Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Mondays

Music History Monday: Dr. Burney

We mark the death on April 12, 1814 – 207 years ago today – of the English music historian and composer Charles Burney, in London. One rarely achieves much fame or fortune as a music historian; you can trust me on this; it’s something I know about firsthand. Nevertheless, Dr. Burney (he was awarded an honorary Doctor of music degree from Oxford) achieved a bit of both fame and fortune in his lifetime and immortality since. That’s because he didn’t just write blogs or record podcasts about music history; it’s because he lived it. Lots more on this once we (quickly) get through his biographical preliminaries.  He was born on April 7, 1726 in the market town of Shrewsbury, some 150 miles northwest of London. (For our information, Shrewsbury was, as well, the hometown of Charles Darwin.) The artistic gene was in the family: Burney’s father James was a musician, dancer, and portrait painter. Young Charles was trained on the organ, harpsichord, violin and in composition. For three years he was apprenticed in London with Thomas Arne (1710-1778), the most important English-born composer of theater music in the eighteenth century. (Many of us might not have heard of Arne, but […]

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Music History Monday: “Three’s the Charm”

We mark the premiere on April 5, 1803 – 218 years ago today – of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor at a public concert held at the Theater-an-der-Wien, in Vienna. Beethoven was the piano soloist and conducted the Theater-an-der-Wien Orchestra from the piano. The title of this post – “Three’s the Charm” – is meant in no way to diminish Beethoven’s piano concerti nos. 1 and 2. Rather, it would indicate that this third concerto, completed when Beethoven was 32 years old, is the first piano concerto of his compositional maturity and is thus packed with the sorts of modernity and expressive range that the phrase “Beethoven’s maturity” implies. Beethoven’s “Akademies” In the Vienna of Beethoven’s time, public concerts – to which anyone could “subscribe” (that is, buy a ticket in advance) – were called “Akademies”. When a composer staged an Akademie, the concert was additionally referred to as a “benefit” in that the profits went directly into the pocket of the composer.  Staging a benefit concert was a big deal, though not without risk. It was a “big deal” because such concerts were usually the only way for a composer to put his music before the […]

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Music History Monday: Beethoven’s Funeral

We mark the funeral of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) on March 29, 1827 – 194 years ago today – in Vienna. It was a grand affair; tens of thousands of people lined the route of the funeral cortege. The funeral itself was attended by Viennese luminaries of every stripe, from the aristocracy to such composers as Franz Shubert, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and Carl Czerny. Speaking strictly for myself, Beethoven’s virus-compromised 250th birthday celebration continues to rankle. As I have previously stated (with tiresome regularity, I fear), it is my intention to continue that celebration, which should have concluded on the occasion of his 250th birthday on December 16, 2020, well into 2021. Just so: my Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes posts for the next two weeks will feature the B-man and his music. This is all good. Funerals in Vienna The Viennese have traditionally had a “thing” about funerals. Far from being merely ritualized grief or memorials to those who have passed, traditional Viennese funerals – elaborate affairs with their grand caskets, long, parade-like processions and impassioned, theatrical eulogies – seem as much like Mardi Gras parades as they do “funerals.” Vienna even has a funeral museum, called […]

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Music History Monday: Stephen Sondheim: The Making of a Theatrical Life, Part One

We mark the birth on March 22, 1930 – 91 years ago today – and the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Alive and we trust well, living in his brownstone townhouse in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay neighborhood on the East Side of Midtown (also the home of the Chrysler Building and the United Nations), we can only hope that Maestro Sondheim is spending the day doing what he does best: writing a song. What a wonderful coincidence: for the second week in a row, I get to write about one of my favorite subjects: the American musical theater. Last week it was the team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and their masterwork, My Fair Lady. In today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes, I get to write about Stephen Sondheim. What a pleasure!An upfront statement. Stephen Joshua Sondheim has lived a long, complex, incredibly productive and well-documented life. To attempt to tell his entire story in one or two 2500-word blog/podcasts can only trivialize his life story and his work. So instead, today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes posts will tell the painful story of his early life and explore the mentorships and experiences […]

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Music History Monday: My Fair Lady and the Making of a Partnership

We mark the opening performance on March 15, 1956 – 65 years ago today – of the Broadway musical My Fair Lady at the Mark Hellinger Theater, which was located at 237 West 51st Street in mid-town Manhattan, New York City. (For our information, since 1989, the theater has been the home of the Times Square Church.) Originally starring Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, and Stanley Holloway, this first Broadway production of My Fair Lady (there have been four Broadway revivals) ran for what was then a record-breaking 2717 performances – for 6½ years! – until September 29, 1962. (Because we all want to know: the current record holder is Phantom of the Opera, which opened on January 26, 1988 and continues to run at the Majestic Theater. Currently suspended due to the pandemic, the Broadway production of Phantom has thus far racked up an astonishing 13,370 performances. Whoa!) My Fair Lady is routinely called “the perfect musical”, and who are we to argue with that appraisal? Speaking for myself, I saw that first Broadway production in April of 1962; attendance was my eighth birthday present. Though Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, and Stanley Holloway had long before left the show, it […]

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Music History Monday: Dressed to Kill

We mark the death on March 8, 1869 – 152 years ago today – of the French composer and conductor Hector Berlioz, in Paris at the age of 65. We will use this anniversary of Berlioz’ death for a two-day Berlioz wallow. Today’s Music History Monday post will frame Berlioz as a founding member of the Romantic movement and will tell a wonderful story that conveys to us much of what we need to know about Berlioz the man: his passion, his impulsiveness, and in the end, his good sense. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will delve more deeply into his biography and his proclivity for compositional gigantism, using his Requiem Mass of 1837 as an example. Background: The Romantic Era Cult (really, fetish) of Individual Expression An idealized image of the middle-class “individual” dominated the thought and art of the second half of the eighteenth century, a period generally referred to as the Enlightenment and, in music history, the Classical Era. This Enlightenment elevation of an idealized “individual person” saw its political denouement in the French Revolution (1789-1795) and its musical denouement in Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and the subsequent Romantic era cult of individual expression. Whereas Classical era […]

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Music History Monday: Orrin Keepnews: With Great Respect and Appreciation

We mark the death on March 1, 2015 – six years ago today – of the American jazz producer and founder of Riverside Records and Milestone Records Orrin Keepnews, in El Cerrito California, but a couple of stones’ throws from where I’m writing this blog. Born in da Bronx on March 2, 1923, Keepnews died one day before what would have been his 92nd birthday. Keepnews remains one of those indispensable people who made entire careers possible, who protected and respected musicians in an often-vicious artistic environment, who labored in the background and was thus someone whose contributions are often overlooked. Well, not here; not today. We will get to Mr. Keepnews in a moment. But first: March 1st is one of those “feast days” during which so much stuff happened in music history that any number of anniversaries or events could have occupied the bulk of today’s post. As I would never forgive myself for not mentioning at least some of them, here we go. We mark the birth on March 1, 1810 – 221 years ago today – of the miraculous Frédéric François Chopin in Żelazowa Wola, Poland, not far from Warsaw. He died, all-too-young 39 years later, […]

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Music History Monday: Tchaikovsky: Two Women and a Symphony

We mark the premiere on February 22, 1878 – 143 years ago today – of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor in a concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow, under the baton of Nicolai Rubinstein. The story of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and the two women that inspired it is a fascinating one, a story that desperately wants to be told in some detail. Therefore, I am stretching it across two posts: today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes. Tchaikovsky at 37 Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) celebrated his 37th birthday on May 7, 1877. He was a man with many secrets and many fears: a cross-dressing homosexual with a penchant for teenaged boys living and working in one of the most homophobic societies ever: Tsarist Russia. Not surprisingly given his sexuality and the dangers it created for him, Tchaikovsky was over-sensitive to a fault, given to anxiety attacks, extended bouts of weeping, deep self-loathing and dependence on alcohol and tobacco. At the time of his 37th birthday Tchaikovsky was living in Moscow (where he taught at the Moscow Conservatory) and had begun sketching his fourth symphony. It was at this moment in time that – […]

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Music History Monday: What a Day!

February 15 is one of those crazy days during which so much happened in the world of music that we are de facto forced to wonder if there is some metaphysical explanation for why this date should be a nexus of musical-historical activity! In an attempt to answer that question, I have probed. Ouch. Here is some of what I have found. February 15 is the 46th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. As of today, 319 days remain until the end of the year (320 days in leap years). It was on this day in 506 that Khosrau II was crowned as the last great Sassanian king (or “shah”) of Persia. Whoa. Was that a feather that just knocked me over? On this day in 706, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian II (668-711) had his predecessors, the Emperors Leontios and Tiberios III publicly executed in the Hippodrome of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). Now, lest we think that Justinian II was just a disrespectful welp, offing his predecessors on a whim, we’d observe that back in 695 the 27-year-old Justinian II had been deposed and, adding nasal insult to injury, had his nose cut off (thus his nickname, “Justinian Rhinotmetos”, meaning […]

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Music History Monday: John Williams

We celebrate the birth on February 8, 1932 – 89 years ago today – of the American composer, conductor, pianist and trombonist John Towner Williams, in the neighborhood of Flushing, in the New York City borough of Queens. Williams must be regarded as among the greatest film composers of all time and is without a doubt the most successful in terms of awards garnered and dollars earned. Let’s do the numbers, if only to get them out of the way. To date, John Williams has created the scores for 8 of the 25 highest grossing films in American box office history. His 115(!) film scores include those for: The Reivers (1969) The Poseidon Adventure (1972) The Long Goodbye (1973) The Paper Chase (1973) Earthquake (1974) The Towering Inferno (1974) The Eiger Sanction (1975) Jaws (1975) The Missouri Breaks (1976) Midway (1976) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) E. T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982) The Witches of Eastwick (1987) Empire of the Sun (1987) Born on the Fourth of July (1989) Hook (1991) JFK (1991) Schindler’s List (1993) Sabrina (1995) Seven Years in Tibet (1997) Amistad (1997) Saving Private Ryan (1998) Angela’s Ashes (1999) Minority Report (2002) The Terminal (2004) […]

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