Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the 77th anniversary of Bartók’s death in New York City, and the circumstances leading to what he himself called his “comfortable exile” in the United States between January 1940 and his death in September 1945. Among the works he composed while living in New York was his Concerto for Orchestra of 1943 which is, by any and every measure, among the very greatest orchestral works composed during the twentieth century. A monumental achievement in and of itself, the fact that the Concerto for Orchestra was written by a composer suffering from leukemia makes it something of a miracle as well. The story of its composition will be told soon enough. But first, indulge me some first-person reflection. Harlotry in Music Among my most frequently-asked-questions is: “who is your (my) favorite composer?” Who indeed! My typical response – flippant but true – is that I am a musical harlot, a strumpet, a slut: I love whomever/whatever I’m listening to at the moment. I mean, really: when listening to Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or the Goldberg Variations, how in heaven’s name would it be possible not to convinced that the sun, moon, and stars revolve […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 10

A Nice Hike In early September of 1940, Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma (1879-1964) – now married to the Jewish author Franz Werfel (1890-1945) – walked from France to Spain in order to escape the Nazi occupation of Europe. (Time out. We read constantly about those intrepid individuals who, in order to escape the Nazis, “walked across the Pyrenees from occupied France to neutral Spain.” The image so conjured is one of daring and desperate people braving an alpine climb and descent – after all, the Pyrenees rise to a height of 11,168 feet – all the while avoiding border patrols, searchlights, and barking dogs. In fact, the crossing from the French town of Cerbère to the Spanish town of Portbou involves walking a roughly two-mile-long path up and over a hill along the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a stroll, for heaven’s sake, one that hardly constitutes a hike!) Alma had been told to bring only what she could carry, but she showed up in Marseilles (the point of departure for escapees) with twelve trunks worth of luggage. The man who arranged her escape from France was the American journalist and first order hero Varian Fry (1907-1967). (For our information: working for […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Robert Schumann: Kreisleriana

Romanticism The nineteenth century saw the emergence of a new sort of European literature.  The cutting-edge writers of the time were consumed by a number of particular themes: the glorification of extreme emotion, particularly love; nostalgia for a distant, mystical, legendary past; and a passionate enthusiasm for nature wild and free, unspoiled by humanity and its bourgeois values! Soon enough, visual artists and composers embraced these themes as well.  For many such nineteenth century writers, poets, visual artists, and composers, over-the-top expressive content, nostalgia for the past, personal confession and the depiction of nature wild and free were the vehicles for achieving what their art – at its essence – was all about: spontaneous and magnified emotional expression. The adjective “Romantic” came to be used to describe such emotionally charged and self-expressive art. And no nineteenth century, “Romantic era” composer believed more fervently in music as personal, emotional, and spiritual confessional than did Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Robert Schumann: Early Life He was born in the central German town of Zwickau on June 8, 1810, the fifth and last child of August Schumann and Joanna Christiana Schumann (née Schnabel).    We are told that if we do what we love, we’ll […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a prodigiously gifted pianist and composer.  All in all, he composed 5½ piano concerti.  (That was not a typo; an explanation will follow in a bit.) The first two of his piano concerti were composed while Prokofiev was still a student at the Petrograd/Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which he attended from 1904 until 1914; from the ages of 13 to 23.  On May 11, 1914, Prokofiev performed his Piano Concerto No. 1 (composed in 1912) at his Conservatory graduation ceremony. The ceremony was nothing less than a Prokofiev lovefest, as he graduated with high honors and was awarded the prestigious Anton Rubinstein Prize in piano, a prize that included a brand new Shreder grand piano. (“Shreder” was a Russian-made piano that was “based” on American Steinway pianos, a not unfamiliar example of Russian appropriation of American technology.) Prokofiev chose to play his Piano Concerto No. 1 at his graduation ceremony rather than his Piano Concerto No. 2 (of 1913) because the premiere of that second piano concerto – 8 months prior, on September 5, 1913 – had created a scandal.  Prokofiev, ordinarily as sensitive to such things as a lump of basalt, decided that the Second: “would […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Charlie Parker

The Way He Lived and Played In the parlance of the sports world, Charlie Parker “left it all on the field.” The unstoppable, overwhelming intensity with which he played the saxophone was mirrored in the way he lived his life as well. When he died in the New York City apartment of Baroness Panonnica de Koenigswarter at the Hotel Apartments Stanhope (at Fifth Avenue and 81st Street) on March 12, 1955, he was just 34 years old. Based on Parker’s appearance at the time of his death, the attending physician, Dr. Robert Freymann, estimated his age as being between 55 and 60; the coroner who conducted his autopsy put an age of 53 on his death certificate. Parker’s immediate cause of death was unclear, because after a lifetime (albeit a short lifetime) of living at the very edge, his body had simply given out. His stomach wall was perforated by a peptic ulcer; he was suffering from lobar pneumonia; his cirrhotic liver had stopped functioning; and he suffered a massive heart attack, pretty much all at once. It has been said that Charlie Parker wasn’t so much as dead as he was used up. According to the founder of Dial […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Claude Debussy

Picking Up from Where We Left Off from Monday’s Music History Monday . . . Claude Debussy (1862-1918), preternaturally talented little cocker that he was, entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1872 at the age of ten. He remained there for twelve years, until 1884, when at the age of 22 he won the vaunted Prix de Rome (“Rome Prize”) for his cantata, The Prodigal Son. Having won the Prix de Rome, Debussy was expected to reside and compose at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in the Villa Medici in Rome for two years. Poor Debussy: having won a prize that everyone else coveted he complained bitterly about having to leave his beloved Paris for what he considered a “foreign exile”, something for which not a single one of us feels sorry for him. Debussy recalled his pique at having won the prize this way: “’You’ve won the prize’, someone said, tapping me on the shoulder. Whether you believe it or not, I can nonetheless assert that all my joy collapsed! I saw clearly the boredoms, the irritations that [such a prize] brings.” Debussy did indeed reside in the Villa Medici in Rome between 1885 and 1887, and he claimed to have […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music

Indulge me, please, the musings of a 68-year-old baby boomer. Aging sucks. Like you needed me to tell you, right? I’m not just talking about our knees, shoulders, fingers, hairlines and waistlines; sagging, spotted skin; sore hips, fatty livers, and forgetfulness; and the terrible knowledge that our physical discomfort notwithstanding, our time on this earth is dwindling. Neither am I just talking about the psychic damage of getting older, in particular loss: of seeing friends, family, and spouses pass, or heaven forbid, children and grandchildren predecease us. There are times when I do wonder how we “elderly” (legally defined as someone 65 years and older) manage to simply cope with accumulated grief. Now, we tell ourselves – rightly, I think – that in exchange for our losses and increasingly irksome bodies and memories, our life experience gifts us with wisdom. We come to realize that nothing is simple; that nothing is black and white; that good and evil are relative concepts; that nothing is forever and all we can really count on is change. Unfortunately, it is my experience that this “wisdom” often verges into pessimism because with wisdom – with knowledge and experience – comes a certain and unavoidable […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

We must contemplate the weighty. Jazz is, by its very nature, a conversational and dynamic art form, in which performers improvise on a chord progression or on a series of scales (the latter called “modal jazz”). In theory then, as in a spontaneous oration, there is no “right” or “wrong” in a jazz performance, just better or less better choices. Consequently, a given jazz performance is just one of a virtually infinite number of possible jazz performances. The fluidity, spontaneity, and variability of the art constitute the very core of its nature. Which brings us, then, to the potentially problematic issue of a “studio jazz recording.” We backtrack, momentarily. There are two sorts of jazz recordings: live recordings and studio recordings. A live jazz recording captures a particular moment in time, a “slice of musical life”: a “slice of musical life” aided, abetted, inspired, and magnified by the presence of an audience. But a studio recording is another thing altogether. A studio recording is an object: an edited, multi-take, often over-dubbed document that seeks to create as perfect a performance of a piece of music as possible. In the concert world, in which compositions are entirely notated (scripted!), this means […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Wilhelm Friedemann Bach

Weimar On July 14, 1708, the newly appointed court organist Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and his wife Maria Barbara Bach (1684-1720) arrived in the Thuringian (central German) city of Weimar from Bach’s previous post in the Thuringian city of Mühlhausen.  The young couple moved into an apartment in a house owned by another employee of the court, Adam Immanuel Weldig, who was master of the pages and a falsettist (a non-surgical male soprano) in the chorus of the court chapel.  (Coincidentally, this same Adam Weldig was an alum of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, where Bach would be the master of music for the last 27 years of his life, from 1723 to 1750). Whatever else its amenities, Weldig’s house had location in spades.  It was located at number 5 Markt, on Weimar’s Markplatz (market square), which had been the city’s most important public space since around 1300.  From there, it was just a five-minute walk to the Ducal palace (the Wilhelmsburg), where both Bach and Weldig worked.  It was at the Weldig house that Bach’s first child, Catharina Dorothea, was born on December 29, 1708, and where his second child – Wilhelm Friedemann – was born on November […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Thomas Hampson

Back on June 21, in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post entitled “The Joys of Bassi”, I asserted that, in my experience, baritones, bass-baritones, and bass singers – like the people that play their instrumental equivalents, the string bass and low brass – are the salts of the earth of the vocal world. I observed that, in my experience: “They show up early and stay late; they help set up chairs before a rehearsal and stack them up afterwards. They don’t cut to the front of the line (remind me to tell you my Thomas Hampson story; what a wonderful guy he is!) or exercise ‘artistic prerogative.’ Their collegiality, sense of humor, and general lack of bad attitude will, as my experience has played out over and over again, keep a rehearsal on an even keel.” I would observe with some pique that no one took me up on what are actually my Thomas Hampson stories. Well, if you’re not going to ask, I’ll just going to have to tell you. Story one. Sometime around 1992/1993, Hampson (born 1955) came to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) to do a master class. Here’s how a musical master class works. A […]

Continue Reading