Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: David Diamond

David Leo Diamond (1915-2005) composed eleven symphonies. When he died at 89 of congestive heart failure on June 13, 2005 in the Town of Brighten – located on the southeastern border of his native city of Rochester, New York – he left no family or heirs. A prolific composer, his greatest output are his songs, his ten string quartets and, most importantly, his eleven symphonies. Diamond was wont to refer to his symphonies as his “children”, and if that be so, then he did indeed leave family behind: lots of family. And unlike many of our families, filled (as they usually are) with all sorts of problematic individuals, there is not a single delinquent among Diamond’s “children”. Together they constitute one of the great symphonic legacies in the repertoire, taken as widely as we please.   So why is the name David Diamond so vague – even unrecognizable – to so many lovers of concert music?  A number of explanations have been put forth. Some say the blame lays with Diamond himself and his famously testy personality. In an interview conducted by the New York Times in 1990, the then 75-year-old Diamond admitted that: “I had a reputation as a… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell was an American iconoclast: a maverick composer who created his own most original musical language in response to a particular, uniquely “American” experience. A list of such radical American composers begins with Cowell’s personal hero and role model, Charles Ives and continues with Cowell’s own students John Cage and Lou Harrison; such a list would include such compositional renegades as Roy Harris, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and Morton Subotnik. The list goes on; I shall not. With the exception of Charlie Ives, what all of these composers have in common is that they are either natives of California (Cowell, Cage, Partch, Riley, Subotnik) or spent a formative period of their musical lives in California (Harrison, Harris, and Oliveros).  Henry Cowell (1897-1965) Cowell was born on March 11, 1897 in Menlo Park, California: as the bird flies about 25 miles south of San Francisco. His Irish immigrant father and Iowa-born mother were both writers, and authentic proto-hippies in their attitudes towards life and childrearing.  Cowell began playing the violin at age 5, began composing at 10, and bought himself his first piano when he was 13. According to the composer and Cowell biographer Bruce Saylor, writing in… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Schubert, String Quartet No. 14

I am taking a one-week hiatus from my celebration of mid-century American orchestral composers because of something I wrote yesterday in Music History Monday for May 6, 2019. That post was about the inception of the song (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by Keith Richards.  Here’s the “something” I wrote in yesterday’s post: “Satisfaction went on to become one of the most important rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time; in 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine went so far as to rate it number two on its list of ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.’”  Permit me to say that again: in 2004 (and then again in 2010), Rolling Stone Magazine rated Satisfaction number two on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. The second greatest song of all time? Really? How very . . . absurd. I know Rolling Stone Magazine focuses on popular culture, but still, number two on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”? Given the actual songs on the list, it should have been entitled “The 500 Greatest Songs of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Era.” But no, the good people at Rolling Stonedecided to shoot for the moon and… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Samuel Barber – Symphony No. 1

Let’s get this out of the way right away: Samuel Barber is among the greatest composers ever born in the United States, a composer of operas, symphonies, concerti, numerous other orchestral works and piles of chamber music, piano music, choral works and songs. Almost all of his music has been published and recorded. He is the recipient of an American Prix de Rome, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two Pulitzer Prizes. The Pulitzer Prize-winning chief music critic for the New York Times, Donal Henahen, stated regarding Barber that: “probably no other American composer has ever enjoyed such early, such persistent and such long-lasting acclaim.” Then “why-oh-why” I cry – tearing at my hair and renting my tee-shirt – why-oh-why has he been reduced today to a one-hit wonder, the composer of Adagio for Strings, which is in fact an arrangement of the slow movement of his String Quartet Op. 11 of 1936 (and a piece of music so ubiquitous that it might rightly be called the “Pachelbel’s Canon” of the twentieth century). Yes; Barber’s Adagio for Strings is a beautiful, masterfully crafted work. Yes, yes: when Arturo Toscanini became director of the NBC Orchestra in 1938, the first American work he… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Peter Mennin

Peter Mennin was a symphonist: of his 26 works, 9 were symphonies.  (Let’s get this “the curse of the 9-thing” out of the way here and now. Mennin completed his Ninth Symphony in 1981, at the age of 58. In 1982, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died on June 17, 1983, one month after his 60th birthday. What is it about completing a numbered Ninth Symphony that spells doom for so many composers? Beethoven, Ludwig Spohr, Antonin Dvořák, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Alexander Glazunov, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Kurt Atterburg, Elie Siegmeister, Alfred Schnittke, Roger Sessions, Egon Wellesz, Malcolm Arnold, and David Maslanka would all like to have known. Perhaps they would have stopped at eight. Bad for posterity but good for them.) According to Arnold Schoenberg, who was himself something of a numbers freak and suffered from “Triskaidekaphobia”, the fear of the number 13: “It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes William Schumann

In last week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, I asserted that the composers Roy Harris (1898-1979) and his student William Schuman (1910-1992): “are generally considered to be the two greatest American composers of symphonies to have yet graced our planet.” I have received no evidence in the intervening week that that statement isn’t as true today as it was on April 9. Accordingly, I will (and not for the first time) repeat myself even as I flesh that statement out just a bit: “Roy Harris (1898-1979), who composed 13 numbered symphonies between 1933 and 1974 and his student William Schuman (1910-1992), who composed 10 numbered symphonies between 1935 and 1976, are generally considered to be the two greatest American composers of symphonies to have yet graced our planet.” Does anyone want to argue with that? Good. William Schumann William Howard Schuman, known to everyone as “Bill”, was born on the upper West Side of Manhattan Island, New York, New York (a.k.a. “the Big Apple”, “the city so big they had to name it twice”) on August 4, 1910. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish household; by his own account, a happy, regular kid.  He taught himself to play the violin… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin died penniless and all but forgotten on April 1, 1917 in an asylum in New York City’s gigantic Manhattan State Hospital, his brain reduced to black-currant jelly by syphilis. He left behind him a “terminally unproduced opera” entitled Treemonisha and a body of piano rags that virtually defined the genre and are as important and representative a set of national piano works as are Chopin’s Mazurkas and Polonaises, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (which were indeed originally piano works, albeit for piano duet).  With his death began the big chill for Joplin’s wonderful music. In the half century-plus that followed, a tiny coterie of loyal disciples kept his name and music alive, including the pianist Max Morath (born 1926) and the scholars Rudi Blesh (1899-1985), Harriet Grossman Janis (1898-1963), and the pianist and musicologist Vera Brodsky Lawrence (1909-1996). (Rudi Blesh’s and Harriet Janis’ book, They All Played Ragtime, first published in 1950, was the first serious scholarly study of the subject; my revised fourth edition was published in 1971.) Enter the American musicologist, pianist, and conductor Joshua Rifkin, who was born on April 22, 1944 in New York City. A crazy-talented dude, he received degrees from… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Walter Piston

There was a time not long ago when you could not turn over a musical rock without finding a copy of Walter Piston’s book Harmony underneath. First published in 1941, Piston’s Harmony was ubiquitous; my first copy was a yellow-jacketed third edition, published in 1969. (It is now in its fifth edition; the fourth and fifth editions have been “revised and expanded” by Mark Devoto, a music professor emeritus of Tufts University). When I was in high school, I did my level best to teach myself harmony out of that third edition of Piston’s Harmony. At the time, I thought I had sort of succeeded, though looking back I realize that I failed miserably. In kindness to myself, though, my failure was not entirely my fault; it was just as much the fault of the nonsensical (if traditional) assumption that the study “harmony” (the simultaneous sounding of different pitches) was somehow separable from melody, counterpoint, phrase structure, and form, which as I’ve come to realize in my maturity it is most certainly NOT. The composer and music theorist Walter Piston (1894-1976) was a professor of music at Harvard University from 1926 until his retirement in 1960. Despite some dabbling with… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 2

I invoke Ridley Scott’s 1979 Sci-fi masterwork, the movie Alien. It was the first movie in that storied franchise, with the killer tag line, “in space no one can hear you scream” (40 years later, I still love that line!). I set final scene. Warrant Officer Ellen Louise Ripley (played by the indomitable Sigourney Weaver) is the last surviving member of the crew of the commercial space tug Nostromo. In the final scene we find Ripley on the Nostromo’s shuttle craft; she has just destroyed the Nostromo itself and – so she thinks – with it, the Alien on board (a.k.a. the Xenomorph or Internecivus raptus [meaning “murderous thief”], a endoparasitoid extraterrestrial lifeform, for those of you like me who must know). But the alien, of course, is not dead; it has managed to wedge itself into a small crevise on the shuttle. Having stripped down to her skivvies Ripley discovers the Alien, and in a manner most satisfying manages to finally destroy it. As she lowers herself (and her cat Jonesy, a.k.a. “Zunar-J-5/9 Doric-4-7”) into her suspended animation/stasis pod for her trip back to earth and the closing credits roll, we hear a three minute-long musical passage: gorgeous; mysterious; and as… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Erroll Garner

Erroll Garner performs Col Porter’s I Get a Kick Out of You, circa 1960: Erroll Louis Garner (1923-1977) was a 5’2” miracle: a virtuoso jazz pianist whose performances had the nuanced textures of big band charts; whose sheer, overpowering and contagious joy could not help but overwhelm listeners; who created a style of playing that was and remains his and his alone. The official Erroll Garner website contains the following, rather breathless though entirely accurate paragraph: “Garner released music on over 40 labels, received multiple Grammy nominations, and recorded one of the greatest selling jazz albums of all time, Concert By The Sea. His published catalog contains nearly 200 compositions including Misty, which was named #15 on ASCAP’s list of the top songs of the 20th century. He scored for ballet, film, television, and orchestra. One of the most televised Jazz artists of his era, Garner appeared on TV shows all over the world: Ed Sullivan, Dick Cavett, Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, and many others [including the Jackie Gleason show, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, the Garry Moore show, London Palladium show, the Andy Williams show, the Joey Bishop show, the Flip Wilson show, the Pearl Bailey show, the Mike… 

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