Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Steve Lawrence: Entertainer

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the birth on July 8, 1935, of the American Grammy and Emmy Award-winning pop singer, actor, and comedian Steve Lawrence.  Maestro Lawrence’s birth name was Sidney Liebowitz, which I used as a point of departure for an extended riff on American Jewish musicians/entertainers who changed their named in order to “blend in” to what was, during the first half of the twentieth century, the predominantly white, Protestant, Anglo-American culture. During the course of researching and writing yesterday’s blog, I watched a bunch of Steve Lawrence videos.  In some, he appeared solo.  In others, he appeared with his wife and performing partner, Eydie Gormé (1928-2013).  In still others, he appeared with his best pal, Sammy Davis Jr. I watched Steve Lawrence perform and be interviewed on his friend Johnny Carson’s Show (on which he appeared many times) and the Ed Sullivan Show (ditto).  In fact, I spent an entire afternoon watching Steve Lawrence videos.  It was an altogether shocking pleasure, one that evoked from me applause (is there anything more stupid, really, than applauding a YouTube video?), laughter, a few tears, and the most acute nostalgia: I hadn’t realized – or at least I hadn’t remembered – […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Frederic Rzewski, The People United Will Never Be Divided!

Last week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post dealt with the 1970s, the phenomenon that was disco, and the movie Saturday Night Fever of 1977.  Likewise, yesterday’s Music History Monday post also dealt with the 1970s: the invention of the Walkman in 1979.  As such, I’ve decided to stick with the 1970s in today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes as well, with music that – like disco – also reflects something of its time.  However, rather than focus on the frivolous escapism that was disco culture, today’s post will feature music that mirrors some of the most profound issues of its time. The 1970s I will be among the first to admit that attempts to generalize/characterize the events and spirit of a given decade – the 1950s; the 1960s; the 1970s; etc. – is a fool’s errand. So color me a fool. Like music history periodization (Renaissance; Baroque era, Classical era, Romantic era, and so forth), attempting to relate the events of a numerical decade as if they represent some sort of unified whole can be an exercise in random. I mean, honestly, can we really draw a historical line between the years 1969 and 1970? Of course not.  But discussing events that occurred during a given […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde – Part 2

We began our examination of Tristan und Isolde in last week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post.  Our prescribed performance – as featured above – will continue to supply our video examples as we move through Acts II and III.  As mentioned in last week’s post, our examination of Tristan und Isolde is focusing on Isolde, and three particular episodes – one from each of the three acts – that demonstrate her ongoing metamorphosis across the span of the drama: from viciously angry and depressed in Act I, to agitated and love struck in Act II, to transfigured in Act III. Act II Wagner’s stage instructions set the scene: A garden with tall trees in front of Isolde’s apartment with steps at one side.  A pleasant summer’s night. At the open door is placed a burning torch. Sounds of hunting. Brangäne, on the steps to the apartments, looks out after the hunting party as their sounds fade away into the distance. Isolde comes out of the apartment in wild agitation.”  Act II consists of three continuous scenes.  Scene one is a dialogue between Isolde and her maid, Brangäne.  Scene two is dominated by the conversation (which I’ve italicized because it’s some conversation!) […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Fluids of Choice and Drinking Songs

We pick up where we left off in yesterday’s Music History Monday. May 13th – yesterday’s date – has been designated by those fine people who designate such things as “World Cocktail Day” (as well as the first day of “American Craft Beer Week”).  I used the occasions to begin a discussion about the drinking habits of some of our favorite composers.  As I pointed out yesterday and would point out again today, I am in no way promoting the consumption of alcohol, especially in excess.  Rather, as is my usual schtick, I am seeking to render human composers who have been pedestalized and, as such, de-humanized. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Franz Schubert always liked to hoist a glass (or two, or three).  His favorite wine was a rosé called “Schilcher.” It was (and still is) produced in the Austrian region of Western Styria from Blauer Wildbacher grapes. Sadly, “self-medication” due to illness put his drinking well over the top. It was sometime in the late summer of 1822 that the 25-year-old Schubert contracted syphilis, almost certainly from a male prostitute during a pleasure-jaunt with his friend and periodic roommate, the homosexual and sometime female impersonator Franz von Schober (1796-1882). The first symptoms of the […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington

My Music History Monday post back on June 15, 2020, marked the death on June 15, 1996, of the the “First Lady of Song,” the “Queen of Jazz,” “Lady Ella”: of Ella Jane Fitzgerald, at the age of 79.   Music History Monday for April 29, 2024 (just last week!), marked the birth of “The Duke”: Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, on April 29, 1899. Ella and Duke.  They knew each other, loved each other, and performed and recorded music together for half a century.  They were, the cliché, be damned, a musical marriage made in heaven.  And thus, in my self-proclaimed “Year of Popular American Song,” this album of songs associated with Duke Ellington – which, BTW, is one of the greatest recordings ever made (no hyperbole that; just fact) – just screams to be examined and prescribed.   And so we shall. Ella and Duke Up Close and Personal I would introduce you all to Leonard Geoffrey Feather (1914-1994). He was a London-born jazz pianist, composer, and producer, who nevertheless is best known today for his books and essays about jazz and his jazz criticism (he was the chief jazz critic for the Los Angeles Times from the 1960s until his […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Ludwig van Beethoven, Diabelli Variations for piano

The Project In early 1819, the Vienna-based music publisher Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) had what was a great idea for a charity project. He sent a brief waltz of his own composition to 50 composers living in Austria and invited each of them to compose a single variation on the waltz.  Diabelli’s plan was to publish the set as an anthology entitled “Patriotic Artist’s Club” (“Vaterländischer Künstlerverein”) and distribute the profits from its sale to widows and children left orphaned by the Napoleonic Wars. Among the composers to receive the theme and Diabelli’s invitation to participate in his project was the 48-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven.  Typical to form, Beethoven was deeply irked at being included in such a “group grope,” on top of which he dismissed Diabelli’s theme as a “cobbler’s patch”: as being entirely beneath his musical dignity. But then, for reasons discussed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, Beethoven had a change of heart, and decided to accept Diabelli’s offer after all.  But Beethoven was unwilling to join the mob of composers who had consented to contribute but a single variation each. Instead, he made it clear that his contribution would be a complete set of variations, the number […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Arturo Toscanini

Today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post takes a different tack than usual.  Rather than prescribing/recommending a particular CD (or DVD, or book), today’s post will feature a series of links to various video performances of Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony, interviews with people who knew him, and audio recordings of a very few of his legendary temper tantrums! Instant Fame The story of Toscanini’s rise to almost instant fame is the stuff of legend. At the age of eighteen, he was living at home and contributing to his family’s finances by working as a freelance cellist.  He looked younger than his years, so he grew a mustache in an attempt to look older. During the 1885-’86 opera season, Toscanini played cello at the Teatro Regio in Parma (where, for our information, he had begun performing as a cellist cello at the tender age of thirteen). Over his time in the pit, Toscanini had memorized all of his parts, which allowed him to watch the action on stage without ever having to look at the music on his stand. He later remembered: “I never had to turn a page.” Toscanini’s prodigious memory annoyed the conductor of the Teatro Regio – Nicola […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Wolfang Mozart: Idomeneo

Mozart’s Operas Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) composed 21 operas (three of them left incomplete) across the span of his all-too-brief life, from the modest Apollo et Hyacinthus (Apollo and Hyacinth, composed in 1767 when he was 11 years old) to La Clemenza di Tito (The Mercy of Titus, completed in August of 1791, some 3½ months before Mozart’s death). Mozart’s operas fall into four main categories: opera seria (“serious opera,” also referred to as dramma per musica), works set in Italian; dramma giocoso (“drama with jokes”), works set in Italian; opera buffa (“comic opera,” also referred to as commedia in musica, commedia per musica, dramma bernesco, dramma comico, and divertimento giocoso), works set in Italian; and singspiel (opera with spoken dialogue), works set in German. The seven complete, multi-act operas Mozart composed in the 11 years between 1780 and his death in 1791 must be considered as being the greatest, single most significantset of operas ever composed by any individual composer in such a short period of time: Idomeneo (1780); The Abduction from the Seraglio (1781); The Marriage of Figaro (1786); Don Giovanni (1787); Cosi fan tutte (1789); The Magic Flute (1791), and The Mercy of Titus (1791).   Idomeneo, King of Crete: Characters, Voice Types, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Johannes Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the premiere of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Nearly five years in the writing, the concerto received its premiere on January 22, 1859, in the German city of Hanover. Brahms himself was the soloist, supported by the Hanover Court Orchestra and conducted by Brahms’ great friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim. As we observed in yesterday’s post, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 is bound up entirely with his reaction to his friend and mentor Robert Schumann’s suicide attempt; his feelings towards Robert and his wife, the pianist Clara Wieck Schumann; the years he spent with Clara and her children as both a surrogate husband and father during Robert’s institutionalization; Robert’s death; and Brahms’ decision that he could not marry Clara after Robert’s death. No wonder Brahms was consumed by the piece: it was a virtual diary of his feelings, experiences, and musical growth from the time he met the Schumanns in 1853 to the time he left Clara and returned to his hometown of Hamburg in 1856. As such, the concerto took on a terribly outsized degree of importance to Brahms. The consequences of this emotional investment in the concerto were, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: In Praise of Song

I’ve always believed there are basically two kinds of music: the music you grow up listening to as a child and as an adolescent and everything else. An overly simple statement? No, I don’t believe it is. It’s been my experience that nothing impresses itself more powerfully (or permanently) on the relatively blank slates that are our young brains than the smells we smell and the music we hear as kids and adolescents.   As olfactory phenomena are beyond the scope of my knowledge, we’ll stick here with music. The music we listen to growing up impresses itself on us like no other music heard at any other time of our lives, or so I believe.  Our childhood innocence, our sexual coming-of-age, the magic that ensues when almost every experience is new, all of this (and more) is wrapped up in and forever identified with the music of our childhoods and adolescence.  That music becomes our music; we own it.  Good or bad, we love it like a we love our delinquent children, just because they’re ours.  (I know that when I was an infant, my father used to sing Waltzing Mathilde and When You Wish Upon a Star to […]

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