Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Mondays

Music History Monday: Johannes Ockeghem and the Oltremontani

We mark the death on February 6, 1497 – 526 years ago today – of the composer and singer Johannes Ockeghem, in Tours, France, at the age of 87 (or so).  He was born circa 1410 in the French-speaking city of Saint-Ghislain in what today is Belgium, about 5 miles from the border with France.  The title of this post – “Johannes Ockeghem and the Oltremontani” – employs a Italian word that may not be familiar to everybody: “Oltremontani.”  It’s a word that means, literally, “those from the other side of the mountains.”  The mountains in question are the alps, so in fact, generally, the word refers to people “from the other side of the alps”: from northern and northwestern Europe.  But when used in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it meant something quite more specific than that: it referred to musicians from what today are northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg.  Johannes Ockeghem was just such an oltremontano, having been born in Belgium close to the northern border of France. Johannes Ockeghem (circa 1410-1497) “Born circa 1410, died 1497.”  Back in the fifteenth century, if someone became famous – and at the time of his death, Johannes Ockeghem […]

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Music History Monday: Francis Poulenc: “a bit of monk and a bit of hooligan”

We mark the death on January 30, 1963 – exactly sixty years ago today – of the French composer and pianist Francis Jean Marcel Poulenc, in Paris.  A Parisian from head to toe, he was born in the tres chic 8th arrondisement in that magnificent city on January 7, 1899.  He died of a heart attack not far from where he’d been born, in his flat opposite the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris’ 6th arrondisement.  Before we can get down with the magnifique Monsieur Poulenc, we have an important event in rock ‘n’ roll history to mark. On January 30, 1969 – 54 years ago today – the Beatles, joined by the keyboard player Billy Preston, performed their final live concert.  The venue was unusual: a hastily constructed stage on the rooftop of their five-story Apple Corps (their record company) headquarters, at 3 Savile Row: smack dab in the middle of the fashion district in London’s tony Mayfair neighborhood.  (I cannot resist the joke: how do you get a rock band onto a roof?  You tell them the beer is on the house.) Badaboom. A couple of weeks before the rooftop concert eventually took place, Paul McCartney had suggested that the […]

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Music History Monday: Paul Robeson: Truly Larger Than Life

We mark the death on January 23, 1976 – 47 years ago today – of the American bass-baritone singer, stage and screen actor, civil rights activist, professional football player, and graduate of Columbia University Law School Paul Robeson at the age of 77, in Philadelphia.  Born in Princeton, New Jersey on April 9, 1898, the son of an escaped slave turned Presbyterian minister, Robeson had more intellectual, artistic, and athletic gifts and lived more lives than any 10 (20? 50? 100?) so-called “normal” people.  And he had to fight for every one of those lives, growing up a black person in early twentieth century America. “Larger than Life” The English-language idiom “larger than life” describes people “who are better and stronger and smarter than the average Joe”: individuals imbued with characteristics and abilities far beyond those of “ordinary” human beings. Typically, the idiom is reserved for fictional characters, who are gifted with superhuman (or nearly so) qualities and abilities. The heroes, warriors, gods, and goddesses of myths and legends are, by definition, “larger than life.” Achilles, Hercules, Zeus, Odysseus, Thor, Brünnhilde (and many, many more) would all qualify.  Comic book characters and superheroes are likewise, by their nature, “larger than […]

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Music History Monday: The Blockhead – Anton Felix Schindler – and Beethoven’s Conversation Books

We mark the death on January 16, 1864 – 159 years ago today – of Anton Felix Schindler, in Frankfurt, at the age of 68.  Born on June 13, 1795, in the town of Medlov in today’s Czech Republic, Schindler was, for a time, Beethoven’s “factotum”: his secretary and general assistant.  He was also a scoundrel and a profiteer, who after Beethoven’s death lied about his relationship with Beethoven, stole irreplaceable objects and documents from Beethoven’s estate, and falsified and destroyed many of those documents (some of which he later sold off) in order to make himself look better in the eyes of history.  Boo-hoo for Schindler: the “making-himself-look-better-in-the-eyes-of-history” thing didn’t work, and today he is regarded as the patron saint of lying and thieving employees. Among the Beethovenian documents Anton Schindler took upon himself to “remove for safekeeping” were Beethoven’s so-called “Conversation Books.” Beethoven’s Conversation Books It took an agonizingly long time for Beethoven to go completely deaf. His hearing loss began in 1796, in his 26th year: a buzzing in his ears and a slow but progressive loss of high frequency hearing.  By the fall of 1802, Beethoven had cut himself off from much of his world out […]

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Music History Monday: An Impresario for the Ages: Rudolf Bing

We mark the birth on January 9, 1902 – 121 years ago today – of the opera impresario Rudolf Bing, in Vienna Austria.  The general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York from 1950 to 1972, Bing died in Yonkers, New York in September 1997 at the age of 95.  His was a long life by any standard, but particularly by the standards of an opera impresario, whose professional livesare marked by a degree of life-threatening stress and anxiety that, perhaps, only has its equal in combat and divorce court.   Impresario The term “impresario” originated in the world of Italian opera in the 1750s.  Deriving from the Italian word “impresa,” which is “an enterprise or undertaking,” an impresario was that single individual who organized, financed, and produced operas (and later, concerts).  It was a job similar to what a film producer does today; a high stress job not for the faint of heart or weak of bladder. Apropos of the impresarios of his day, the great Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote in reference to how he went about composing his opera overtures: “Wait until the evening before the opening night.  Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it’s the […]

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Music History Monday: Getting Personal: Édith Piaf

We mark the birth on December 19, 1915 – 107 years ago today – of the French singer and actress Édith Piaf in the Belleville district of Paris.  Born Édith Giovanna Gassion, she came to be considered France’s national chanteuse, one of the most celebrated singers of the twentieth century, a French combination of Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Billie Holiday.  She died in Plascassier, near the French Riviera city of Nice, on October 10, 1963, all-too young at the age of 47.   Way Too Personal I will be forgiven for making today’s post personal. (It’s just going to happen sometimes.) I was first married in August of 1981.  I was 27 and my betrothed was 23 at the time of our marriage.  We were . . . young.  Frankly, chronological years notwithstanding, I was far “younger” than my bride.  Together, we made two wonderful babies: our daughter Rachel, now 36 years old, and our son Samuel, now 32.   Our marriage lasted for seventeen years.  Based on the frankly terrifying statistics out there, our marriage lasted considerably longer than the seven-to-eight-year average of the 50% of marriages that fail in the United States.   Three years after our […]

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Music History Monday: The Garden State Hall of Fame

December 12 is a crazy day in American jazz and popular music history, a day that saw the births of five – count ‘em, five – significant musicians, three of whom have something very special in common. Let us first recognize the birthdays of the two jazz/pop musicians who do not share this special commonality. We start with a big, happy birthday to the jazz singer Joe Williams, who was born on December 12, 1918, 104 years ago today.  Born Joseph Goreed, he came into this world in Cordele, Georgia, and left it on March 29, 1999, in Las Vegas at the age of 80.  Big Joe had a gorgeous, warm baritone voice that was as smooth as a peeled onion.  Long associated with Count Basie (1904-1984) and his big band, Williams sings one of his trademark songs – Alright, Okay, You Win – with the Basie Band in the link below, recorded circa 1970. Another big, happy birthday to the singer, drummer, and percussionist Sheila E. (“E” for Escovedo), who was born right here in Oakland, California, on December 12, 1957, 65 years ago today.  Sheila Escovedo came by her musical bona fides honestly.  Her father is the Latin […]

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Music History Monday: Myths of Mayhem and Murder!

Here We Go Again . . . It has come to pass. I have been writing these Music History Monday posts for long enough that Monday dates and events have begun to repeat. And as a result, December 5, which was a Monday in 2016, once again falls on a Monday today. Ordinarily there are enough events on any given Monday to keep me from having to deal with the same topic. But December 5 is a special date for one particularly terrible musical event, an event that demands to be revisited. Dates That Will Live in Infamy We consider: there are some dates that, for events that marked them, will live in infamy. I would suggest that what qualifies as an “infamous date” – that is, a date we will all remember to our dying day – is generally dependent upon when one was born. For example, for someone born in the United States in 1854 (that’s 100 years before I was born), those dates of infamy might include: March 6, 1857: the date of the Dred Scott decision, which saw the U.S. Supreme Court rule 7-2 that an enslaved human being (Dred Scott) who had resided in a […]

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Music History Monday: Aaron Copland in New York

We mark the New York premiere on November 28, 1925 – 97 years ago today – of Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theater, at a League of Composer’s concert conducted by Serge Koussevitzky at New York’s Town Hall. The actual world premiere of the piece took place eight days before, when Koussevitzky conducted Music for the Theater in Boston. But Copland was a native New Yorker and Music from the Theater is about the New York theatrical and musical world. So – and for this you’ll have to excuse me, particularly the Bean Town babies among us – the so-called “Boston Premiere” was nothing but a warmup, a preview, a promo, an hors d’oeuvre akin to trying out a Broadway play in New Haven or Philadelphia before taking it to the house, to the big time, the Apple, to the city that never sleeps, to the burg so big they had to name it twice: New York, New York! Coming Clean We all have to make decisions, the vast majority of which are, gratefully, relatively insignificant. (I cannot imagine having to make decisions that would affect the health and welfare of entire communities. It’s difficult enough for me to figure […]

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Music History Monday: Henry Purcell and British Music Restored!

We mark the death on November 21, 1695 – 327 years ago today – of the English composer and organist Henry Purcell, in London. He lies buried today in a place of singular honor, adjacent to the organ on which he performed in Westminster Abbey in London. He had been born there in London on (or about) September 10, 1659, making him only 36 years old when he died. But like both Mozart and Schubert after him, Purcell’s terribly premature death did not preclude him from writing a tremendous amount of music of the very highest quality. Purcell’s music – sacred and secular – utterly defined his time, a time known in British history as the Restoration. Timing I know that the realtors among us will tell us that in the end, everything is all about location, location, and location. Well, sorry to disagree but, in fact, in the end, nothing is more important than timing, timing, and timing. Hey: I love the city of Paris; it is my favorite urban location. But a successful visit to that magnificent location is dependent on timing. Had I chosen to visit in August 1348, I would have arrived simultaneously with the Black […]

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