Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Strauss – Salome

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post, entitled “Sex Sells”, featured the French pop song Je t’aime… Moi non plus, written by Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) and performed by Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin (born 1946). By every possible musical standard, the song is complete drivel. But it didn’t climb to number one on most of the European charts for its musical content but rather, for the simulated orgasm Ms. Birkin “performs” as the song progresses to its wholly predictable “climax”. The song’s success is a graphic example that sex does indeed sell. In the continuing spirit of “sex sells”, today we transit from the ridiculous to the sublime, from Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime… Moi non plus to Richard Strauss’ opera Salome. A vivid description of Richard Strauss’ less than warm and fuzzy personality comes down to us from the German soprano Lotte Lehmann (1888-1976). Lehmann was one of the great Strauss sopranos of her generation and performed in the premieres of four of Strauss’ operas. (For our information, Lehmann emigrated permanently to the United States in 1938. She ended up in Santa Barbara, California where she helped found the Music Academy of the West. She has a star on the “Hollywood Walk of […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Leopold Godowsky

Leopold Godowsky’s “Study on Chopin’s ‘Black Key’ Etude”, completed when he – Godowsky – was not quite 24 years old is but one of fifty-three studies on Chopin’s etudes Godowsky composed between 1894 and 1914. We’ll discuss his life in a moment, but first Godowsky’s version of/paraphrase on Chopin’s etude, in which the rapid, right-hand filigree of Chopin’s original is elaborated and reharmonized and put into the pianist’s left-hand while the right-hand part is likewise elaborated and “filled out.” It is played here by the in-every-way miraculous Marc-André Hamelin, at 04:13-05:55 of the link below: Time and fame are gruesomely fickle. In his lifetime, the pianism and piano music of Leopold Godowsky were held in awe, even by his fellow professionals. Just 100 years later, he has been almost entirely forgotten by the listening public. Let’s start, then, with some quotes from Godowsky’s contemporaries, who considered him the “Buddha of the piano.” According to Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), he and Godowsky were: “the only composers to have added anything of significance to keyboard writing since Franz Liszt.” Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) went on the record stating that it would take him: “five hundred years to get a mechanism [a technique] like Godowsky’s.” […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Antonin Dvořák in America

Antonin Dvořák arrived in the United States (with most of his family in tow) on September 27, 1893. He had been offered and had accepted the Directorship of the National Conservatory of Music of America by the conservatory’s visionary founder, Jeanette Meyers Thurber. On his arrival, Dvořák hit the ground running. Along with his directorship, his teaching and conducting responsibilities, he was composing: he put the finishing touches on his Symphony No. 9 in E minor, also-known-as the “New World Symphony” on May 24, 1893, just eight months after having arrived in New York. Lest we think that Dvořák’s life was all work and no play, we’d observe that he was treated like royalty in New York: partied, feted, honored, and applauded wherever he went. (He also drank everyone under the table wherever he went, but that’s another story for another time.) For all his homesickness, fear of strangers, and hypochondria, it must have been exhilarating for this former butcher’s apprentice. But it was elementally exhausting as well, and by the time he finished his E minor symphony in late May 1893, Dvořák was utterly fried. Summer break was approaching, and decisions needed to be made as to where and […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Wurst of P.D.Q. Bach

It was a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. Like Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 and Hiram Bingham’s discovery of the “lost” Incan citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru in 1911, Peter Schickele’s discovery of P.D.Q. Bach is the stuff of legend. Here’s what happened. It was 1953. Peter Schickele, born 1935, a “Very Full Professor” (a very young “very full” professor!) of “Music Pathology” at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, was touring the “Lechendochschloss” in the German state of Bavaria. (For our information, we are told that the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople “is a little-known institution which does not normally welcome out-of-state visitors.”) Anyway, it was at the “Lechendochschloss” in Bavaria that the good professor discovered – “quite by chance, in all fairness” we are told – a music manuscript being used as a filter in the caretaker’s coffee maker. The music turned out to be the theretofore presumed lost “Sanka” Cantata, “the first autograph manuscript by P.D.Q. (‘Pretty Damned Quick’) Bach ever found.” (Just as Johann Sebastian Bach’s contemporaries knew him as “Sebastian” Bach, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s contemporaries knew him as “Emanuel” Bach, so P.D.Q.’s contemporaries would have known him […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Complete Beethoven Sets

Spending Other People’s Money I’ve always had a talent for spending other people’s money. 35 years ago, when Berkeley California had more hi-fi/stereo shops then fleas on a feral dog, I used to take anyone who asked me stereo shopping. (I had a lot of requests as I was teaching adult extension classes for UC Berkeley, the San Francisco Conservatory, and my own private “living room” classes in San Francisco and Oakland.) I would take folks to the appropriate shop depending upon how much money they wanted to spend.  Shopping for a decent hi-fi could be intimidating, especially in those days, with the advent of digital equipment. Folks didn’t know what questions to ask, what to listen for, or whether they were being conned by salespeople. I couldn’t be conned; I knew what to listen for and what equipment was good and what was not; I knew which shops were run by honest and knowledgeable managers and which were not; and which shops provided in-home setup and did not charge extra for extended warranties.  Again, in the early days of digital (1985-1995, or so) I’d take friends to Tower Records (a moment of respectful silence, please) in San Francisco or […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Wolfgang Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito

Deadlines! On July 8, 1791, Domenico Guardasoni (circa 1731-1806), the newly hired superintendent of the Estates Opera in Prague, was charged with producing an opera on criminally short notice. The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II (Peter Leopold Joseph Anton Joachim Pius Gotthard; 1747-1792, the brother of the recently deceased Emperor Joseph II) was about to be crowned King of Bohemia, and the Bohemian Estates (the governing body of Bohemia) wanted to create and produce an opera in celebration of the coronation. The opera was to be performed on the day of the coronation, which was scheduled to take place in Prague on September 6, 1791. Superintendent Guardasoni had exactly 2 months to find and hire a librettist and a composer; see the libretto written and the opera composed; hire the singers; build the sets: make the costumes; stage and rehearse the opera; and then perform it for the newly crowned King of Bohemia (who was also the Holy-freaking-Roman Emperor). Two months. The contract Guardasoni signed with the Bohemian Estates indicated that he would “engage a castrato of leading quality” and that he would “have the libretto caused to be written and to be set to music by ‘un celebre maestro’”, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Heitor Villa-Lobos: 5 Preludes and 12 Etudes for Guitar

Oh, the Conceit, the Arrogance! Yesterday’s Music History Monday post noted that the rock guitarist Paul Rossoff – he of the 20 Quaalude-a-day habit – is (or at least was, at one time) ranked 51st in Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” I have consulted that list here in August 2021. According to Rolling Stone, here are the ten greatest guitarists of all time, starting with number 1: 1. Jimi Hendrix 2. Eric Clapton 3. Jimmy Page 4. Keith Richards 5. Jeff Beck 6. B. B. King 7. Chuck Berry 8. Eddie Van Halen 9. Duane Allman 10. Pete Townsend (For our information, at number 100 is a non-entity named “Lindsey Buckingham.”) We would observe the painfully, absurdly obvious. Nowhere does Rolling Stone qualify its list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” as being the “100 Greatest ROCK ‘N’ ROLL Guitarists of All Time” or the “100 Greatest ELECTRIC Guitarists of All Time.” No, we’re just supposed to take it on face value that these 100 are the greatest guitarists of all time. Neither does Greatest Guitar qualify its list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” (which puts Brian May at […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Moritz Moszkowski, Piano Concerto in E Major, Op. 59 (1898)

Near the conclusion of yesterday’s Music History Monday post, we heard from the former chief music critic of The New York Times Harold Schonberg, who wrote apropos of Moritz Moszkowski’s piano music that: “no better salon music has ever been composed, or any so gratefully conceived for the piano.” “Salon Music.” It’s a phrase often used as a pejorative, to distinguish between “serious” and “substantial” concert works and music intended merely to amuse and titillate the denizens of Europe’s elite “salons” during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Let’s get a handle on what constitutes “salon music”, lest Schonberg’s complimentary phrase – that “no better salon music has ever been composed”– be considered more damnation than praise. Salon Music Aside from being “an establishment where a hairdresser, beautician, or couturier conducts business”, a “salon” is a reception room in a large house. A “salon” is also a particular type of social gathering in such rooms, typically hosted by prominent women, which brought together “guests of distinction” for a conversational exchange of ideas and amusement. Such gatherings were invented in Italy in the sixteenth century, where they were called “salones”, a word derived from “sala”, which is the large reception room […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Bill Evans: A Recorded Retrospective

Roommates Freshman year college roommates: talk about a crap shoot. You never know whether the individual in charge of pairing you up was having a good day or a bad day; whether he or she had a decent or a rotten sense of humor. My freshman year pairing (in 1972), knock on wood, was a good one: a fellow public-school guy from New Jersey: Rick deSante, from West Long Branch (Bruce Springsteen territory). We hit it off and remained roommates for three years, until senior year (when, as seniors, we had single rooms). Rick was (and remains) a tall, blonde guy, one-half Italian (his father), one-half Irish (his mother, whose maiden name was McGillicuddy). Rick played scratch golf and rugby, and majored in chemical engineering, a topic about as far away from music as it is possible to get. Nevertheless, opposites attract; I went to his rugby games, and he was okay with the music I played on my stereo in our room. Rick was someone who, up to the time we met, had never really listened to a note of music. He had never taken a music lesson, never been to a concert (concert music or rock ‘n’ roll); […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Shostakovich Sonata for Viola

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a lot of chamber music, including fifteen string quartets.  From almost the beginning of Shostakovich’s career as a composer of chamber music, the viola, the tenor voice of the string quartet – with its full, warm, restrained, and yet masculine tone – had been his instrumental alter ego: his own, personal musical voice.  With Beethoven, it had been the more outgoing and boisterous bass/baritone voice of the ‘cello.  But for the more introspective Shostakovich, it was the viola.  When Shostakovich had something profound and lyric to say, as often as not, it is the viola that says it.  With this in mind, there is something both right and poetic that the last work Shostakovich ever composed was a sonata for viola and piano.  (It’s no surprise that Beethoven identified with the sound of the cello, as his speaking voice was a baritone.  As opposed to Shostakovich, whose scratchy, tobacco-ravaged voice was a tenor.  The video linked below is an interview with Shostakovich filmed in 1975, just months before his death on August 9 of that year.  Shostakovich is expressing his opinion that opera should be sung in the language of the country in which it is being […]

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