Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes – Page 2

Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven Piano Concerto WoO 4

What a birthday rip-off.  Until roughly March 15 of this year, I had always assumed that the two worst birthday rip-offs were being born on December 25 (“we’re giving you a combined birthday/holiday gift this year . . .”) and February 29 (“we’ll celebrate again in four years!”). But no, there is a bigger rip, and that’s having what should have been a yearlong celebration of concerts and colloquia and lectures and special events in honor of Beethoven’s 250th cut down to three months because of you-freaking-know-what.  Dang. By the time we all start consistently crawling back to our concert halls – I’m thinking (hoping) winter-spring 2021, the Beethoven birthday year – which presumably runs from December 16, 2019 to December 16, 2020, will have come and gone. HERE’S WHAT I PROPOSE, and pardon me for yelling. I propose we take a Mulligan, do the whole thing over, and extend the festivities by a full year. The Beethoven Symphonies, Concerti, String Quartets, Piano Sonatas, etc. and etc. that were scheduled for performances, only to be cancelled due to COVID-19, should simply be rescheduled. The activities and events surrounding the B-man’s B-day should, again, all be rescheduled. It’s only fair, and […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Franz Liszt: ‘Transcendental Etudes’

I spent the first few months of this year composing a set of six etudes for piano (posted on Patreon on April 2 and 9). As per my usual MO, I spent a couple of days prior to starting work listening to and/or reading through a batch of etudes by the usual suspects – Chopin, Liszt (I was once given a small, rectangular pad of paper labeled “Chopin Liszt” – “shopping list”), Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and Ligeti – in order to get my head and my ears in the right place. Again, typical of my compositional process, once I started writing I put such listening aside. At that point, it could only get in my way and remind me of how utterly inadequate I am when compared to the heavyweights named above. “Etude” means “study”. A musical “etude” is a technical study, a work that isolates and emphasizes some particular aspect (or aspects) of technique. Etudes have and will continue to be composed for every instrument for pedagogic purposes. With all due respect to Beethoven’s student and friend (and the teacher of Liszt) Carl Czerny (1791-1857), who wrote virtually thousands of piano etudes (his last published work, Opus 861, is titled […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Songs of Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Beilin, 1888-1989) was the greatest songwriter ever to live and work in North America. His songs – for which he wrote both the words and music – capture the spirit and chronicle the events of the first half of twentieth century America in a manner far beyond that of any other single songwriter. Among Berlin’s great contemporaries there were lyricists who wrote cleverer, more sophisticated lyrics and composers who pushed the formal structure and harmonic complexity of the popular song more than Berlin. But Berlin’s songs united the personal and the topical in words and melodies that had an almost universal appeal. Writes Robert Kimball: “The ability to capture and represent the human experience in a simple, direct way is what great songwriting is all about. And that is where Irving Berlin had no peer.” (BTW, this doesn’t mean that Berlin couldn’t create a great rhyme; rather, when he does so, it is entirely in the service of the song and never to show us how very clever he is. For example, the lyric to Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee, written in 1932 during the darkest days of the Depression, in which he rhymes […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mozart Piano Sonatas

My Dr. Bob Prescribes post for October 23, 2018, was titled “Fine Dining”. The post featured Ronald Brautigan’s revelatory performances of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas recorded on modern copies of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century pianos built by Paul McNulty (born in Houston in 1953). (These early pianos are often referred to as “fortepianos”, which simply means “loud-soft.” By definition, a fortepiano is an early piano that employs thin, harpsichord-like strings; leather-covered – as opposed to felt – hammers; a wooden harp; and lacks any metal bracing. The term fortepiano, then, designates pianos built from the invention of the instrument by Bartolomeo Cristofori sometime before the year 1700 to approximately 1825, when larger metal harped and thicker stringed pianos – proto-modern pianos, as they were – began to become the norm.) The title of that post – “Fine Dining” – referred to the crow I was obligated to eat as a result of Brautigam’s recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. I wrote: “For lo these many years, I have always looked down on the fortepiano: those early pianos distinguished by their wood-framed (as opposed to metal-framed) harps, built between 1700 and 1825. In my ignorance, I have long considered wooden-harped pianos […]

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Dr Bob Prescribes John Santos

A couple of weeks ago, I did a Facebook Live show with Julie Stoltz of The Great Courses. When we first discussed doing the show, Julie asked me if I’d give a lecture of some sort after which I would field some questions. I wasn’t terribly interested in doing a lecture; heaven knows, there’s enough of my blathering out there already, and besides, I wanted Julie to be able to take an active part in the show and to give the viewers an opportunity to comment at any time and not just at the end. So I came up with the idea of offering up a stack of recordings that would, as I put it at the time, be “guaranteed to raise our spirits, make us forget our woes, and render us susceptible to boogie fever.” It was Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (1800-1891), the Chief of Staff of the Prussian General Staff and then the Great [German] General Staff who famously said that “no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” On those same lines, I have myself discovered that “no interview plan survives the first question from the interviewer”, and as such, my […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mahler, Symphony No. 4

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was the greatest opera composer never to have composed an opera. Huh?  Once again: Gustav Mahler was the greatest opera composer never to have composed an opera. That statement is intended to be neither ironic nor provocative. Nor, well, stupid. I would explain. Compositionally, Mahler was, from the first, a dramatist: when composing, he thought in terms of dramatic scenarios. Whether a given work is instrumental or vocal, Mahler’s music, like Beethoven’s mature music before him, describes some sort of narrative, be it allegorical, metaphorical, or programmatic. Mahler came to his narrative impulse honestly. Along with the hyper-expressivity that was his late-nineteenth century German Romantic heritage, he was – like pretty much every German-speaking composer of his generation – a dyed-in-the-wool fan-person of Richard Wagner and the expressive ethos that drove Wagner’s music dramas. That Wagnerian ethos posited that music and literature must be combined to create archetypal stories/fables that resonated with the deepest of human impulses and experiences.  Mahler took this ethos for granted as a composer, and it was something he put into action on a daily basis as a conductor. Mahler conducted opera for a living, and starting in 1880 at the age of […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Messiah

Messiah (never, please, “The” Messiah) received its premiere performance 278 years ago yesterday, at The Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin, Ireland. As noted in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, the performing forces at the premiere were quite modest. Handel composed the work to be premiered in Dublin. Not being intimately familiar with the abilities of the local musicians, he kept the orchestration simple: strings (an unknown number of which played at the premiere), two trumpets, kettle drums (timpani), an organ and a harpsichord (played alternately by Handel himself). The members of the chorus were drawn from the choirs of two local cathedrals: Christ Church and St. Patrick’s (where Jonathan Swift was, at the time, the Dean). Handel’s chorus consisted of 16 men, 16 boys, and two women soloists, the celebrated English contralto Susannah Cibber and Christina Maria Avoglio, an Italian soprano drawn from Handel’s opera company.  Messiah received its London premiere on March 23, 1743, at the Covent Garden theater, and thus the tweaking began. To his original female soloists Susannah Cibber and Christina Maria Avoglio, Handel added a tenor soloist named John Beard, a bass soloist named Thomas Rheinhold, and two more soprano soloists, Kitty Clive and […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Stravinsky – Requiem Canticles

On December 28, 1945, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and his wife Vera (1889-1982) became American citizens. They were sponsored by the actor Edward G. Robinson with whom Stravinsky had been close friends since the 1930s.  The years that followed were among the best of Stravinsky’s life. Despite he and Vera’s shared dislike for the provincialism of Southern California – where they lived – the financial woes that had plagued him his entire adult life became a thing of the past. And while he missed the Russia of his childhood, he found the United States most congenial to his needs, personal and professional. And despite the illnesses that constantly dogged him (as described in yesterday’s Music History Monday post), his life was ordered and peaceful and, for perhaps the first time ever, under his control.  Comfortably ensconced in the U. S. of A., Stravinsky might very well have continued composing neo-classic/neo-tonal-styled music for the rest of his days if not for a young man named Robert Craft (1923-2015).  Craft met Stravinsky in 1948. He was a native New Yorker, a recent graduate of Juilliard, and a total Stravinsky fan-boy. Stravinsky offered him a job as his assistant, and almost overnight Craft became […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte

Covid-19 be damned, it’s still Beethoven’s 250th birth year and that celebration stops for nothing and no one, certainly not here on the pages of Dr. Bob Prescribes. Let us then continue to revel in some of Beethoven’s lesser-known works and lesser-known performances. Today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes is the third and final post to be dedicated to Beethoven’s songs, which together constitute the most under-appreciated segment of his entire output. (Instead of the word “output”, I was about to write oeuvre, which is French for “the collected works of a painter, composer, or author.” But I’ve decided that an English language post shouldn’t refer to a German’s compositional output using a French word. Which immediately brought to mind – as I sure it does for you as well – Henry Watson Fowler’s injunction against using French words in his wonderful A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford, 1926, which can actually be read for pleasure so entertaining are the entries. Here’s what Fowler [1858–1933, the so-called “Warden of the English Language”] writes: “FRENCH WORDS. Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth – greater, indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Wagner – The Ring of the Nibelung

Nothing is perfect, not even evolution. Speaking for myself, I wish evolution had done a better job with human knees and rotator cuffs, though given that evolution engineered the human body to last only some 35 or 40 years, I suppose the breakdown of my knees and shoulders – which are presently long past their natural expiration date/shelf life – is to be expected. One thing evolution got very right is “binaural” hearing. “Binaural” means “having or relating to two ears.” Why do we humans and virtually every other creature that “hears” on this planet have two ears? Because binaural hearing allows us to figure out the origin and direction of sounds. When it comes to negotiating our environment, one ear is not enough and three is simply too many. As such, there’s no practical reason why any animal would have evolved 3, 4, 5 or more ears; that would be a useless waste of precious energy and resources. And aside from having created the preconditions that led to the dance-pop/tech-house/pop-reggae singing/recording career of Paris Hilton, evolution typically does not waste its resources on the useless.  As discussed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, the 12-inch, 33 1/3-rpm (rotations-per-minute) long-playing […]

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