Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes Stravinsky’s “Les Noces”

When discussing the long compositional life of Igor Stravinsky (he completed his first masterwork, The Firebird, in 1910; his last, Requiem Canticles, in 1966 [see Dr. Bob Prescribes for a post on the latter April 7, 2020]), his output is often conveniently divided into three large compositional “periods”: his “Russian period” (1909-1919); his neo-Classic/neo-tonal period (1920-1956, which includes a wide variety of presumably Baroque and Classical-era inspired works); and his late or “serial” (modern) music, 1957-1966.  Alas, like most such convenient divisions, these are broad generalizations and exceptions abound. (Apparently no one bothered to tell Stravinsky that his “Russian” period had concluded in 1919. Consequently, he had no qualms about composing Mavra in 1921. Mavra is a charming one-act opera buffa based on Alexander Pushkin’s rhymed story, The Little House in Kolomna. It is a rarely performed work; Tchaikovsky-like in its rich, bel canto lyricism and most Stravinskyan in its concision and rhythmic asymmetry, the latter an outgrowth of the Russian language itself. Likewise, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements of 1945 might just as well be titled Son of The Rite of Spring – or perhaps Beneath the Rite of Spring – so closely related are these two works composed […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Michael Haydn Symphonies

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the 283rd birthday of the composer, organist, and violinist Michael Haydn, a musician of outstanding talent whose reputation has, sadly and unfairly, been obscured by that of his older brother, Joseph Haydn. Michael Haydn was five years younger than Joseph, having been born in the Austrian village of Rohrau on September 14, 1737. He died in Salzburg on August 10, 1806, predeceasing his older brother by some three years.  At the age of eight, Michael followed his brother to Vienna to become – as had Joseph – a student and choirboy at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Of the two, Michael was considered the superior student and singer. Like Joseph, Michael harbored the ambition to be a composer, an ambition he was able to freely indulge when he took up the position – in 1743, at the age 26 – of concertmaster in Salzburg, a job he held for the remaining 43 years of his life. Among the people responsible for actually hiring Michael Haydn (which occurred the previous year, in 1762) was Salzburg’s new court Kapellmeister, one Leopold Mozart, who in 1762 was preparing to take his preternaturally talented children – Wolfgang, 6 and Nannerl, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Yiddish Song and Klezmer

Sitting around the dinner table recently, my son Daniel (11 years old) asked the rest of us what single superpower each of us would choose if we could only choose one. He went first, and predictably, he chose the power to choose an unlimited number of superpowers. His sister Lily (13 years old) immediately disqualified him based on his own stated criteria. Once they stopped arguing, I made my choice, which was easy. I no longer want to be able to fly (where would I fly to in these days of COVID? and where would I put my carry-on?), and the thought of being able to make myself invisible strikes way to close to the reality of my career as a composer. My choice: I want to be able to speak (and read, if written) every language – past and present – ever spoken, including hump-back whale, crow, and porpoise (color me “Dr. Bob-Doolittle”). How incredible would it be to be linguistically at home anywhere, with anyone! How fantastic it would be to be able to read everything in its “original!” Nothing cuts to the essence of a culture like its language. A tribe’s, a people’s, a nation’s music is […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mahler Symphony No. 5

When it came to his music, particularly its orchestration, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was fussy. Starting with his Symphony No. 5, which he began in 1901 and initially completed in 1903, Mahler was never completely satisfied with anything he composed; he was always reworking this, re-orchestrating that, fussing to a degree that pretty much everything composed between 1901 and his death in 1911 must be considered a “work in progress”.  Mahler’s fussing with his Fifth Symphony began soon after its completion in 1903. After a reading in 1904 he removed a considerable bit of the percussion parts. In 1906 he again made significant revisions in anticipation of a performance in Amsterdam. In 1908 he revised the symphony yet again. Finally, in early 1911, just a few months before his death on May 18, he wrote: “The Fifth is finished. I have been compelled to re-orchestrate it completely. I cannot understand how I could have written so much like a beginner at that time [meaning 1901-1903]. It is clear that the method I had used in the first four symphonies deserted me altogether, as if a totally new message demanded a new technique.” That “new message” to which Mahler refers is the […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Siegfried Idyll

Yesterday’s Music History Monday marked the 144th anniversary of the premiere of Richard Wagner’s music drama Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods), the fourth and final installment of his epic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelungs. As we properly observed yesterday, Wagner’s Ring was and remains the greatest single undertaking in the long history of Western music. We read – here and there – that “Wagner wrote almost no instrumental music.” This is a most misleading statement, as he was a brilliant composer for orchestra and did indeed compose a significant body of orchestral music. However, it just so happens that the great bulk of that orchestral music was incorporated into his stage works as overtures, entr’actes, interludes, codas, etc. Let’s rephrase that just-quoted statement to read this way: “in his maturity, Wagner (1813-1883) wrote very few self-standing, exclusively instrumental compositions, the most famous of which is his Siegfried Idyll of 1870.” Siegfried Idyll is an exquisite work, with a fabulous back-story, and after all, how often do we get to hear and revel in a Wagnerian opus that runs but 20 minutes from beginning to end? So let’s do it! But first, let us contemplate good birth dates and […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Mozart, Symphony in C major, “Jupiter”, K. 551

Nicknames. We turn to that paragon of informational accuracy, Wikipedia, for the following definition of the word “nickname”: “A nickname is a substitute for the proper name of a familiar person, place or thing. Commonly used to express affection, it is a form of endearment and amusement. In rarer cases, it can also be used to express defamation of character, particularly by school bullies [or certain Presidents of the United States]. As a concept, it is distinct from both pseudonym and stage name, and also from a title (for example, ‘City of Fountains’), although there may be overlap in these concepts. A hypocoristic is a nickname of affection between those in love or with a close emotional bond. ‘Moniker’ is a synonym.” Most nicknames assigned to people are harmless (although whoever thought up “Dick” as a nickname for “Richard” clearly did not anticipate today’s colloquial usage). The majority of nicknames would seem to be first-syllable versions of a proper name: Dan, Lil, Steve, Liz, Sam, Dave, Joe, Ben, Di, Mike, Deb, Irv, Pete, Fred, Lou, Walt, and so forth. Some such nicknames are unisexual: Sal, Pat and Chris, for example. Other nicknames are rather more distantly related to the name they nick: […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Louise Farrenc

Soon after I opened up shop on Patreon, I was asked to comment on the music of Louise Farrenc (1804-1875). Not for the first time and certainly not for the last, I was brought up short . . . Louise who? I’m not sure I was brave enough to admit my ignorance, but as I recall I promised to look into her music. I have indeed “looked into” her music and have been properly gobsmacked by what I have heard: symphonies of great power and pathos, dazzling piano music and, in particular, chamber music on par – on par – with that of her contemporary Felix Mendelssohn. She was born Jeanne-Louise Dumont in Paris on May 31, 1804 and died there on September 15, 1875. The Dumont family was blessed with high-end artistic genetics, as Louise came from a long line well known sculptors and artists (which included several women painters); her older brother August-Alexandre Dumont (1801-1884) was a Prix de Rome-winning sculptor, whose work graces several important Parisian monuments to this day.  Like the aforementioned Felix Mendelssohn, Farrenc (her married name) was a child prodigy as both a visual artist and a musician. By her early teenage years, she was […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Ferruccio Busoni: Fantasia Contrappuntistica

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the death on July 27, 1924 of the musical polymath Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924). Today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post picks up where yesterday’s Music History Monday left off, with an examination of what is, perhaps, Busoni’s single most representative work: his massive, 30-plus minute-long Fantasia Contrappuntistica for piano. Hugo Leichtentritt – Ferruccio Busoni’s first biographer – wrote on the occasion of Busoni’s 50th birthday in 1916 that: “He is a campaigner, not a quiet, complacent inheritor. He is a pioneer [and yet] he is anchored in the past by many roots.”  A good choice of words, that: “anchored” in the past, not “stuck” in it. The core belief of Busoni’s artistic worldview was be yourself but be yourself responsibly. Like Beethoven, he believed in contextuality – use those rules, those elements of the past that speak directly to your creative heart when you can – and then ignore them when expressive context demands. Busoni believed that it was the essential responsibility of every composer to decide what was right, and to never dogmatically follow any tradition that went against his or her own grain.  (For example, Busoni was repelled by the Wagner fetish of his […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven Piano Concerto in D, Op. 61a

Compositionally, 1806 was a miraculous year for Herr Ludwig van Beethoven. Among the works he completed that year were the Piano Sonata in F minor, the Appassionata, Op. 57; the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58; the three so-called “Razumovsky” String Quartets, Op. 59, nos. 1, 2, and 3; the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60; the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61; the second Version of his opera Leonore (as well as the Leonore Overtures nos. 2 and 3) (Leonore was renamed Fidelio in 1814); 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO (without opus) 80; and Six Ecossaises for piano, WoO 83;  (For those who’s like to know much more about Beethoven in 1806, I can happily recommend Mark Ferraguto’s excellent Beethoven 1806, published by Oxford University Press in 2019.) Crazy. Some ten years into his hearing loss, in poor mental health, and plagued by gastric issues that would lay most of us low for weeks at a time, Beethoven’s creative juices and sheer ingenuity were running at a level inconceivable to any of us today.  His Violin Concerto received its premiere that same year – 1806 – on December […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Louis Armstrong

The often-told story of Louis Armstrong’s early life has passed into American legend, an early twentieth century Horatio Alger-styled tale of an impoverished black child who rises from the humblest of beginnings to fame and fortune through hard work, courage, and talent.  Armstrong spent his entire life believing that he was a “Yankee-Doodle Dandy”, born on the fourth of July in 1900. However, it was in the mid-1980s that the music historian Thaddeus Jones (1952-2007), in researching Louis Armstrong’s early life, discovered baptismal records that definitively established Armstrong’s date of birth as August 4, 1901.  There has never been any question about the location of Armstrong’s birth: New Orleans. He was born out of wedlock to Mary (“Mayann”) Albert (1885-1927) and William Armstrong (1880-1933). William abandoned the family soon after Louis’ birth, though he reappeared long enough to once again impregnate Mayann, who gave birth to a second child two years later. (Named Beatrice, she went by the fabulous nickname of “Mama Lucy”.) With his father’s departure, the infant Louis was initially raised by his paternal grandmother; his mother Maryann, who worked as a domestic and as a prostitute, came and went. When the young dude was about five he […]

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