Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Mondays

Music History Monday: The Best of Intentions or With Friends Like These…

On December 10, 1896 (or November 28 in the old-style Russian Julian calendar) – 122 years ago today – Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s rewritten and re-orchestrated version of Modest Mussorgsky’s greatest masterwork, the opera Boris Godunov, received its premiere in St. Petersburg Russia at the Great Hall of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Rimsky-Korsakov’s version of Boris – which presumably corrected all sorts of technical errors and flaws real or imagined in Mussorgsky’s original – held the stage until the last decades of the twentieth century, at which point Mussorgsky’s original version was finally embraced for the masterwork that it always was.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s reworking of Boris Godunov was both an act of love made with the best of intentions and a terrific disservice to a masterwork. Let’s talk! Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) Mussorgsky was born into a wealthy, land-owning family in the Russian district of Karevo, roughly 250 miles south of St. Petersburg. He began piano lessons at six, and his progress was such that at the age of 9 he performed a piano concerto by the then-fashionable composer John Field. When Modest was 10, his family relocated to St. Petersburg so that Modest and his brother Filaret could enter the military as… 

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Music History Monday: A Concerto, by George!

On December 3, 1925 – 93 years ago today – George Gershwin’s Concerto in F for piano and orchestra received its world premiere at Carnegie Hall, with Gershwin at the piano and the New York Symphony Society Orchestra under the baton of Walter Damrosch.  Statement: George Gershwin is among the handful of greatest composers the United States has ever produced, and his death at the age of 38 (of a brain tumor) should be considered an artistic tragedy equal 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… 

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Music History Monday: That Infernal Beast!

We mark today the 258th anniversary of the marriage of Joseph Haydn to Maria Anna Aloysia Apollonia Keller in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the great city of Vienna. The groom was 28 years old and his blushing bride 31. We contemplate the institution of marriage. Marriage is like swinging a golf club: it looks so easy on TV. But when we actually pick up a golf club and/or get married, we learn soon enough how very, very, very challenging marital reality can be. I know of what I speak. I am in my fourth marriage, though I’d hasten to point out that that’s not because I’m a disagreeable monster (although my first wife, from whom I am divorced, might beg to disagree), but because I’ve lost two wives to cancer.  When I married for the fourth and final time to Dr. Nanci Tucker – a real doctor, one who can write a prescription – my old friend and colleague Dr. Frank LaRocca – not a real doctor; he cannot write a prescription – said to me “you win”. You see, Frank has been married three times, and with my fourth marriage he figured that the person with the greatest number… 

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Music History Monday: Schubert’s Death

November 19 is a sad day for us all. On November 19, 1828 – 190 years ago today – Franz Schubert died in Vienna at his brother Ferdinand’s third floor flat at Kettenbrückengasse 6 (in Schubert’s day, the address was Firmiansgasse 694). The building looks almost exactly the same today as it did when Schubert died there; the red and white flags in front of the building today surround a tablet that reads “Schubert Gedenktafel”: “Schubert Memorial Plaque.” On the facing directly below the bust at Schubert’s original grave in Vienna’s Währing Cemetery (what is now called “Schubert Park”) is an inscription written by the Viennese dramatist Franz Grillparzer: “The art of music here interred a rich possession/But still far fairer hopes.” Ain’t that the truth. In the last sixteen years of his brief life, this composer of really unparalleled lyric gifts composed, among other works: 8 finished and “unfinished” symphonies (not 9, which is the number typically bandied about); 10 orchestral overtures; 22 piano sonatas; 6 masses; 17 operas; over 1000 works for solo piano and piano four-hands; around 145 choral works; 45 chamber works, including some drop dead string quartets, and 637 songs. But in fact, the 31… 

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Music History Monday: A Birthday, Some Critters, and a Fern!

On November 12, 1945 – 73 years ago today – the singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, producer, director, screenwriter, humanitarian, entrepreneur, inventor and environmentalist Neil Percival Young was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  Upfront: I would tell you that Maestro Neil Young has been part of my life since my coming of age (which I count to 1966, when I was 12 years old). His songs, his voice, his guitar work and the bands in which he has played helped to define my teenage years and as such, my lasting musical sensibilities. His work with Buffalo Springfield (1966-1968); Crazy Horse (1968-1969); Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (1969-1970); and his acoustic work in the early seventies remains – for me – some of the best folk rock and rock ‘n’ roll ever played and recorded. (Just for the heck of it, I’d point out that Young entered and then worked in the United States illegally, and only received his Green Card in 1970, making him one of the countless “illegal aliens” who have gone on to enrich the American cultural gene-pool. Just sayin’.) (Another parenthetical observation. On October 31, 2018 – 12 days ago – Young admitted to having married the 57… 

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Music History Monday: A Life Well Lived

We mark the death of the American Composer Elliott Carter, who died six years ago today – on November 5, 2012 – one month shy of his 104th birthday. When Elliott Carter was born on December 11, 1908, Theodore Roosevelt was President; an Indian’s head was on the obverse of a United States penny; Gustav Mahler was the conductor of the New York Philharmonic; and the United States was just beginning its run as a dominant nation on the world’s stage. If the twentieth century was “America’s century”, it was “Elliott Carter’s” century as well: there’s hardly an artistic, cultural, or political event that Carter did not actively observe from the early 1920s through almost yesterday. His musical interests and compositions trace a direct line through some of the most important musical trends of the twentieth century: the experimental, expressionist music of the 1920s; the musical populism of the thirties and early forties; the modernist impulse of the fifties and beyond.  Throughout his compositional career, Elliott Carter has proven himself to be a quintessentially American composer. Not in an Aaron Copland, “folkloric” sense, but more profoundly. Carter’s mature vision of America mirrors, according to his biographer David Schiff: “the energy,… 

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Music History Monday: Don Giovanni

On October 29, 1787 – 221 years ago today – Wolfgang Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni received its world premiere in the Bohemian capital of Prague. That premiere was – and remains – Mozart’s single most triumphant first performance.  In 1777, the 21 year-old Mozart wrote his father: “I have only to hear an opera discussed, I have only to sit in a theater, hear the orchestra tuning their instruments – oh, I am quite beside myself at once.”  The opera house in Mozart’s day was something more than it is today. It was a combination theater; Super Bowl half-time show; Rock concert; carnival mid-way; high-end fashion show; high-tech IMAX-style movie palace; theme park; and a special effects extravaganza: in sum, a total-sensory-immersion facility. In a pre-electronic age, the opera theater was the ultimate virtual reality, where things could happen and be seen and be heard that very simply could not happen, be seen or heard anywhere else. Opera lighting and stage machinery represented cutting-edge technology in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and the production crews at major opera houses in Paris, London, Hamburg, Dresden, Rome, Venice, Naples, Prague, and Vienna were the Industrial Light and Magic, the Pixar of… 

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Music History Monday: The First Rock Star

Party hats and noisemakers at the ready, today we celebrate the birth of Ferencz (that’s Hungarian; Franz in German) Liszt. (Woohoo! Let’s make some noise!) He was born on October 22, 1811 – 207 years ago today – in the market town of Doborján in the Kingdom of Hungary. (Today the town is known as Raiding and it is located in Austria.) Here’s something we read/hear with tiresome frequency: “Like, yah, Mozart was the first ROCK STAR!” No, he wasn’t. He was an intense, brilliantly schooled composer whose music was increasingly perceived by his Viennese audience as being too long and complex. Okay; how about: “Beethoven was the first ROCK STAR!” Oh please. One more try. “Liszt was the first ROCK STAR!” That he was. (Or perhaps the second, if we choose to consider Liszt’s inspiration, the violinist Niccolò Paganini to be the first true “rock star.”) But: Paganini or no, in terms of Liszt’s looks and his fame, the tens-of-thousands of miles he travelled on tour and the thousands of concerts he gave; in terms of the utterly whacked-out degree of adulation he received, the crazed atmosphere of his concerts, and the number of ladies (and perhaps men as… 

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Music History Monday: You’re the Top!

Today we mark the death of the songwriter and bon vivant par excellence Cole Albert Porter. He was born on June 9, 1891, and died at the age of 73 on October 15, 1964: 54 years ago today. We begin with what is, I think, is a great story. In September of 1939, Igor Stravinsky travelled from his home in Paris to Cambridge Massachusetts, there to be the Norton professor at Harvard for the school year. By the time his residency ended in June of 1940, France was being overrun by the Nazis. Stravinsky and his wife Vera had a choice to make: go back to Europe and take their chances or stay in the United States where the Hollywood studios were begging Stravinsky to head west. Not a tough choice. Stravinsky instantly became a Hollywood celebrity and his music a sought-after commodity. Disney used The Rite of Spring for the dinosaur sequence in Fantasia. Barnum and Bailey’s circus commissioned Stravinsky to write a work for its dancing elephants. The producer-huckster Billy Rose commissioned a work called Scènes de ballet. After the premiere of Scènes de ballet, Rose telegraphed Stravinsky: “YOUR MUSIC GREAT SUCCESS STOP COULD BE SENSATIONAL SUCCESS IF… 

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Music History Monday: “Ma: I got the Job!”

On October 8, 1897 – 121 years ago today – Emperor Franz Joseph I of the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary officially named Gustav Mahler Director of the Vienna Court Opera.  For the 37 year-old Mahler, it was the culminating moment in what had been (and sadly, what would continue to be) a very difficult life. He was born on July 7, 1860 in the village of Kalischt, in central Bohemia, in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is today part of the Czech Republic. Mahler’s was a lower middle class Jewish family; they spoke German and were thus a double-minority among their predominately Catholic, Czech-speaking neighbors.  Mahler grew up abnormally sensitive and morbidly imaginative; a constant witness to his father’s brutality and his mother’s helplessness. According to Henry Raynor:  “All the Mahler children were incapable of facing reality and suffered from a sense of inevitable tragedy.”  Young Gustav’s sense of morbid tragedy was also a function of the disastrous mortality rate of his siblings. Of the fourteen Mahler children, seven died in infancy and only four (including Gustav) lived into full adulthood. Mahler’s musical talent was prodigious. He attended the Vienna Conservatory from 1876 to… 

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