Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes

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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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Tango Project

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post focused on the accordion, an important patent for which was granted to the Philadelphia-based inventor Anthony Foss on January 13, 1854: 166 years ago yesterday. As detailed in yesterday’s Music History Monday, for reasons having to do with class politics and pure snobbery, the accordion is often looked down upon – even derided – as a third-class instrument in the United States, something the high snark-content of my post did little to obviate. Part of the problem, as I explained, is that the accordion never inspired a critical mass of composers to create for it a repertoire of its own. And while this is true in the world of concert music, it doesn’t tell the whole story.  That whole story is this: there are certain genres of music that are entirely dependent upon the sound of the accordion (or one of its close relatives, like the concertina and bandoneón), to create their characteristic sonic ambience. For example, the polka: a moderately up-tempo dance in 2/4 time that originated in Czech lands in the early nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, what was called “polkamania” had spread across Europe, though it was most powerfully felt in […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 5

Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915) composed a total of ten numbered piano sonatas in the 21 years between 1892 and 1913. He composed, as well, an “unnumbered” piano sonata in E-flat minor in 1889, when he was 18 years old. These eleven piano sonatas form a virtual musical diary, and as such map Scriabin’s extraordinary artistic trajectory from the time he was a student at the Moscow Conservatory to the end of his all-too-short life, by which time he was no small bit loony (looners?).  As we observed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, which celebrated the 148th anniversary of Scriabin’s birth, the man went through an early mid-life crisis in 1902 at the age of 30 that makes buying a Corvette and taking a girlfriend look like BUPKISS. He quit his teaching job, abandoned his wife and four children, took up with a former piano student of his named Tatiana Schloezer, immersed himself in an esoteric philosophy called “Theosophy”, and came to the conclusion that he was god. That’s what I call a mid-life crisis! Theosophy and Revelation The philosophy of “Theosophy” (I’m a poet and I’m unaware of the fact) that Scriabin went literally “crazy” over around 1902 considered visual […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Beethoven Lieder

Beethoven Songs Beethoven’s songs? Yes indeed, Beethoven composed over 90 songs for voice and piano and arranged an additional 179 Irish, Scottish, Welsh and other folksongs for voice, piano, violin and cello. Beethoven’s songs are among his least known and least appreciated works, and this must and will stop, at least here on the cyber-pages of Dr. Bob Prescribes!  Here’s what I intend to do about it. Over the course of the next two months, I will dedicate three posts – starting today – to Beethoven’s songs. Today’s post will establish Beethoven’s bona fides as not just a composer of songs but as a composer for the voice. The next post will deal with his folk song arrangements and finally, the third post will celebrate a brilliant performance of Beethoven’s greatest single vocal work, the song cycle An die ferne Gelibte (“To the Distant Beloved”), Op. 98, of 1816. Readers of this post are aware that I usually begin with the background of the work in question before moving on to the recommended recording. We’re going to do things differently here by beginning with the recommended recording and then moving on to something of a tutorial on Beethoven’s songs. This […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Life and Times of Beethoven – The First Angry Man

In February of this year, I was asked to be among the first “influencers” (yes, that’s how I was referred to: I, who am incapable of “influencing” my daughter to turn out the lights when she’s left a room or my son to flush the freakin’ toilet) to record original content for Amazon’s Audible brand. The result is a ten-lecture, five-hour (30 minutes per lecture), 40,000-word biography of Beethoven titled The Life and Times of Beethoven: The First Angry Man. Created in conjunction with The Great Courses, the course was recorded in Chantilly, Virginia in July and hit the market last month. A couple of points before moving on.  Point one. By titling my course The First Angry Man, I have, admittedly, indulged in the tired cliché that Beethoven was angry pretty much all the time, a cliché reinforced a gazillion-fold by the famously scowling images of Beethoven that became stock-in-trade of the Beethoven myth as it evolved during the nineteenth century. In response to the clichéd images of a sullen, glowering Beethoven, enjoy the included image of Beethoven smiling. Yes, of course, it is bogus, but so is the impression that he never smiled or laughed, which he did, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Nicolas Slonimsky

My Music History Monday post of November 25 last discussed, among other things, the role of the critic. Over the course of that post I asserted that “painful to the critical community though it may be, the fact remains that the surest way for a critic to be remembered is to get it wrong.”  That statement led me to mention one of my very favorite musical resources: “There is a wonderful book that I cannot live without entitled Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time, gathered and edited by Nicolas Slonimsky, which catalogs all the worst things said about all our favorite composers.”  Every music lover should own this book, for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a wonderful, even inspiring read. A true critical bashing doesn’t just consist of saying that something was bad; no, way more often than not, the critics featured in the Lexicon launch their poison pens on flights of truly brutal, vituperative ugliness. For example, Eduard Hanslick’s famous (infamous!) review of the world premiere of Peter Tchaikovsky’s wonderful Violin Concerto in D, a review published in Vienna in the Neue Freie Presse on December 5, 1881, concludes this way: […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Turangalîla’ Symphony

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post noted and celebrated the premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony in Boston, on December 2, 1949, by the Boston Symphony conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Composed between 1946 and 1948, the Turangalîla Symphony caps the first part of Messiaen’s compositional career.  There’s nothing else like it in the repertoire, for which we should probably be grateful; frankly, given its climax laden expressive content, I’m not sure any of us could survive listening to two works like the Turangalîla Symphony back-to-back.  The Turangalîla Symphony is 10-movement, 80 minute (that’s 1 hour, 20 minute) long Tantric orgasm, “rapturous overkill” in the words of one critic, “a sonic Mount Everest”, an almost non-stop exercise in rhapsodic bliss, amazing and a tad freaky. If the Turangalîla Symphony were itself a prolonged erection, the time to seek medical attention would have long since passed.  Messiaen (1908-1992) was fascinated by various Eastern cultures: their spirituality, rituals, and music, all of which are reflected in the Turangalîla Symphony. “Turangalîla” is a compound word in Sanskrit, meaning something on the lines of “a hymn of love to the play of joy, time, life and death.” A “hymn of ecstatic love” the piece most surely […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Virgil Thomson: Symphony on a Hymn Tune

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post recognized the 123rd anniversary of the birth of the American composer and critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1989). That Music History Monday post focused on the particular pitfalls when a practitioner (in Thomson’s case, a composer) deigns also to become a critic. Today, we turn to Thomason’s music. As a composer, Thomson has been variously described as a “modernist”, a “neoclassicist”, and a “neoromantic”, terms that when taken altogether are pretty much neo-useless. Like Charles Ives (1874-1954) before him, Thomson was profoundly affected by the music he heard and played while growing up: popular parlor songs and dance music, Protestant hymns, ragtime, children songs, and band music. But unlike Ives, who spent his compositional life subjecting the musical experiences of his childhood to an increasingly modernistic musical treatment, Thomson’s music retained a certain childlike innocence and wonder to the end, displaying a directness of expression and simplicity of utterance that together elevate “naiveté” to a stylistic aesthetic. Thomson’s ability to employ musical Americana in a manner both naive and yet powerfully affecting is clearly demonstrated in his Symphony on a Hymn Tune of 1926-1928, a work that anticipates many aspects of Aaron Copland’s so-called “populist style”, which […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Arnold Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw

At its highest and ideal level, the purpose of art is to crystallize, summarize, epitomize and portray human experience in a manner universal and transcendent of its time and place of creation.  Some art is aesthetically beautiful and as such transports us to a “better” place, beyond this vale of tears that is our everyday existence. Some art resonates with our own experience, and thus helps us to understand ourselves and our lives more clearly even as it inspires us to go on and fight the good fight that is our lives. And some art delves into very dark places, places most “normal people” generally prefer not to go. We consume such art not because it entertains us; not because it is “attractive” in a traditional aesthetic sense but because it cuts to the bone of its subject matter and reveals truths – sometimes terrible truths – that are otherwise impossible to fathom or even describe.  Admittedly, such “dark art” forces us to feel and to comprehend – at a nonverbal, gut level – things that we might very well not want to have to feel or comprehend. But dreadfully trying though such art might be, we cannot turn away […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Gabriel Fauré: Piano Quartet No. 1

Every one of us is, to some extent, the product and the victim of our education. The product, obviously, because we are all shaped by what we were taught, and (presumably) we use some of what we were taught to help us navigate our lives. Perhaps less obviously, we are also the victims of our education because it’s almost impossible for any teacher to impart any information without somehow coloring it/skewing it with his/her own opinions, prejudices and worldviews. It seems to me that in most cases this is inadvertent, though in some cases it is quite overt.

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