Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes – Page 2

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Blame it on the Bossa Nova

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post acknowledged the birth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil of the Brazilian singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Antônio Carlos Jobim. That’s all the excuse we require for today’s foray into the music of Brazil, samba, and bossa nova! The name “Brazil” comes from the Portuguese word pau–brasil, meaning “brazilwood”: an East Indian tree from which a bright red dye is extracted. Sixteenth century Portuguese explorers found the coastal areas of what today is Brazil filled with these commercially valuable trees, which gave the territory – and eventually the country – its name. If Brazil wasn’t locked into South America, it could be a continent on its own. In terms of sheer landmass, Brazil – at 3,287,956 square miles – is the fifth largest country in the world, behind Russia (the largest), Canada, the United States, and China. (For our information, the landmass of the 28 nations of the former European Union – yes, including the United Kingdom, Brexit be damned – totals 1,669,808 square miles: half the size of Brazil.) The relative size of today’s five largest countries – of which Brazil is the fifth – is, in fact, misleading. Unlike Russia, Canada, and the United States, all of which have […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Absurdity

“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” As hoary old aphorisms go, this one is right up there on the tiresome scale with “a penny saved is a penny earned”, “you miss 100% of the shots you do not take”, “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping:” and “insinuations are lavender, nearly.” Nevertheless, I have a particular fondness for “the grass is always greener on the other side” because its sentiment cuts so closely to my own life, psyche, and existential feelings of victimization: well, duh, of course everyone else’s life is better than mine, of course I’m missing out on something everyone else has, of course everything always happens to me, of course I’m a fraud and everyone else is not. “The grass is always greener on the other side” addresses, perfectly, that generative emotion held so dear by so many composers, authors, poets, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, singers, and actors (to say nothing for the rest of the population) and that is envy. What we might call “the grass-is-always-greener syndrome” is surely as old as humanity itself: “the cave is always bigger on the other side.” For our information, the first […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 7

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post focused on Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), his ballet Romeo and Juliet, and his permanent return to the Soviet Union in 1936 at precisely the time Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror was shifting into full gear. Today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes explores Prokofiev’s explosive and in all ways awesome Piano Sonata No. 7 (completed in 1942), one of the great masterworks of his “Soviet years.” BUT EVEN MORE THAN THAT! I absolutely believe, without qualification, hedging, prevarication, equivocation or any other description of lily-livered middle-of-the-roading (where dwells nothing but dead skunks and yellow lines) that the prescribed recording is not just the best available of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 but the best possible recording of Prokofiev’s sonata on what is, in my humble but not ill-informed opinion, the greatest single solo piano album ever recorded. Deep breaths. I find it hard to believe that only now, in my 128th (consecutive) Dr. Bob Prescribes post, am I getting around to this album. Better late than never. Sergei Prokofiev was born on April 11, 1891 in the village of Sontsovka, in Ukraine. His father managed a large estate, and it was on that estate that Prokofiev grew up an isolated, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes George Gershwin, Concerto in F

A statement I’ve made before and will gladly make again: George Gershwin is among the handful of greatest composers the United States has produced, and his death at the age of 38 (of a brain tumor) should be considered an artistic tragedy comparable to the premature deaths of Schubert (at 31), Mozart (at 35), and Chopin (at 39). He was born Jacob Gershovitz (though his birth certificate reads “Jacob Gershwine”), the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, on September 26, 1898 at 242 Snediker Avenue in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (For our information: in 1963, a bronze plaque commemorating Gershwin’s birth was affixed to the building. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had fallen on very hard times: the plaque was stolen – it is still MIA – and the building vandalized. It burned down in 1987, and all that remains of the neighborhood today is a blighted area of warehouses and junkyards.) Rarely has a major composer begun his life in an artistically less promising manner. Tall, athletic, and charismatic, Gershwin was the leader of various tenement gangs, played street ball, roller skated everywhere and engaged in petty crime. By his own admission, he cared nothing for music […]

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Dr Bob Prescribes: Maurice Ravel, ‘Valses nobles et sentimentales’

The “Waltz” Experienced ballroom dancers aside, I would suggest that most of us consider the “waltz” to be a stodgy thing, a choreographic burden to be born at weddings and such during which we shuffle out an approximation of a three-step, attempting to lead a partner who would rather not be lead (at least not by me), to the scintillating strains of such triple meter standards as the Anniversary Waltz and Sunrise, Sunset. It is easy, today, to forget that at the time of its creation, the waltz was considered a lewd and lascivious dance, one that led to moral degradation in this world and damnation in the next! The waltz originated in eighteenth century Austria as a peasant’s dance. What distinguished it from the beginning was its wide, gliding steps and the fact that the dancers held each other as closely as possible (at a time when courtly dancing forbade almost any touching at all). The relative simplicity and physicality of this new, gliding and whirling dance made it extremely popular among the lower classes, who were no more likely to dance the more sophisticated Minuet than Ozzie Osborn a Virginia Reel. By the late-eighteenth century, the gliding and […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes THE CONCERT and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy

Thomas Kelly’s book First Nights – Five Musical Premieres is outstanding: well researched, beautifully written, and highly entertaining. It tells the stories behind five musical premieres, premieres that by their inclusion in the book implies that Kelly considers them to be the most important/interesting premieres in Western music history. Those premieres are Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo, on Saturday, February 24, 1607; George Frederick Handel’s Messiah on Tuesday, April 13, 172 (at 12 noon); Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on Friday, May 7, 1824 (at 7 pm); Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique on Sunday, December 5, 1830 (at 2 pm) and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on Thursday, May 29, 1913 (8:45 pm). I know it’s all-too-easy to criticize anyone’s “top ten” list (or in this case, “top five”). Furthermore, I am loath to criticize a scholar as distinguished as the American musicologist Thomas Forrest Kelly (born 1942), who is the Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music at Harvard. Nevertheless, I must humbly assert that Professor Kelly missed the boat with his list (and not just missed the boat but fell into piranha-infested waters without his pants on), because nowhere in his book (including the preface and introduction) does he mention […]

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Dr. Bob ‘Sort of’ Prescribes Beethoven – Der glorreiche Augenblick

Beethoven (1770-1827) officially turns 250 years young tomorrow, and we can only wish that we were able to gather together in celebration of the great man’s birthday. Thanks a lot, COVID-19, for pooping Beethoven’s party. We persevere. Today, I’m offering up something a bit different from the usual Dr. Bob Prescribes post. The avowed mission of Dr. Bob Prescribes is to recommend recordings and/or works and/or performers with which/whom we may not be familiar. To that end, in anticipation of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, I’ve been posting – since the summer of 2019 – about lesser known but deserving works by Beethoven and lesser known but deserving performances of works by Beethoven. Today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes deals with a lesser known and undeserving work by Beethoven, the cantata Der glorreiche Augenblick (“The Glorious Moment”), Op. 136. (It was composed in 1814 but not published until 1837, ten years after Beethoven’s death, which explains its high opus number.) Unsatisfying and overblown though the cantata is, the personal and historic circumstances behind its creation are fascinating. Thus, today’s post. The Letter Among the mountain of papers, letters, contracts, doodles, pink slips and such that Beethoven left behind after his death was a love […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Sergei Nakariakov

We routinely decry the death (or near death) of music education in public schools, slowly and incrementally over the last few decades. However, if my experience is any indication, I would suggest we temper our outcry in the unvarnished light of reality. Growing up in the South Jersey township of Willingboro and attending public schools there from Kindergarten through high school (1959-1972), my experience was that classroom instruction in “music appreciation” was a joke; no teachers or subject matter were treated with greater, more extravagant disrespect than were these. However. I do (and always will) rue the demise (or near demise) of band and chorus programs in public schools. In my experience, these were taught by no-nonsense professionals who by their teaching and personal example had a tremendous impact on their young charges. Every fourth grader in my school district (and I imagine in pretty much all public-school districts at the time, nation-wide), had to choose and play an instrument through fifth grade. Even the delinquents got into it, and for at least that (brief) period of time, every one of these kids had the opportunity to personally make some sort of music, which I believe to be among the […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Charles-Valentin Alkan

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post acknowledged the anniversary of the birth of Charles-Valentin Alkan on November 30, 1813. A contemporary (and friend) of both Chopin and Liszt, Alkan was – in his lifetime – considered their equal as a pianist and by those (few) who knew his mature music, their near-equal as a composer. Like Chopin, Alkan’s compositional output consists almost entirely of solo piano music. (Alkan did indeed complete a “piano concerto” and a “symphony”, though both are “scored” for solo piano!) However, unlike Chopin and Liszt, Alkan’s music fell into obscurity in the mid-nineteenth century – during Alkan’s lifetime – not to be resurrected until the 1960s. Let’s hear it for resurrections: it is wonderful music! Alkan died in Paris on March 29, 1888, by which time he was already considered an enigma. In 1877, eleven years before Alkan’s death, Antoine Marmontel – the head of the piano department at the Paris Conservatoire – wrote of the then 64-year-old Alkan: “If there were a strange, eccentric artistic personality to study it must surely be that of Ch-V Alkan, in whom interest is quickened by a screen of mystery and enigma which surrounds him.” Alkan’s “eccentricities” came to dominate […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Manuel de Falla, El Amor Brujo

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post offered up a heart-felt happy birthday to the Spanish composer and conductor Manuel María de los Dolores Falla y Matheu (“y Matheu”, because Spaniards customarily add their mother’s maiden surname to their own), who was born on November 23, 1876 in the Andalucían port city of Cadiz. Falla (when only the surname is used the de is omitted) died “in exile” on November 15, 1946 in Alta Gracia, Argentina, eight days short of his 70th birthday. (Falla had fled to Argentina in 1939 after Francisco Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War.) Andalucía – the southernmost region of Spain – is the birthplace of flamenco, a genre of Spanish song and dance that we celebrated together in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post on June 9, 2020. I said it then and I’ll say it again now: in my humble (but well-informed) opinion, flamenco is – along with jazz – the most viscerally exciting music to be found on this planet. I would go so far as to suggest that if Andalucía were a media giant equal to the U.S. of A., we’d all be singing and dancing to flamenco and not that North American-born hybrid called rock […]

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