Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Joys of Bassi: Matti Salminen and Samuel Ramey

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the birth, on June 20, 1843, of the Russian operatic basso Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky.  Considered in his lifetime to be among the greatest bass singers of his time, Fyodor Stravinsky’s memory has been almost entirely eclipsed by that of his son, the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Fyodor Stravinsky died in 1902 at the age of 59.  Sadly, he never recorded.  But yesterday’s post on Fyodor Stravinsky got me to thinking about my favorite bassi, and thus today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes featuring Matti Salminen and Samuel Ramey.  (Yes, of course, there are tens of other bassi deserving of our attention.  In the spirit of sharing, I would ask you to name your favorite bass singers and recordings in the comments below.) The Bass The bass is the lowest male singing voice, the lowest vocal range of all voice types.  Leading bass roles run a certain dramatic gamut, from old, wise, and perhaps priestly men (Mozart’s Don Alfonso from Cosí fan tutte and Sarastro from The Magic Flute); to old and foolish men (Pergolesi’s Uberto in La Serva Padrona and Rossini’s Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville); to comic relief foolish men (Mozart’s Leporello in Don […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner, facsimile full scores

If we want to own a facsimile of one of Wagner’s handwritten, manuscript scores, we’ve got limited options, because a great many of Wagner’s manuscripts have not survived.  Their disappearance has everything to do with Wagner’s relationship with King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who was the subject of yesterday’s Music History Monday post.  We’ll get into the particulars of the disappearance (and likely destruction) of the manuscripts in a bit.  But first, let us contemplate the nature and importance of a composer’s hand-written manuscript scores. Composers’ Holographs A “holograph” is a manuscript or document written in its composer’s or author’s hand. There was a time when a composer’s most prized possessions were their holographs: their hand-written, autograph manuscripts: complete scores notated in pencil or ink.   (We pause to rue the passing of such hand-written manuscripts.  As a new generation of composers notates their music using computer programs, the art of music calligraphy is presently going the way of hand-copied illuminated manuscripts, and thus technology will soon claim another victory over a time-honored craft.  But even worse, we – as students and lovers of music – will lose an irreplaceable resource: hand-written manuscripts from which we can learn a remarkable amount about […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Johann Strauss – Father and Sons

In 2014, I was asked by The Great Courses/The Teaching Company to figure out a way to make a 24-lecture, 16-hour course that minimized the cost of licensing music for musical examples.  Upfront: I thought then – as I do now – that this was a case of penny wise and pound foolish, as a music course needs, in the end, to feature . . . music.   Whatever; I complied, and in 2015 we recorded Music as a Mirror of History, which explores certain works as personifying certain specific, historic events.  As such, Music as a Mirror of History is a history course with music, rather than a music course with history.  I read and learned a lot writing the course, and was tickled no end when, after its release, I received inquiries asking me how many research assistants I had employed in its making.  “Not a single one” was my repeated response.  “How do you know so much?”, I was asked in return. As the nerdish, CIA analyst Joseph Turner says in Joseph Grady’s Six Days of the Condor (shortened to Three Days of the Condor in the movie, starring Robert Redford), “I just read books.” Lecture 10 […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Benjamin Britten – War Requiem (1962)

Music History Monday for November 22, 2021, was entitled “Benjamin Britten: The Making of a Composer.”  The Dr. Bob Prescribes post that followed, on November 23, 2021, featured Britten’s String Quartet No. 1, which was composed in 1941.  Between them, those two posts outlined the first 29 years of Britten’s life, from his birth in 1913 through 1942.  In this post, we will push Britten’s biography forward to 1962, the year he completed his War Requiem, paying special attention to Britten’s life-long pacifism.  Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Edward Benjamin Britten was born on November 22, 1913, in Lowestoft, Suffolk, on the eastern coast of England, roughly 105 miles northeast of London.  He died in nearby Aldeburgh on December 4, 1976, at the age of 63.  He was not just the most important English composer of the twentieth century but arguably the most important English-born composer since Henry Purcell, who was born in London in 1659, 246 years before Britten.   Britten began piano lessons at seven. At the age of eight, he was enrolled in South Lodge Preparatory School just down the hill from his family home.  The headmaster of the South Lodge School was named Thomas Sewell, a Cambridge graduate […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Ludwig van Beethoven – Fidelio

In referring to Fidelio as Beethoven’s only opera, we often overlook the fact that for all its preliminary versions it was also his first opera.  As such, it has been pointed out that Fidelio, which Beethoven began composing when he was 34 years old, is “the best first opera ever written.”  Writes Paul Robeson in The Cambridge Opera Handbook: Fidelio: “Certainly, it surpasses the first efforts of better-known opera composers: Wagner’s Die Feen, Verdi’s Oberto, Puccini’s Le Villi, and Richard Strauss’ Guntram.” (We would observe that the little whippersnapper, Wolfgang Mozart, composed his first opera – La finta semplice – at the age of 12, so comparisons to Beethoven here are inappropriate.  We’d further observe that he was just 30 years old when he composed The Marriage of Figaro; 32 years old when he composed Don Giovanni; and 33 years old when he composed Cosí fan tutte.  Freak.) As his “first” opera and as a slow worker, Beethoven labored long and hard on Fidelio.  It began its life with the title Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (meaning “Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love”). The opera is a setting of a German-language libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner which was based […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Giuseppe Verdi – Rigoletto

Giuseppe Verdi and Teatro la Fenice Yesterday’s Music History Monday post – entitled “The Phoenix Rises” was about Venice’s fabled opera house, the Teatro la Fenice, “The Phoenix Theater.” Among the many operatic premieres that the Fenice has seen on its boards are five – count ‘em, five – by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901): Ernani (1844); Attila (1846); Rigoletto (1851); La Traviata (1853); and Simon Boccanegra (1857).   These operas are no strangers to this Patreon page. My Music History Monday post for March 6, 2017, focused on the 164th anniversary of the (disastrous) premiere of La Traviata, which took place at the Fenice on March 6, 1853.  My Dr. Bob Prescribes post for May 11, 2021, focused on Verdi’s fifth opera, Ernani, which received its premiere at the Fenice on March 9, 1844.  Today’s post will focus on yet another of Verdi’s Teatro la Fenice premieres, that of Rigoletto, which took place on March 11, 1851.  Specifically, this post will focus on how Verdi managed to get a highly charged political story past the Venetian/Austrian censors and into production.  (For our information: Austria ruled Venice and its home province of Veneto until 1866 when, after the Third Italian War of […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes El Amor Brujo

This is the third of three posts celebrating the Spanish director Carlos Saura’s spectacular “Flamenco Trilogy”, his set of three movies in which the stories are told primarily through flamenco music and dance. My Dr. Bob Prescribes post for March 7 of this year addressed the first of these movies, Bodas de Sangre (“Blood Wedding”), of 1981. On April 5 we tackled the second of the trilogy, Carmen, of 1983. For today, it’s the third and final film in the trilogy, El Amor Brujo (“Love, the Magician”, or “Spell-bound Love”, or “The Bewitched Love”). The post of April 5 – on Carmen – offered up brief biographies of the director Carlos Saura (born 1932); the choreographer and dancer Antonio Gades (1936-2004); and Gades’ principal female dancers: Cristina Hoyos (born 1946) and Laura del Sol (born 1961). With that biographical info out of the way, we will focus for a bit the brilliant Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), whose ballet El Amor Brujo is the basis of the film. My Music History Monday post for November 23, 2020, was a birthday tribute to the Spanish composer and conductor Manuel María de los Dolores Falla y Matheu (“y Matheu” because Spaniards customarily add their […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Thomas “Fats” Waller: “Ain’t Misbehavin”

Original Broadway cast performance, directed by Richard Maltby, Jr., broadcast on NBC-TV on June 12, 1982: No matter the source, the word that keeps coming up in any description of Thomas “Fats” Waller is “irrepressible”, the synonyms for which include “lively”, “energetic”, “unstoppable”, “buoyant”, “uncontrollable”, and “boisterous.”  He was all of that, and lots more: a virtuoso pianist and organist; a composer and songwriter; a violinist, singer, and a comedic entertainer.  As a songwriter, Waller’s closest collaborator was the lyricist Andy Razaf, who provided Waller with the lyrics for, among other songs, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Honeysuckle Rose, The Joint is Jumpin’, Willow Tree, Keeping Out of Mischief Now, and (What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.  Razaf aptly described Waller as being: “the soul of melody. A man who made the piano sing… both big in body and in mind.  Known for his generosity, [he was] a bubbling bundle of joy.” I like that: “a bubbling bundle of joy.”  Speaking for myself, I can use a bundle of joy right about now (hell, a thimble-full would do). So here goes.  Waller’s performance of his own Ain’t Misbehavin’ linked below comes from the movie Stormy Weather (1943), which starred […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Robert M. Greenberg — Collected Yiddish Songs

As begun in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, we will continue to trace what I think of as my compositional apprenticeship up to my 30th birthday, and then on to some music! California and Graduate School I arrived in Berkeley, California on September 9, 1978, to attend graduate school in music composition at the University of California, Berkeley. I moved in with a friend and Princeton classmate, a fellow composer named Eric Moe, who had started graduate school immediately after we graduated in 1976. He found us an apartment in “north side” at 1822 Francisco Street. (For our information: Berkeley is divided into three large regions: “north side”, meaning the area north of the U.C. campus; “south side”, south of the campus; and “west Berkeley”, the large area of flatlands west of the campus going down to San Francisco Bay. There is no “east” of the campus as U.C. extends east all the way to the top of the hills.) September 10, 1978 – the day after I arrived – is a day I will always remember for the following revelatory event. I got up early and decided to walk to Morrison Hall, the music building on the Berkeley campus […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Johann Sebastian Bach, St Matthew Passion

A Bit O’ Review To recap something of yesterday’s Music History Monday post, Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion is a massive, roughly three-hour-long sacred oratorio that sets to music the story surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as told in chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of Matthew.  Musically, it is a full-blown religious opera presented in concert form, with a narrator, a cast of characters, two adult choruses and a separate boys’ choir, eight vocal soloists and two orchestras. It is replete with arias, recitatives, choruses, and action music of every stripe.  With a libretto by Bach’s long-time collaborator Christian Frederic Henrici (known as “Picander”, 1700-1764), the St Matthew Passion features 68 different musical numbers, divided into two acts, or parts: Part One featuring 29 numbers, and Part Two 39 numbers. In terms of its scope, spiritual and expressive power, range of expression, and sheer (frankly inexplicable) beauty, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is, as a work of art unique, sui generis, one-of-a-kind: an artwork defined only by itself, comparable only to itself.   Bach biographer Karl Geiringer writes: “The St Matthew Passion represents the climax of Bach’s music for the Protestant Church. His own conception of its importance is […]

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