Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross

The vocal ensemble that is Lambert, Hendricks & Ross grew from a long and storied tradition of vocal ensembles, going back over 500 years. As a public service, I would offer up a quick survey of that tradition, starting with an important distinction. Distinctions! Let us draw a necessary and important distinction between a “choir” and a “vocal ensemble” (with the understanding that not everyone is going to employ this distinction with the rigor that I, for one, would like to see and hear!). Like an (instrumental) orchestra, a choir is a vocal group in which some (or all) of the parts are “doubled”, meaning that some (if not all) parts will have more than one player/singer per part. Like an (instrumental) chamber ensemble, a vocal ensemble is one in which there is only one player/singer per part. This distinction between choirs and vocal ensembles began to come into focus in the late fifteenth century, in secular music written for both skilled amateur and professional singers. Generally but accurately speaking, music composed specifically for a vocal ensemble can have more individual parts and more complex parts than a chorus, where numbers can easily gum up and blur the music being […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Beatles

The Beatles made their first studio recordings – with George Martin at the helm as their producer – on September 4, 1962, at London’s Abbey Road studios. Out of the six songs they rehearsed and recorded, Martin chose two for their first 45-rpm “single”: an original, Love Me Do, and How Do You Do It, by Mitch Murray, which Martin intended to put on side “A” of the single. In those days, British record producers chose the material for their bands, and George Martin was convinced that How Do You Do It was going to be a hit. As for the other song on the single, writes the Beatles biographer Bob Spitz: “Love Me Do was a concession to the band, who practically begged Martin to consider their own material.” (At this point in time, George Martin and the Parlophone label he managed considered the Beatles to be performers, and certainly not songwriters. Martin later claimed that at this early date, he hadn’t heard: “Any evidence of what was to come in the way of songwriting.”) The Beatles collectively hated Mitch Murray’s How Do You Do It, and in the end, to his great credit, Martin relented. That first single […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Aaron Copland, Symphony No. 3

Yesterday’s Music History Monday postmarked the 80th anniversary of the completion of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 on December 27, 1941. The utterly cinematic first movement of the symphony depicts a magnificent and lyric “landscape” gutted by a brutal invasion theme that grows from nothing to a vicious, overpowering, overwhelming musical malignancy. Given current events at the time Shostakovich composed that movement – the German invasion of the Soviet Union – it is natural to assume that the “invasion theme” (as it became known) is a depiction of the encroaching Nazi horde. However, in private, Shostakovich told those he trusted that the symphony – and the theme with it – had been conceived before the German invasion, which began on June 22, 1941: “The Seventh Symphony had been planned before the war and consequently it simply cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler’s attack. The ‘invasion theme’ has nothing to do with the attack. I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme. Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism; any form is repugnant. Nowadays people like to recall the prewar period as an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Frédéric Chopin: Nocturnes

Network television has traditionally served up certain types of programming at certain times of the day.  Non-stop cartoons for kids?  When I was growing up, that what Saturday mornings were all about.  Soap operas?  Traditionally broadcast on weekday afternoons before 3 pm, presumably for housewives who had finished their chores but before the kids came home from school.  Evening news programs? Broadcast daily between 5 pm and 7pm, for adults who’ve just come home from work. Let us dwell, in particular, on two more such network television designations: prime time, and late-night talk shows. Prime time refers to generally adult programming broadcast – depending upon your time zone – between either 8pm and 11pm or 7pm and 10pm.   Late night talk shows refer specifically to variety/interview shows broadcast between 11pm and 1am. Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) would not have understood the concept of Saturday morning cartoons any more than he’d know how to operate a remote control.  Be he would absolutely have understood the concepts of prime time and late-night entertainment because there were media equivalents in his day.  In Mozart’s day, a work designated as being a “serenade” or a “divertimento” was intended to be performed in “prime time”: […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: “A Frenchman in Rio”

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post celebrated – in part – George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, a work inspired by two visits to Paris (one in 1926 and the other in 1928). Taking our cue from An American in Paris, today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post might be called “A Frenchman in Rio”, as it celebrates a work by the French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) inspired by an extended stay in Rio de Janeiro. The Happiest of Composers There are few more enduring musical stereotypes than that of the unhappy, alienated, suffering composer whose inspiration must be torn from the deepest and darkest places of their soul. It was Richard Wagner (1813-1883) who formalized this impression by claiming that serious art – “true art” – can only spring from suffering, from pain, from loneliness and from frustration. In 1958, Darius Milhaud received a letter from young French composer who was deeply troubled by Wagner’s dicta and wanted to know what Milhaud thought about it all. Milhaud responded: “I am glad you decided to write me about your problem; here is my point of view if you want it. I had a marvelously happy childhood. My wife is my companion, my collaborator; […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Music of Bright Sheng

My Music History Monday post for November 29 focused on the composer Bright Sheng (born 1955), who made the unforgivable mistake of playing Laurence Olivier’s movie of Shakespeare’s Othello to an undergraduate class at the University of Michigan without first offering up a prophylactic explanation/apologia for Oliver’s makeup (the character of Othello being a dark-skinned North African Moor).  Bright Sheng was born 66 years ago yesterday, on December 6, 1955, in Shanghai, China.  He began taking piano lessons with his mother at the age of four and excelled.  That is, until May 16, 1966.  That’s when Mao Zedong (1893-1976) instituted the “Cultural Revolution” (which ran for ten long, painful years, from 1966-1976).   The Cultural Revolution was a wholesale purge and power grab, plain and simple.  Like Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, the Cultural Revolution did not target enemies of the state but rather, those people it considered potential enemies of the state: intellectuals; academes; students; professionals; military leaders; the educated, urban “elite”; those who passed for the Chinese middle class; and so forth.  Untold millions of high school, college, and post-college age “young people” were shipped off from the cities to the countryside, there to be “re-educated” and “to […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Triumphs of Oriana

In yesterday’s Music History Monday post, I mentioned a very few of the virtually countless sins that would cause me to be drummed out of today’s academia. Among those I have indulged in the past – and which would undoubtedly get me into trouble in the present – would be making humorous light of Queen Elizabeth I’s presumed virginity. OMG, I’d be accused of unrepentant virginism and such campus advocacy groups as “Students for Celibacy” and “The Chosen Chaste” would have my hide. Still, inquiring minds want to know: was “Good Queen Bess” the virgin everyone made her out to be, or did she in fact “make the beast with two backs” (Shakespeare’s imagery, not mine) or, perhaps, periodically indulge in a match of hide the salami? (THAT’S why I wouldn’t last 10 minutes in today’s academia.) Elizabeth (1533-1603) began her reign on November 17, 1558, at the age of 25. She gave her first speech to Parliament in early 1559, during which she stated that it would be “sufficient” for her to “live and die a virgin.” Elizabeth’s was a bold and calculated statement, particularly given that her greatest responsibility as queen was to produce an heir. But seeing […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Benjamin Britten, String Quartet No. 1

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986), left England in late April 1939 for North America. Their ship arrived in Quebec on May 9, 1939, then sailed on to Montreal. After staying a few weeks in Canada, Britten and Pears set off for New York, where they were reunited with the poet, fellow pacifist and homosexual W.H. Auden.  Britten was stunned by New York City, writing a friend: “New York is a staggering place. Very beautiful in some ways – intensely alive and doing – bewildering in some ways, but always interesting.” Britten and Pears remained on the east coast of the United States for two years. Britten composed and had his works performed; he and Pears performed together and separately; they schmoozed, partied, and became part of the New York music scene. Britten used their residence in Amityville, on Long Island as his base of operations for concert trips to New England, Chicago, and various other locations in the American Midwest. But for Britten (as for so many of us!) the lure of California was overwhelming, and in June of 1941, Britten and Pears drove across country from New York to California in an old, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, Show Boat (1927)

World War One began on July 28, 1914. All of the warring parties – the Central Powers of principally Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Turkey and the Triple Entente of mainly France, the United Kingdom, the Russian Empire, and Italy – believed they would be victorious and home by Christmas. They were all very, very wrong. Across the pond, with the exception of a few hotheads, the American public and government wanted nothing to do with the “European war”. The prevailing public opinion and governmental policy was one of neutrality. The feeling was that if the dusty, old Euro-Empires wanted to destroy themselves, they should be allowed to do so. In the end, a neutral America could only benefit from Europe’s self-destruction, or so the majority of Americans believed at the time. It didn’t take long for American public opinion to turn against the Central Powers. That turn was triggered by the sinking of the British passenger liner the RMS Lusitania 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915; the Lusitania was returning to port in England from New York. Torpedoed by the German submarine U-20, 1198 passengers and crew were killed, including 123 Americans. Though the German […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Vincenzo Bellini: Norma

By the early nineteenth century, opera in Italy had become a universally popular art. In addition to large cities like Naples, Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice, there were operatic performances in almost every town of moderate size on the Italian peninsula. Much of this popularity was attributable to the rise of opera buffa, which itself had evolved from the tradition of Italian street theater known as “commedia dell’arte”, opera that pretty much anyone could enjoy. Italian opera buffa made few intellectual demands on its audience and was perfectly suited to the Italian genius for wit, fast-paced dialogue, attractive tunes, and comic situations. Might we – with all due respect – suggest that early nineteenth-century Italian opera buffa is “opera lite” – sounds great but not terribly filling. Such opera buffa composers as Giovanni Paisiello (1714-1816) and Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) were masters of musical characterization, deft orchestration, and lilting melodies. Their operas were popular not only in Italy but throughout Europe. We’d further observe that opera seria continued to be cultivated in the larger cities, primarily under aristocratic patronage. What this all means is that by the early nineteenth century, Italian opera had become a major commercial enterprise: a highly profitable, […]

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