Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Wagner – The Ring of the Nibelung

Nothing is perfect, not even evolution. Speaking for myself, I wish evolution had done a better job with human knees and rotator cuffs, though given that evolution engineered the human body to last only some 35 or 40 years, I suppose the breakdown of my knees and shoulders – which are presently long past their natural expiration date/shelf life – is to be expected. One thing evolution got very right is “binaural” hearing. “Binaural” means “having or relating to two ears.” Why do we humans and virtually every other creature that “hears” on this planet have two ears? Because binaural hearing allows us to figure out the origin and direction of sounds. When it comes to negotiating our environment, one ear is not enough and three is simply too many. As such, there’s no practical reason why any animal would have evolved 3, 4, 5 or more ears; that would be a useless waste of precious energy and resources. And aside from having created the preconditions that led to the dance-pop/tech-house/pop-reggae singing/recording career of Paris Hilton, evolution typically does not waste its resources on the useless.  As discussed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, the 12-inch, 33 1/3-rpm (rotations-per-minute) long-playing […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Folk Revival

Today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post is different from previous posts in two ways. First, only once before has this post prescribed more than one recording; today’s post prescribes four. My thinking is as follows: as Amazon is still delivering, and as so very many of us are housebound (or nearly so) for the foreseeable future, we have the time and wherewithal to consume rather more music than usual. And that we should do, because it will help to keep us sane. Second, this post recommends three “greatest hits” albums, which is something I am ordinarily loath to do. What constitutes a “greatest hit”, anyway? Record sales? Frequency of radio play? Sheet music sales”? Excuse me, but generally speaking, I’d rather decide what constitutes a “greatest hit” based on perceived artistic merit than statistical accomplishment. Further, a “greatest hits” album tells no larger musical story: we as listeners get no sense of a group’s artistic trajectory over time. Rather, such an album is a hodge-podge of songs recorded whenever, without any chronological reference. Finally, for those of you who are already fans, the greatest hits albums serve no purpose whatsoever, as you likely already have a comprehensive sampling of these artists’ […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Verdi String Quartets

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post observed the premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco on March 9, 1842. Staying with Verdi, today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post deals with Verdi’s least-known masterwork: his String Quartet in E minor of 1873. The winter and spring of 1861 saw the not quite 48-year-old Giuseppe Verdi composing the operatic potboiler La Forza del Destino, “The Force of Destiny.” The majority of this four-act gore-fest takes place in Spain, and its characters and story line are Spanish. Given its Spanish locale, characters, and story, Verdi’s librettist on the gig – Francesco Maria Piave (1810-1876; Piave also write the libretti for Verdi’s Ernani, I due Foscari, Attila, MacBeth, Il corsaro, Stiffelio, Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Simon Boccanegra) – asked Verdi if he wanted to take a look at a collection of Spanish folksongs he had borrowed from a friend. We can well imagine Piave’s offer: “You know, Giuseppe, the opera’s got a Spanish locale, characters, and storyline, and since it’s been four years since you wrote any music I’m thinking that some Spanish folksongs might give you a little inspiration, maybe help you to add a little local color, whatever. I’d like to bring them over so […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes A Jazz Duo

To an overwhelming degree, musicians are “defined” – personally, even spiritually – by the instruments they play and the music they play on those instruments. Put a flute player, a trumpet player, and a pianist in a room, and they might talk about the weather, or where they went to school, or were they are presently gigging; or cars, or their kids, or whatever; maybe they’ll talk about music and maybe they won’t. (The only thing you can be certain of is that the flute player and trumpet player will arrange to see each other again, because that’s what flute players and trumpet players do: they go out with each other.) But. Put three flute players in a room together and the conversation will focus like a diamond cutting laser on their flutes (“You’ve got a Drelinger head joint? OMG; I wish I could afford a Drelinger head joint!”), their teachers (“Loved Tim Day, but Robin McKee was a better fit for me”); auditions (“You guys gonna do Tampa?”), the repertoire, upcoming recitals, and a thousand-and-one other things, all having to do with the flute.  The point: for professional and high-end amateur musicians who have been playing a particular musical […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes – Beethoven: Arrangements of Irish, Scottish, and Welsh Songs

We return to the birthday boy, Ludwig/Louis/Luigi van Beethoven, who turns 250 years-young this very year of 2020. As promised/threatened back in mid-2019, every month or two through 2020 I will dedicate a Dr. Bob Prescribes post to one or another of Beethoven’s lesser-known works or lesser-known recordings. On July 23, 2019 it was Beethoven’s Mass in C; on August 27, 2019 it was Beethoven’s Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Major, WoO 36 (a work composed when he was 14); on October 15, it was Emil Gilels’ superb recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Dr. Bob Prescribes for December 31 was a lengthy post on Beethoven’s songs, which are entirely under-appreciated and underperformed. Just so, today’s post will be the second of a projected three dealing with Beethoven’s songs; that third post, which will appear most definitely whenever (vague enough for you?) will focus on Beethoven’s vocal masterwork, Liederkreis an die ferne Geliebte (“Song-circle To the Distant Beloved”), Op. 98 of 1816. For today we turn to a body of Beethoven’s work – a very large body of Beethoven’s work – that remains almost unknown: his folk song arrangements. Between 1809 and 1818 Beethoven arranged 179 Scottish, Irish, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Madama Butterfly

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the 116th anniversary of the premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. The body of that post dealt with the charges of sexism, racism, and cultural appropriation leveled today at the opera, charges that have led many contemporary arbiters to demand that changes be made to the opera or that it be eliminated from the repertoire altogether. As I rather forcefully observed in yesterday’s post, none of this changes the fact that Madama Butterfly is a masterwork of musical theater and deserves its place among the top tier of the operatic repertoire. Unlike most other of Puccini’s operas, Madama Butterfly had something of a rough start; that story in a moment. Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born in the Tuscan city of Lucca on December 22, 1858. He was born into a virtual dynasty of local musicians; members of Puccini family occupied the position of maestro di cappella (“master of music”) of the Cathedral of San Martino in Lucca for 124 consecutive years, from 1740 until 1864 (when Puccini’s father Michele, the current maestro di cappella, died prematurely at the age of 50). Giacomo was groomed to enter the family profession and in the […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Luciano Pavarotti

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post celebrated the 14th anniversary of Luciano Pavarotti’s appearance at the opening ceremony of the XX Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy. It made sense then, that today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post should feature a Pavarotti recording. Alas, or in the parlance of Italian opera, Ohime!, what seemed simple turned out to be anything but. Here’s the problem, in the form of a confession. I adore Pavarotti’s voice the way a 16-year-old does his first great love: utterly, absolutely, unquestioningly, and completely. I know that some folks believed he demeaned himself and his art in his later years doing cross-over work and singing in stadiums, but I’d point out that even the best of us will get a bit incontinent with age. We should pay Pavarotti’s incontinence no mind, because he left behind such an amazing recorded and video legacy as to make our minds reel and yes, our bladders weak. My problem: which of all my favorite Pavarotti recordings to recommend? I spent half of a day listening (and weeping over his voice) until I came to the only possible conclusion: I will not choose just one recording but instead list four of my favorites, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post celebrated the 495th anniversary of the birth of the great Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, a birth presumed to have taken place on February 3, 1525.  During the course of that post we observed that unlike virtually every other eminent composer of the so-called Renaissance (which in music is understood as running from roughly 1400 to 1600), Palestrina’s name, reputation, and music did not fade from view in the years, decades, and centuries after his death in 1593. We attributed Palestrina’s staying power to three factors: one, the staggering size and quality of his compositional output; two, the fact that his personal compositional style was (and still is) embraced as a paradigm of utopian perfection and has thus been employed in teaching counterpoint since the early seventeenth century; and three, in the years following his death Palestrina was personally credited as being the “savior” of Catholic church music during the austere artistic climate of the Counter-Reformation. Yesterday’s Music History Monday post dealt with factors one and two. It is time, now, to tackle factor three: whether or not Palestrina was indeed the “savior” of Catholic church music. Here’s the legend as it has come […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Mozart’s Piano Quartets

Statements of superlatives are dangerous because they can ride roughshod over the sorts of important details that would otherwise force us to qualify those superlative statements. For example. The consensus “greatest baseball player” of all time is Babe Ruth (1895-1948), whose stats as a power hitter were so far ahead of his contemporaries as to put him in a league of his own. (His stats as a pitcher – had he continued to pitch regularly throughout his career – might very well have put him in a league of his own as well; pitching for the Boston Red Sox in 1916 and 1917, he threw 650 innings and won 47 games with an ERA of 1.88.)  But. Babe Ruth’s stats must be taken within the context of his time. Players today are significantly bigger, faster, and better conditioned than were the players of Ruth’s time. Professional baseball today draws from a much wider population base than did baseball in Ruth’s time; Ruth never had to play against Black American players, or Dominican, Venezuelan, Mexican, Japanese, or Korean players. And the Babe rarely had to face middle and late-relief pitchers throwing 100 mile-per-hour fastballs. Would the Babe Ruth of 1920 dominate […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes ‘Die Fledermaus’

Yesterday’s Music History Monday marked the occasion, on January 20, 1982, when Ozzy Osborne bit the head off of a dead and decaying bat during a performance at the Des Moines Veterans Memorial Auditorium. To his credit, Osbourne thought that the bat-like other such rodents and reptiles tossed on stage during his performances – was a toy. However, this fact should not absolve him of being a disgusting, drug-and-alcohol addled, pee-in-your-beer-mug (a favorite game of his) slime bucket; on other occasions Osbourne was known to have purposely consumed living creatures. For example, in 1981, smashed off his gourd during a meeting with record company executives in Los Angeles, he bit the heads off of two live doves to show his displeasure with the progress of the negotiations. In 1984, on tour with the heavy metal and umlaut-abusing band Mötley Crüe, Osbourne participated in gross-out competitions with the bass guitarist Nikki Sixx. It was during such a contest that Osbourne snorted a line of ants from the pavement and then allowed them to crawl out of his mouth. That’s a winner. But back to the bat. I’d suggest that we do not perceive them as the sweet, furry, adorable, pug-nosed creature […]

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