Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4

By way of review: Pyotr (Peter) Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was a homosexual with a predilection for cross-dressing and teenaged boys. In May of 1877, around the time of his 37th birthday on May 7, he received a letter from one Antonina Milyukova – a former student at the Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky taught – professing her undying love for him. Tchaikovsky hadn’t a clue of who she was, and he blew her off. But Ms. Milyukova would not be blown off (what at first seemed a schoolgirl crush turned out to be full-blown mental illness), and within a few short weeks, Tchaikovsky, in a moment of epic self-delusion (and hoping to deflect rumors of his homosexuality), actually agreed to marry her! As all of this was happening in the late spring and early summer of 1877, Tchaikovsky was initiating a regular correspondence with a fabulously wealthy widow nine years his senior named Nadezhda von Meck. Unlike Antonina, who didn’t know a note of Tchaikovsky’s music, Madame von Meck worshipped Tchaikovsky for his music. Tchaikovsky and Antonina Milyukova were married on July 18, 1877, some nine weeks after Tchaikovsky received that first letter from Antonia. The marriage was a disaster from […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Christopher Rouse: Trombone Concerto

The great and eminently quotable English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham famously said: “I never look at the brass. It only encourages them.” Jeepers! Whatever would have prompted Sir Thomas to say such a thing? We consider the brass instruments, the most common of which are trumpets, French horns (as they are called in the United States; “horns” everywhere else), trombones, baritones, and tubas. All of these instruments evolved from instruments meant to be played out-of-doors: from hunting horns, signal devices, and military instruments. There is hardly a trumpet player, trombonist, or tuba player alive who didn’t start his/her musical life playing outside, in marching bands. By their very nature these instruments are loud and the people who play them want to play them loudly. Back then to Thomas Beecham’s comment, which is borne of decades of experience. I would tell you that for many (if not most) brass players, a dynamic of piano is beneath contempt, mezzo-piano is an insult, mezzo-forte is uncomfortably limiting, forte is permission, and fortissimo, well, fortissimo might very well be a mistake on the composer’s part. Why? Because, while the brass may be outnumbered 72 to 11 (or so) in a modern orchestra, they are […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes John Williams

We have some heavy preliminaries to discuss, starting with the differences between European film music and the classic Hollywood symphonic film score (of which Williams is its greatest contemporary exponent); the relationship between Williams’ scores and the music of Richard Wagner (1813-1883); the derivative nature inherent to the vast majority of film music (including Williams’); and the criticism levelled at film music and film composers by the “traditional” musical establishment. Generally but accurately speaking, European film music is discontinuous: there will be long swatches of time during which there is no music at all, particularly during dialogue. (On these lines, according to the great Italian film composer Ennio Morricone – 1928-2020 – who composed over 400 film and television scores, including those for Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns”: “Our hearing, and therefore our brains, cannot listen [to] and understand more sounds of a different nature simultaneously. We will never understand four people speaking at the same time. It is absolutely necessary, if the director wants to consider music in the right way, to isolate music and give the audience the time to listen to it in the best way.”) Generally but accurately speaking, then, European film music is not synchronized with […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Music to Calm Hearts and Souls

In yesterday’s Music History Monday post, we had the opportunity to talk about the questionable but on occasion necessary (if borderline masochistic) pleasures of hot peppers and punk rock. The post went on to mark the short, tragic, and depraved life of one Simon John Richie (best known by his stage name of “Sid Vicious”, May 10, 1957 – February 2, 1979). That discussion of Maestro Vicious, relatively brief though it was, likely left us all with a worse taste in our mouths than that provided by a fabled Carolina Reaper pepper. As the best cure for the pepper’s capsaicin burn is vanilla ice cream, I am today offering up a musical antidote for punk rock in general and Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols in particular, and that is some glorious choral music. GASP! Am I comparing choral music to vanilla ice cream? And what if I were?!? Let’s everybody stay calm. “Vanilla”: let’s establish what that word does and doesn’t mean in this context. As an adjective, “vanilla” has come to be used to describe something plain: easily consumed and digested, something devoid of interest and empty of meaning. Excuse me, but only the most dedicated chocoholics could […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Blame it on the Bossa Nova

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post acknowledged the birth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil of the Brazilian singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Antônio Carlos Jobim. That’s all the excuse we require for today’s foray into the music of Brazil, samba, and bossa nova! The name “Brazil” comes from the Portuguese word pau–brasil, meaning “brazilwood”: an East Indian tree from which a bright red dye is extracted. Sixteenth century Portuguese explorers found the coastal areas of what today is Brazil filled with these commercially valuable trees, which gave the territory – and eventually the country – its name. If Brazil wasn’t locked into South America, it could be a continent on its own. In terms of sheer landmass, Brazil – at 3,287,956 square miles – is the fifth largest country in the world, behind Russia (the largest), Canada, the United States, and China. (For our information, the landmass of the 28 nations of the former European Union – yes, including the United Kingdom, Brexit be damned – totals 1,669,808 square miles: half the size of Brazil.) The relative size of today’s five largest countries – of which Brazil is the fifth – is, in fact, misleading. Unlike Russia, Canada, and the United States, all of which have […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Absurdity

“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” As hoary old aphorisms go, this one is right up there on the tiresome scale with “a penny saved is a penny earned”, “you miss 100% of the shots you do not take”, “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping:” and “insinuations are lavender, nearly.” Nevertheless, I have a particular fondness for “the grass is always greener on the other side” because its sentiment cuts so closely to my own life, psyche, and existential feelings of victimization: well, duh, of course everyone else’s life is better than mine, of course I’m missing out on something everyone else has, of course everything always happens to me, of course I’m a fraud and everyone else is not. “The grass is always greener on the other side” addresses, perfectly, that generative emotion held so dear by so many composers, authors, poets, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, singers, and actors (to say nothing for the rest of the population) and that is envy. What we might call “the grass-is-always-greener syndrome” is surely as old as humanity itself: “the cave is always bigger on the other side.” For our information, the first […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post focused on Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), his ballet Romeo and Juliet, and his permanent return to the Soviet Union in 1936 at precisely the time Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror was shifting into full gear. Today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes explores Prokofiev’s explosive and in all ways awesome Piano Sonata No. 7 (completed in 1942), one of the great masterworks of his “Soviet years.” BUT EVEN MORE THAN THAT! I absolutely believe, without qualification, hedging, prevarication, equivocation or any other description of lily-livered middle-of-the-roading (where dwells nothing but dead skunks and yellow lines) that the prescribed recording is not just the best available of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 but the best possible recording of Prokofiev’s sonata on what is, in my humble but not ill-informed opinion, the greatest single solo piano album ever recorded. Deep breaths. I find it hard to believe that only now, in my 128th (consecutive) Dr. Bob Prescribes post, am I getting around to this album. Better late than never. Sergei Prokofiev was born on April 11, 1891 in the village of Sontsovka, in Ukraine. His father managed a large estate, and it was on that estate that Prokofiev grew up an isolated, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes George Gershwin, Concerto in F

A statement I’ve made before and will gladly make again: George Gershwin is among the handful of greatest composers the United States has produced, and his death at the age of 38 (of a brain tumor) should be considered an artistic tragedy comparable to the premature deaths of Schubert (at 31), Mozart (at 35), and Chopin (at 39). He was born Jacob Gershovitz (though his birth certificate reads “Jacob Gershwine”), the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, on September 26, 1898 at 242 Snediker Avenue in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (For our information: in 1963, a bronze plaque commemorating Gershwin’s birth was affixed to the building. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had fallen on very hard times: the plaque was stolen – it is still MIA – and the building vandalized. It burned down in 1987, and all that remains of the neighborhood today is a blighted area of warehouses and junkyards.) Rarely has a major composer begun his life in an artistically less promising manner. Tall, athletic, and charismatic, Gershwin was the leader of various tenement gangs, played street ball, roller skated everywhere and engaged in petty crime. By his own admission, he cared nothing for music […]

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Dr Bob Prescribes: Maurice Ravel, ‘Valses nobles et sentimentales’

The “Waltz” Experienced ballroom dancers aside, I would suggest that most of us consider the “waltz” to be a stodgy thing, a choreographic burden to be born at weddings and such during which we shuffle out an approximation of a three-step, attempting to lead a partner who would rather not be lead (at least not by me), to the scintillating strains of such triple meter standards as the Anniversary Waltz and Sunrise, Sunset. It is easy, today, to forget that at the time of its creation, the waltz was considered a lewd and lascivious dance, one that led to moral degradation in this world and damnation in the next! The waltz originated in eighteenth century Austria as a peasant’s dance. What distinguished it from the beginning was its wide, gliding steps and the fact that the dancers held each other as closely as possible (at a time when courtly dancing forbade almost any touching at all). The relative simplicity and physicality of this new, gliding and whirling dance made it extremely popular among the lower classes, who were no more likely to dance the more sophisticated Minuet than Ozzie Osborn a Virginia Reel. By the late-eighteenth century, the gliding and […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes THE CONCERT and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy

Thomas Kelly’s book First Nights – Five Musical Premieres is outstanding: well researched, beautifully written, and highly entertaining. It tells the stories behind five musical premieres, premieres that by their inclusion in the book implies that Kelly considers them to be the most important/interesting premieres in Western music history. Those premieres are Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo, on Saturday, February 24, 1607; George Frederick Handel’s Messiah on Tuesday, April 13, 172 (at 12 noon); Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on Friday, May 7, 1824 (at 7 pm); Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique on Sunday, December 5, 1830 (at 2 pm) and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on Thursday, May 29, 1913 (8:45 pm). I know it’s all-too-easy to criticize anyone’s “top ten” list (or in this case, “top five”). Furthermore, I am loath to criticize a scholar as distinguished as the American musicologist Thomas Forrest Kelly (born 1942), who is the Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music at Harvard. Nevertheless, I must humbly assert that Professor Kelly missed the boat with his list (and not just missed the boat but fell into piranha-infested waters without his pants on), because nowhere in his book (including the preface and introduction) does he mention […]

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