Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes – Page 2

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Shostakovich Sonata for Viola

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a lot of chamber music, including fifteen string quartets.  From almost the beginning of Shostakovich’s career as a composer of chamber music, the viola, the tenor voice of the string quartet – with its full, warm, restrained, and yet masculine tone – had been his instrumental alter ego: his own, personal musical voice.  With Beethoven, it had been the more outgoing and boisterous bass/baritone voice of the ‘cello.  But for the more introspective Shostakovich, it was the viola.  When Shostakovich had something profound and lyric to say, as often as not, it is the viola that says it.  With this in mind, there is something both right and poetic that the last work Shostakovich ever composed was a sonata for viola and piano.  (It’s no surprise that Beethoven identified with the sound of the cello, as his speaking voice was a baritone.  As opposed to Shostakovich, whose scratchy, tobacco-ravaged voice was a tenor.  The video linked below is an interview with Shostakovich filmed in 1975, just months before his death on August 9 of that year.  Shostakovich is expressing his opinion that opera should be sung in the language of the country in which it is being […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Carlos Chávez: Complete Symphonies

Chávez’s emergence as a composer in 1920 – at the age of 21 – could not have been better timed. You see, 1920 saw the end of the Mexican Revolution and the inauguration of Álvaro Obregón as a constitutional president. According to musicologist J. Carlos Estenssoro: “A new cultural nationalism began to take shape. The government became the chief patron of the arts, with a view to bringing culture to the masses, and great emphasis was placed on the indigenous Indian cultures, particularly those of the pre-Conquest era. In 1921 Chávez met Jose Vasconcelos, the dynamic minister of education and patron of the arts who commissioned him to write a ballet on an Aztec subject. [In composing] El feugo nuevo, Chávez established himself as the first composer to enunciate this new nationalism.”  Yes, it is true: as a composer, especially early in his career, Chávez had “nationalist leanings,” meaning that the pre-Columbian and post-Columbian folk music of his native Mexico informed – to varying degrees (though sometimes not at all) – his concert music. But Carlos Chávez was much, much more than merely a “nationalist” composer, and the constant references to him and his music as being so doesn’t tell […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Wolfgang Mozart, Among Friends

I tried, honest to gods, I tried. My M.O. in these Dr. Bob Prescribes posts has been consistent: if I feature a lesser-known composer in a Music History Monday post, I will follow up in the next day’s Dr. Bob Prescribes with a work (or works) by that same composer. Yesterday’s Music History Monday was about Wolfgang Mozart’s youngest son, Franz Xaver Mozart (1791-1844), and his sadly underwhelming career as a pianist and composer. As we noted yesterday, he didn’t compose a whole lot of music, and almost nothing after 1820, when he was 29 years old. Nevertheless, his music was performed; some of it was published; and some of it is available on recordings today. I would tell you that I choose the topics for my Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes posts 8 – 12 weeks in advance, so I have adequate time to gather resources and purchase and listen to recordings if necessary. As we observed yesterday, Franz Xaver composed two piano concerti; they are his “largest” and most ambitious works, and nice things (or at least, not unkind things) are said about them on the internet. Believing (or at least hoping) that I had discovered […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Rossini Overtures

It’s All About Branding Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the use of the first four notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 as a call sign for a BBC radio show called London Calling Europe, a propaganda/information show broadcast from London into Nazi-occupied Europe. It was an inspired bit of both cultural larceny and branding: using the music of a German-born composer to represent dot-dot-dot-dash: the Morse Code for the letter “V” as in victory over Germany! “Branding.” It’s a newish term, defined as “the promotion of a particular product or company by means of advertising and distinctive design.” We are told that there are four essential steps in “branding”: 1. Determine your target audience. 2. Position your product and business. 3. Define your company’s personality. 4. Choose a logo and slogan. In the case of the BBC program London Calling Europe, one, the target audience was the population of occupied Europe. Two, the BBC positioned itself as the singular purveyor of unsullied information available to that population. Three, the show defined itself as the voice of truth. Four, its slogan was “London calling Europe” and its audio “logos” were Jeremiah Clark’s Trumpet Voluntary and the opening four notes of […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Johann Joachim (“J. J.”) Quantz

I regularly receive emails from people who want to post music blogs on my Facebook Page, for which – they are always thrilled to tell me – they’ll only charge me $50, or $100, or $200; whatever. I receive, on average, upwards of 500 emails per day, and while I do my best to keep up (honestly, I do, even though any number of you continue to wait for responses from me), these uninvited missives from people I do not know, sadly but inevitably fall, mysteriously, of their own accord, into my computer’s trash basket. (I do not mean to be impolite, but I fear that answering these people would be like feeding a dog scraps from the table: once done, I would never be rid of them.) Be assured that I would never run a blog by a stranger, even if that person offered to pay me for the opportunity. However, if an important, leading member of the larger musical community had something to say to my musical community (meaning my followers on Patreon, Facebook, and on my own website), I would indeed allow them access, providing I had editorial control over the content. Which is why we’ll be […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: George Rochberg, String Quartet No. 3

George Rochberg, the subject of yesterday’s Music History Monday post, is most famous for his string quartets, seven in number. We turn to his String Quartet No. 3 of 1972, a work Rochberg explains: “is the first major work to emerge from what I have come to think of as ‘the time of turning’”. As discussed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, in 1961, Rochberg and his family suffered a terrible tragedy: his 17-year-old son Paul was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Paul Rochberg died three years later, in 1964. To his shock and horror, a grieving George Rochberg discovered that the musical language of modernism – his musical language – was completely inadequate to the expressive task of allowing him to say what he needed to say. Rochberg confesses: “By the beginning of the 1960s, I had become completely dissatisfied with [serialism’s] inherently narrow terms. The over-intense [expressive] manner of serialism and its tendency to inhibit physical pulse and rhythm led me to question a style which made it virtually impossible to express serenity, tranquility, grace, wit, energy. It became necessary to move on.” Finally, in 1972, the “new” George Rochberg emerged from the compositional closet. His “coming out […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Adolphe Sax and the Saxophone

Inventors are a breed apart. They range from a simple tinkerer trying to improve a pre-existing technology (perhaps attempting to build a better mousetrap) to creating, like Steve Jobs, products that no one knew they needed until he made them. For all their differences, it seems to me that most (all?) inventors have at least the following in common. One: a basic dissatisfaction with the status quo (the world as it presently exists) and a desire to create something that in some small (or large) way changes the world. Two: extremely active imaginations. Three: a singular, perhaps even anti-social desire to spend long hours by themselves, doing their “thing” (a trait shared with composers, visual artists, writers, and musicians). Four: the dexterity and skills to draw and/or build prototypes of their inventions. Five: endless (or so it would seem) patience. Six: an understanding that failure is inevitable much (if not most) of the time, and the ability to persevere in the face of repeated failure. Finally, six: sheer egotism; the absolute conviction that what they are doing is vitally important. Every one of these traits apply to the acoustician, instrument designer, inventor, and builder Adolphe Sax (1814-1894). At a time […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Tony Bennett and Bill Evans

I’m altering my usual MO here. Usually, when my Music History Monday post celebrates the premiere of a piece of music, the next day’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post goes on the recommend a recording of that piece. As yesterday’s Music History Monday was about Richard Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, it would follow, then, that today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes would recommend a recording. But, no. Instead, we’re running with the “mastersinger” thing, which is why I’m dedicating today’s DBP to the ageless and always wonderful Tony Bennett, “the mastersinger of Astoria, Queens.” I have loved the recommended albums since I first bought them on vinyl back in the mid-1970s and they have lost not an iota of their freshness and soul in the intervening years. These albums represent Tony Bennett the jazz singer at his very best. This is in no small part thanks to the otherworldly simpatico he achieves with the equally otherworldly Bill Evans on piano. Which prompts me to offer up a quick but ultimately unnecessary apologia. The apology? Bill Evans’ brilliant piano playing here notwithstanding, this post is going to focus entirely on Tony Bennett. The apology is indeed unnecessary because Music History Monday for August […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Florence Foster Jenkins

“Pay-to-play” (aka “P2P”). It’s a fairly new term for something as old as the hills: paying (bribing?) others “for services or the privilege to engage in certain activities.” P2P is particularly big in the book and music publishing industry today, in which publishers require authors and composers to underwrite the costs of production (and not infrequently marketing as well) for the “privilege” of receiving a 5% royalty on their books/scores sometime down the road. Such so-called “vanity productions” can cost tens-of-thousands of dollars. For academes who must publish-or-perish, P2P is often the only way to get into print. To my mind it’s nothing short of piracy. The most notable recent example of pay-to-play in the world of concert music is that of Gilbert Kaplan (1941-2016). Born in New York City, Kaplan made his fortune when he sold his business/financial magazine Institutional Investor in 1984. According to The New York Times: “The price was never disclosed but was rumored to be about $75 million.” That was a chunk of change in 1984, the equivalent of $190 million today. With that sort of money in his pocket, the 43-year-old Kaplan was free to indulge his hobby full-time. That hobby? Gustav Mahler’s Symphony […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Hank Levy and Don Ellis

It is possible to know too much. A wine aficionado has no taste for a $14.00 bottle of Pinot. A modern dance devotee would not deign to attend a square dance. A cocktail shaker enthusiast won’t look twice at a mass-marketed chrome shaker from the 1930s. This sort of knowledge-based snobbery applies particularly to movies and TV shows. I know from personal experience that a physician cannot watch a doctor/hospital show without constantly (and derisively) pointing out its endless flaws. I imagine the same is true when a policeperson watches a crime show or movie; when an attorney watches a courtroom drama; or when an extra-terrestrial takes in a science fiction movie. Given my particular knowledge base, I find I tolerate movies and TV shows about music poorly. Amadeus was entertaining, but the scene in which the dying Mozart presumably dictates a portion of his Requiem to Salieri is pure poppycock. And don’t get me started on any of the Beethoven movies out there; or when the 6’ tall Robert Walker portrayed the 5’ tall Johannes Brahms in the 1947 movie Song of Love (“good for a guffaw” wrote Bosley Crowther in his review in The New York Times); or […]

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