Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Mondays

Music History Monday: The Empress

Today we celebrate the birth – on April 15, 1894, 125 years ago today, in Chattanooga, Tennessee – of the American contralto Bessie Smith. We Reflect on “GOAT” When I was growing up, the word “goat” had two distinct meanings. First, there was the animal: a quadruped mammal, a member of the family Bovidae and subfamily Caprinae. There are presently over 300 distinct breeds of goat, both wild and domesticated. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2011 there were more than 924 million goats alive across the planet. (One can only wonder why there hasn’t been a more recent census.) When I was growing up, the second meaning of the word “goat” was a loser: a derisive term for an athlete who, as a result of some monumentally boneheaded mistake, was responsible for his or her team’s loss. For example: Mike Torres, the Boston Red Sox pitcher who gave up a three-run homer to light-hitting, New York Yankee second baseman Bucky Dent in a one-game playoff following the 1978 regular season; or Bill Buckner, the Boston Red Sox first baseman who booted an easy grounder to lose game six of the 1986 World Series against the… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: The Daughters of Atlas

I am aware – nay, more than aware – that this present post is an example of unconscionable conceit and vanity. Of this I stand justly accused; my head droops in shame and my present auto-flagellation will continue for minutes – perhaps for even the half-an-hour – to come. What, you rightly ask, could have prompted this pre-emptive outburst of self-loathing? (“Pre-emptive” in that having abused myself, it is my hope that you will feel no need to do so as well.) What has brought this on? Just this: I am dedicating this week’s “Music History Monday” to an event that at the time of this writing has not yet occurred and once having taken place – on Monday evening, April 8, 2019 – will almost certainly not qualify as “music history.”That event? The world premiere of my piano trio, The Daughters of Atlas this evening in Berkeley, California. Talking about your own music is like talking about your children or, worse, your grandchildren: it is almost impossible to do so without becoming a soporific bore, inducing drooling paralysis in those within earshot. Nevertheless, I am asked constantly how I go about writing a piece of music. Since I know… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: An American Original and an American Tragedy

On April 1, 1917 – 102 years ago today – the American composer and pianist Scott Joplin died at the Manhattan State Hospital on New York City’s Ward’s Island, which straddles the Harlem River and the East River between Manhattan and Queens. He was 48 years old. During the course of his compositional career – which spanned the nineteen years from 1896 to 1915 – Joplin composed 44 ragtime works for piano, a ragtime ballet and two operas. (A musical “vaudeville act”, a musical comedy, a symphony and a piano concerto were purportedly composed as well near the end of Joplin’s life. These works were never published, and the manuscripts have, presumably, been lost, leading some to wonder whether they ever really existed at all.) Embraced today as being among the greatest and most original of American composers; creator of the single most famous ragtime work of them all, Maple Leaf Rag of 1900; inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970; awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976; and featured on a first-class postage stamp in 1983; Joplin died in almost total obscurity there at the Manhattan State Hospital, which was then – with 4,400 beds – the largest… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: Four Birthdays and a Painful Death

Some birthday greetings to four wonderful musicians before diving into the rather more grim principal subject of today’s post. Four Birthdays A buon compleanno (“happy birthday” in Italian) to the legendary Italian conductor (and cellist) Arturo Toscanini, who was born on March 25, 1867 – 152 years ago today – in the north-central Italian city of Parma (the home of Parmigiano-Reggiano, or “parmesan” cheese and the simply exquisite cured ham known as Prosciutto di Parma). Toscanini was as famous for his incendiary temper as he was for his streamlined, rhythmically propulsive, honor-the-composer’s-score-at-all-costs performances. Decorum and good taste precludes me from sharing many of the nicknames he was awarded by his performers; one such nickname I can share is “The Towering Inferno.” A boldog születésnapot (“happy birthday” in Hungarian) to the killer-great Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Bartók, who was born on March 25, 1881 – 138 years ago today – in what was then the town of Nagyszentmiklós, in the Kingdom of Hungary in Austria-Hungary. (It was a source of ever-lasting pain for the adult Bartók that the town and district in which he grew up was ceded to Romania in 1920 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up by the… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: Transfigured Night

On March 18, 1902 – 117 years ago today – Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (meaning Transfigured Night) for string sextet received its premiere in his native city of Vienna. Considered today to be Schoenberg’s first “major” work, the music prompted what are euphemistically called “disruptions” (meaning catcalls and hisses) and even some fisticuffs among the audience, though it evoked respect and admiration as well.  About those disruptions and fisticuffs. In fact, Transfigured Night is a fastball down the middle of the late-Romantic era musical plate. Typical of so much nineteenth century music, it is a piece of “program music”: an instrumental work that “describes” a literary story. Typical of so much late-nineteenth century German music, it employs an advanced harmonic language based on that of Wagner and Brahms. So why all the fuss at the premiere of Transfigured Night? I would suggest that much more than the music itself, that disapproval had to do with the ethnicity of its composer and the political atmosphere in Vienna in 1902. And therein lies our story. Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) Schoenberg was born on September 13, 1874 in the Leopoldstadt ghetto (or the “2nd district”) of Vienna, into a poor Jewish family of Hungarian… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: The “Revival” Begins

On March 11, 1829 – 190 years ago today – the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn conducted a heavily edited version of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sacred oratorio St. Matthew’s Passion at the Singakademie in Berlin. Composed in 1727, 102 years before that sold-out performance in Berlin, Mendelssohn’s performance of the passion was the first to take place outside of Leipzig, and it caused a sensation. It single-handedly initiated what is now known as the “Bach Revival”, which brought the music of Johann Sebastian Bach – in particular his large-scale works – to the attention of a broad-based listening public for the very first time. At the time of Mendelssohn’s performance, the great man himself had been dead for nearly 79 years. Bach’s Death Sebastian Bach (as his contemporaries knew him) was built like a bull and had the constitution of one as well. At no point in his life had he suffered a serious illness until the late spring of 1749, when at 64 his body began to give out: among other things, he suffered from neuropathy (numbness and pain in his hands and feet, the result of damage to the peripheral nerves of same) and eye pain and vision problems (likely… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: The Red Priest

On March 4, 1678 – 341 years ago today – the Italian composer, violinist, priest and rapscallion Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice. Yes, I know we are all “one-of-a-kind” and that that phrase is way overworked, but truly, Antonio Lucio Vivaldi was a genre unto himself! Vivaldi came to be known il prieto rosso (“The Red Priest”) for two excellent reasons: he had bright red hair and was trained as a Catholic priest. He might just as easily – and accurately – have been called “The Red Violinist” or Il Rosso Compositore: “The Red Composer”. All together, Vivaldi composed 49 “serious operas” in the ornate Venetian style that was all the international rage at the time. For better or for worse, the great bulk of these operas have fallen into obscurity; their artificial story lines and formulaic construction don’t resonate well with modern audiences. However, Verdi’s concerti do indeed resonate, and there are a lot of them: over five hundred in number. (49 operas. 500-plus concerti. Add to that hundreds upon hundreds of sacred works. These are crazy numbers, and despite the formulaic construction of much of this music, we must stand in awe of Vivaldi’s amazing fecundity. Let’s… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: Myra Hess

On February 25, 1890 – 129 years ago today – the pianist Julia Myra Hess was born in Hampstead in North West London. In a “Dr. Bob Prescribes” post, I rather energetically took the pianist Keith Jarrett to task for behaving like a brat – for haranguing and cursing at his audiences and often just walking off the stage in mid-set – if, heaven forbid, an audience member should have the unmitigated gall to cough during one of his performances. Expectorate in my presence?! The nerve!  In the course of that “Dr. Bob Prescribes” post, I referenced the pianist Myra Hess, who produced and performed in concerts in London for the duration of World War Two, on occasion performing during bombing raids. Her courage mirrored the indomitable spirit of the British people during the second world war. Coughing? Coughing? Dame Julia Myra Hess, CBE (Commander of the British Empire, 1936), DBE (Dame of the British Empire, 1941) was not just a great artist but a certifiable hero in the truest sense of the word. Coughing? Mr. Jarrett, you couldn’t hold Ms. Hess’ panties.  (For our information, Hess herself had a tangential connection to American jazz: in the 1920s, she numbered… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: Appassionata

On February 18, 1807 – 212 years ago today – Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, nicknamed by the publisher the “Appassionata”, was published in Vienna. The “Appassionata” is one of Beethoven’s most spectacular works, a piano sonata that over the years has evoked some pretty spectacular comparisons: the German-born, American musicologist Hugo Leichtentritt compared it to Dante’s Inferno; the German-born musicologist Arnold Schering likened it to Shakespeare’s Macbeth; Romain Rolland, the French dramatist, novelist, essayist, art historian and mystic (who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915) compared the Appassionata to Corneille’s tragedies; and the English musicologist and music theorist Donald Francis Tovey set it side-by-side with nothing less than Shakespeare’s King Lear. That’s Sir Donald Francis Tovey, and yes, even Sir Donald – that paragon of English restraint, dignity, and self-control (stiff upper lip and all that rot) – becomes a breathless, idolatrous, Beethoven fan-boy when attempting to describe the expressive content of the Appassionata Sonata: “This sonata is a great hymn of passion, which is born of the never-fulfilled longing for full and perfect bliss. Not blind fury, not the raging of sensual fevers, but the violent eruption of the afflicted soul, thirsting… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: The Right Composer at the Right Time and the Right Place

On February 11, 1843 – 176 years ago today – Giuseppe Verdi’s opera I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata (The Lombards of the First Crusade) received its first performance at the Teatro La Scala in Milan. It was the 29-year-old Verdi’s fourth opera. His third opera, the monumentally successful Nabucco (as in Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon) – which had premiered just 11 months before – in March 1842, had put Verdi on the Italian opera map. I Lombardi secured his position on that map; as an unnamed critic wrote in his review of I Lombardi in the Gazzetta di Milano: “We would just say that if Nabucco created this young man’s reputation, I Lombardi has served to confirm it.” The “reputation” to which the critic refers was not just Verdi’s standing as a composer, but his growing status as a hero of the Risorgimento, the movement that would eventually see Italy achieve nationhood. Verdi was indeed “the right composer at the right time and the right place” and therein lies a remarkable story. Risorgimento Risorgimento means, “rising up again”. Verdi lived the bulk of his life during the so-called “Italian Risorgimento”, a period that saw the Italian people “rise up again” to… 

Continue Reading…