Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Scandalous Overtures — Brahms: The King of Practical Jokes

According to my Oxford English Dictionary, a practical joke is “a trick played on someone in order to make them look foolish and amuse others.” As definitions go that one is DEAD ON. Unlike a verbal joke, which features a storyteller and a presumably amused listener, a practical joke requires a victim: a patsy, a fall guy (or gal) whose victimization (and potential humiliation) becomes the source of amusement for the perpetrator and whomever else is looking on. Some practical jokes can be funny; for example, the ones on the old Candid Camera TV show. Still, I suspect that many of the show’s victims were not particularly amused at all, and only acted like good sports because they saw the camera at the conclusion of their ordeals. Generally speaking, I have found that people do not like to be publicly duped, embarrassed, and held up to ridicule. The advent of YouTube has turned everyone and her sister-in-law into an Allen Funt (the host of Candid Camera). We can watch folks become the butt of someone else’s pranks all day, along with that offshoot of the practical joke, the video “fail”. It makes us wonder: What sort of people perpetrate practical… 

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Louis Moreau Gottschalk: The Justin Bieber Of 1860s San Francisco

“Fame” and “fortune” remain two of the great bugaboos for those morality police who, possessing neither, would make our lives miserable for wanting either. I personally see no harm in fortune. Yes, I am aware that “money can’t buy you love” but it can buy just about everything else, most especially time: time to do things that do not in themselves generate money, like playing and composing music. Yes, I have read that wealth encourages sloth and boredom, but these seem to me to be operator errors and not something intrinsic to wealth per se. Certainly, there is nothing slothful about Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet, or Jeff Bezos. Fame however, is another thing. At the very least, fame destroys any prospect of privacy and freedom of motion. The pleasures small and large we all enjoy — a stroll to the grocery store; a visit to a museum; a quiet dinner in a restaurant; going to see a movie; being a tourist – are virtually impossible for the famous. Can we imagine George Clooney or Beyoncé or Tiger Woods living normal lives? We might envy them their wealth, but they are birds in a gilded cage. Fame — celebrity… 

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Richard Wagner: What Ever Happened To Wagner’s Manuscripts?

The scope of Nazi Germany’s crimes against humanity will forever boggle the mind. Incredibly, almost seventy years after the end of World War II, art and treasure pillaged by Nazi Germany continues to be found even as treasure hunters search for billions of dollars worth of missing gold, platinum, and diamonds. The stories of these treasure hunts read like fictional WWII thrillers by such authors as Len Deighton, Ken Follett and Jack Higgins. But sometimes the clichés hold true and fact is stranger than fiction. Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933 and blew out his diseased brain on April 30, 1945. His projected “Thousand Year Reich” lasted all of 4473 days, 4472 days too long. During the course of those 12 years the Nazis plundered art and treasure from across Europe. As the War entered its terminal phase in 1945, a frantic effort was made to hide the loot from the advancing Allies. The recent movie Monuments Men (2014) tells the story of some of the missing art, but gives no sense of the incredible scope of what was stolen and hidden. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Nazis stole at least 16,000 pieces of… 

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Scandalous Overtures — Hector Berlioz: Dressed To Kill

So here’s what happened. In 1830, the 26-year-old composer Hector Berlioz fell in love with an adorable 18-year-old pianist named Camille Molke. Within a couple of weeks they were under the covers (ahem!); within a month they were unofficially engaged. Camille’s mom, however, had other ideas. She proceeded to put Berlioz through more hoops than a circus dog, finally packing him off to Rome so that he might compose an opera “worthy of her daughter”. Soon after arriving in Rome, Berlioz received a letter from Camille’s mother informing him that Camille had married a rich geezer and that he – Berlioz – should quit causing trouble and GET OVER IT. Hector Berlioz reacted poorly. Let us observe Berlioz’s reaction through the lens of our contemporary break-up “literature”. … Breakup, Stage 1: The Protest Stage. According to Dr. Helen Fisher, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, “at this point, emotions range from despair to rage to intense love and hatred.” Yes indeed, Berlioz’s first reaction was murderous rage. His initial plan of action: kill the entire Molke family and then commit suicide. According to contemporary thinking, this was not an entirely constructive reaction. Men’s Health magazine recommends that Berlioz should… 

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Scandalous Overtures — Rachmaninoff: Reborn Through Hypnosis

The human hand, with its four fingers and opposable thumb, is a miracle of design, function, dexterity, and beauty. The human hand contains 29 major and minor bones (though many people have a few more) and 29 major joints. Each human hand has at least 123 named ligaments and 34 muscles that move the fingers and thumb: 17 of these muscles are located in the palm of the hand and 18 of them in the forearm.(A fascinating fact, at least to a non-medico like myself: there are no muscles in our fingers.The muscles that move our fingers are located in our palms and mid-forearms.These muscles are connected to our finger bones by tendons, which yank and pull and move our fingers in the same way that strings move a marionette.) Actual hand size is as variable as every other aspect of the human body, and while we will not – for now – address the urban legends surrounding thumb size in men, I would offer up a few observations about overall hand size. There are some occupations for which large hands are a downright liability. It seems to me that superfine work like building circuits, cutting diamonds, defusing bombs, and… 

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Scandalous Overtures — Johannes Brahms & Clara Schumann: Did They Or Didn’t They?

There is a cadre of power-elite, formerly-married women in the entertainment biz today who have a reputation for dating significantly younger men, among them Jennifer Lopez, Susan Sarandon, Sharon Stone, Madonna, Demi Moore, and Cher. And who can blame them? My only problem with this is that none of them ever dated me when I was a lad! Oh, to have been the arm candy of a beautiful, successful, and experienced woman. It would have been, I think, a little slice of heaven. Of all the composers I can think of, the only one who has lived that heaven was Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). The familiar image of Johannes Brahms is that of a portly, late middle-aged man with a big beard and an omnipresent cigar; an image that exudes a bourgeois, professorial machismo. But for most of his life, Brahms did not physically look like the Brahms we are familiar with today. The paunch didn’t start to appear until his late thirties. And the beard?Brahms was what we might call a “late shaver” — his whiskers didn’t even start to grow in until his early forties, and he didn’t grow the beard until his mid-forties. Johannes Brahms at twenty looked… 

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Scandalous Overtures — Giuseppe Verdi: The Conspiracy to Get Him Back To Work

Early retirement; who doesn’t dream of it, or at least think about it now and then? But for the vast majority of us, early retirement is like winning the lottery: a fantasy never to be realized. Now, if you are one of the lucky few that genuinely like what you do for a living, retirement holds little attraction. I have a good friend, a fabulously successful investment manager in his mid-60’s, who could retire today. But, as he says, he would wake up tomorrow and simply start another business doing exactly the same thing he had been doing before he “retired.” For me, the issue isn’t so much retirement as having the liberty to do less: of not feeling constantly pressured to write and perform and worry, endlessly, about money. People who use their bodies for a living – professional athletes and dancers – do not have the option to do less. They know that time is not on their side and that only total physical commitment is possible. And woe to the athlete or dancer who goes on for too long: their bodies break down and their reputations are permanently sullied. On the flip-side of that coin are those… 

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Scandalous Overtures — Franz Schubert: One Too Many Nights Out

A bunch of years ago I got a call from a non-musician friend who had a question for me. His pastor had given a sermon in which he ascribed Beethoven’s death to syphilis, and never having heard this, my friend wanted to know if Beethoven had indeed died from that dreaded STD. “Heck no,” said I. (In truth, I almost certainly used more colorful language.) I remember telling my friend that Beethoven’s autopsy revealed that he had cirrhosis of the liver; perhaps I even remembered to add that he was also likely suffering from renal papillary necrosis, pancreatitis, and possibly even diabetes mellitus. Among the terrible diseases of the nineteenth century, two stick out for the length of time they took to kill their victims: tuberculosis (“consumption”) and syphilis. That, however, is where the resemblance between these two maladies ends. There was a certain tragic romance associated with tuberculosis in nineteenth century Europe. Dubbed the “White Plague,” TB was thought to imbue its victims with a heightened artistic sensibility. Reflecting on just this, the prototypical Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron, wrote, “I should like to die from consumption.” (He didn’t; he died of a septic infection at the age… 

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Scandalous Overtures — Jean-Baptiste Lully: The Gnarly Demise of a Nasty Man

Lists, lists, lists: top tens; the greatest this, the most insignificant that; the best dressed, the worst hair, whatever — we love ‘em all. And thanks to the internet – that great purveyor of useless, bite-sized bits of info — lists have become an omnipresent cultural fetish. Among the most interesting such lists — for me — are the “most hated person” lists, not because I, myself, am a hater but because of what such lists tell us about contemporary values and culture. “Most hated.”That’s a powerful combination of words, one loaded with NEGATIVITY AND HOSTILITY, MAN. Personally, my motto has always been (at least for the last few minutes) “don’t hate: masticate ’n refrigerate” (chew it over and chill out). Nevertheless, it behooves us to consider what someone actually has to do in order to be included on such a list. At the top of pretty much all “most hated” lists are those individuals whose deeds and actions — perpetrated across their lives — smack of irredeemable evil, “lifetime evil-doers” as Bush 43 might call them: leaders of rogue states like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Caligula, Attila the Hun, and Vlad the Impaler; mass murderers like Ted Bundy, John… 

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Scandalous Overtures — Carlo Gesualdo, Prince Of Venosa: Murderer At Large

Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza (1560-1613), was one of the richest men in Italy and among the most original composers of his time.He was also a very, very bad man.He murdered his older brother in order to inherit the family fortune and titles.He murdered his wife Maria and her lover the Duke of Andria when he learned of their affair.(These murders were particularly gruesome; the court report reads like something from Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Details so salacious are irresistible, so of course I will quote that report at length during my Scandalous Overtures expose!) It is likely that Gesualdo also murdered his infant son by Maria because he doubted the boy’s paternity. It is also likely that Gesualdo had his father-in-law killed (that would be Maria’s father) when he learned of his intention to seek revenge. For now, let us turn to Gesualdo’s very public murders of his wife and her lover.After the deed was done and after the bodies were sufficiently mutilated, he had them hung upside-down outside his palace in Naples for everyone to see.The murders and subsequent court inquest were THE Italian media events of 1590.Eager to cash in on the… 

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