a man of unwavering moral integrity and courage: a soft-spoken, kind, gentle, and elegant man, a role model for everyone who knew him.” In support of that statement, I would offer up two of the many examples of his integrity and courage.  But first, an anecdote that sets the stage for those examples. Menuhin was born in New York City to a family of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants.  His given name – “Yehudi” – literally means “Jew” in Hebrew.  In an interview published in the British magazine New Internationalist, Menuhin described how he got his name: “Obliged to find an apartment [in New York City], my parents searched the neighborhood and chose one. Showing them out after they had viewed it, the landlady said: ‘And you’ll be glad to know I don’t take Jews.’ Her mistake made clear to her, the antisemitic landlady was renounced, and another apartment found. But her blunder left its mark. Back on the street my mother made a vow. Her unborn […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Ludwig van Beethoven, Diabelli Variations for piano

The Project In early 1819, the Vienna-based music publisher Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) had what was a great idea for a charity project. He sent a brief waltz of his own composition to 50 composers living in Austria and invited each of them to compose a single variation on the waltz.  Diabelli’s plan was to publish the set as an anthology entitled “Patriotic Artist’s Club” (“Vaterländischer Künstlerverein”) and distribute the profits from its sale to widows and children left orphaned by the Napoleonic Wars. Among the composers to receive the theme and Diabelli’s invitation to participate in his project was the 48-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven.  Typical to form, Beethoven was deeply irked at being included in such a “group grope,” on top of which he dismissed Diabelli’s theme as a “cobbler’s patch”: as being entirely beneath his musical dignity. But then, for reasons discussed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, Beethoven had a change of heart, and decided to accept Diabelli’s offer after all.  But Beethoven was unwilling to join the mob of composers who had consented to contribute but a single variation each. Instead, he made it clear that his contribution would be a complete set of variations, the number […]

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