Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Paderewski: Piano Concerto in A minor, OP. 17 (1888)

Relatively late pianistic bloomer though he may have been, when Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) performed, audiences went wild. It’s no exaggeration to say that when Paderewski made his international debut in Vienna in 1887 at the age of 27 he became a legend almost overnight. Not since Franz Liszt (1811-1886) had concert-goers seen and heard such a complete, made-for-the-stage package: over-the-top pianistic flamboyance; tremendous stage charisma; striking, movie-star good looks; a head of hair that reminded his admirers of a golden halo; and a composer able to wow audiences with his own music as well as the “classics”. Among the concert-going public, the name “Paderewski” soon became synonymous for supreme pianism.  (Really, how many concert pianists are referenced in popular songs? In 1916, Irving Berlin [Music History Monday, May 11, 2020 and Dr. Bob Prescribes, May 12, 2020] wrote a song entitled I love a Piano which includes these words: “And with the pedal,  I love to meddle, When Paderewski comes this way. I’m so delighted,  when I’m invited, To hear that long-haired genius play!”) The uncritical adoration Paderewski received from the concert-going public was not shared by his fellow professionals. Certainly, some were envious of his success, but in […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mahler, Symphony No. 3

Mahler composed the great bulk of his Symphony No. 3 during the summers of 1895 and 1896. (Mahler was a “summer break” composer, who had to work around his conducting schedule.) It is a huge, sprawling, 6-movement work, roughly 100 to 105 minutes in performance. (The recommended performance, conducted by Claudio Abbado, runs 102 minutes and 42 seconds: that’s 1 hour, 42 minutes, and 42 seconds.) Not only is the third Mahler’s longest work, it is also the longest symphony in the standard repertoire.  (For our information, Mahler originally intended the symphony to be longer: he planned to include a seventh movement, an orchestral setting of the song “The Heavenly Life.” In the end he chose not to include the song here in the Third Symphony; instead it became the fourth and final movement of his Symphony No. 4.) Among the many things Mahler told Natalie Bauer-Lechner about his Third Symphony-in-progress was its programmatic plan, a plan he later withdrew and wished to god he’d never mentioned at all. Nevertheless, it is the key to understanding his expressive intentions and the dramatic progression of movements as the symphony unfolds, and we press it joyfully to our collective bosoms in gratitude. […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Ella Fitzgerald

Here’s what happened: On November 21, 1934, the 17 year-old Ella Jane Fitzgerald participated in one of the first “Amateur Nights” held at the Apollo Theater, the famed music hall located at 253 West 125th Street in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood. Fitzgerald and a friend named Charles Gulliver had created a dance routine that they performed in local clubs, and it was as a dancer that she intended to perform at the Apollo.  Young Ella was preceded on stage by a local dance duo called the Edwards Sisters. The sisters must have been good, because the excessively shy and most definitely gawky Ella Fitzgerald was intimidated down to her cockles (don’t ask) and decided on the spot not to dance but instead, to sing a couple of songs. From such serendipitous events do the greatest of things often develop.  Fitzgerald’s decision to sing instead of dance didn’t come completely out of the blue; she’s been singing on the streets of Harlem for roughly a year for the loose coin or two. She sang in the style of her hero, Connee Boswell (1907-1976), later saying that: “My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Flamenco

“Flamenco” is a genre of Spanish song and dance that originated in the southern Spanish region of Andalucía. It is an utterly remarkable, physically and expressively thrilling hybrid/synthesis/melding of native Spanish, North African, Arab, and especially gypsy influences. In my humble (but well-informed) opinion, Flamenco is – along with jazz – the most viscerally exciting music to be found on this planet. I would go so far as to suggest that if Andalucía were a media giant equal to the U.S. of A., we’d all be singing and dancing to Flamenco and not that north American-born hybrid called rock ‘n’ roll. (For our information: on November 16, 2010, UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – declared Flamenco to be one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”) Damn straight. For reasons geographic and cultural, Flamenco could only have evolved in Spain. A Country Apart With the Pyrenees (topping out at 11,168 feet high) to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the West and the Mediterranean Sea to the south and east, Spain (and its Iberian sibling Portugal) stands physically apart from the remainder of Western Europe. In terms of the abundance, variety, and […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Robert Helps

I will be forgiven, please, the overtly autobiographical nature of todays post. In a number of ways I was something of a late-bloomer as a musician. Sure, I started piano at a fairly young age and played the “classics” that come with piano lessons; yes, my grandmothers – one a professional pianist and the other a professional actress – exposed me to a wide range of piano music and orchestral music when I was growing up; and indeed, my father’s record collection was an unending delight. But what passed for my “music education” as a child was a slapdash affair, and in fact, I knew very little. When I got into jazz at the age of 14 (or so) I abandoned practicing my dead Germans entirely. So when I went away to college and suddenly encountered kids who went to high school at Juilliard Prep; or had just returned from participating in the music camps/festivals at Aspen, Tanglewood, Graz, and Spoleto; and met classmates like Stefan Kozinski (1953-2014), who already had a thriving career as a professional organist and piano soloist, and Eric Moe (born 1954), who had memorized all of Beethoven’s music and could give you a proper opus […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven Piano Concerto WoO 4

What a birthday rip-off.  Until roughly March 15 of this year, I had always assumed that the two worst birthday rip-offs were being born on December 25 (“we’re giving you a combined birthday/holiday gift this year . . .”) and February 29 (“we’ll celebrate again in four years!”). But no, there is a bigger rip, and that’s having what should have been a yearlong celebration of concerts and colloquia and lectures and special events in honor of Beethoven’s 250th cut down to three months because of you-freaking-know-what.  Dang. By the time we all start consistently crawling back to our concert halls – I’m thinking (hoping) winter-spring 2021, the Beethoven birthday year – which presumably runs from December 16, 2019 to December 16, 2020, will have come and gone. HERE’S WHAT I PROPOSE, and pardon me for yelling. I propose we take a Mulligan, do the whole thing over, and extend the festivities by a full year. The Beethoven Symphonies, Concerti, String Quartets, Piano Sonatas, etc. and etc. that were scheduled for performances, only to be cancelled due to COVID-19, should simply be rescheduled. The activities and events surrounding the B-man’s B-day should, again, all be rescheduled. It’s only fair, and […]

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The Perfect Martini

Fluids. I am a slave to my fluids, my fluids in the morning and the evening. Judge me not.  In the morning, it’s a big mug of very strong Peet’s Arabian Mocha Java or Mocha Sanani, prepared in a French press. Coffee, like disco, is . . . life. In the early evening (after 6pm) it is the fermented juice of the grape or variously flavored spirits. I’m always game for decent wine, a glass of champagne, a Manhattan, or a bit of fine Scotch whiskey. But my evening fluid of choice lo these last 35+ years is a martini.  It started around 1983. My former in-laws were moving out of the house they’d lived in for 30 years in Santa Rosa, California, and were giving away scads of stuff. By the time my ex and I got there, there were only two objects left to be had: an old freezer in their garage and a cocktail shaker they had received as a wedding gift back in the early 1950s. Despite the fact that my ex and I lived in a tiny apartment in Berkeley, she was already shaping the word “freez . .” when I blurted out “SHAKER!” She […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Franz Liszt: ‘Transcendental Etudes’

I spent the first few months of this year composing a set of six etudes for piano (posted on Patreon on April 2 and 9). As per my usual MO, I spent a couple of days prior to starting work listening to and/or reading through a batch of etudes by the usual suspects – Chopin, Liszt (I was once given a small, rectangular pad of paper labeled “Chopin Liszt” – “shopping list”), Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and Ligeti – in order to get my head and my ears in the right place. Again, typical of my compositional process, once I started writing I put such listening aside. At that point, it could only get in my way and remind me of how utterly inadequate I am when compared to the heavyweights named above. “Etude” means “study”. A musical “etude” is a technical study, a work that isolates and emphasizes some particular aspect (or aspects) of technique. Etudes have and will continue to be composed for every instrument for pedagogic purposes. With all due respect to Beethoven’s student and friend (and the teacher of Liszt) Carl Czerny (1791-1857), who wrote virtually thousands of piano etudes (his last published work, Opus 861, is titled […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Songs of Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Beilin, 1888-1989) was the greatest songwriter ever to live and work in North America. His songs – for which he wrote both the words and music – capture the spirit and chronicle the events of the first half of twentieth century America in a manner far beyond that of any other single songwriter. Among Berlin’s great contemporaries there were lyricists who wrote cleverer, more sophisticated lyrics and composers who pushed the formal structure and harmonic complexity of the popular song more than Berlin. But Berlin’s songs united the personal and the topical in words and melodies that had an almost universal appeal. Writes Robert Kimball: “The ability to capture and represent the human experience in a simple, direct way is what great songwriting is all about. And that is where Irving Berlin had no peer.” (BTW, this doesn’t mean that Berlin couldn’t create a great rhyme; rather, when he does so, it is entirely in the service of the song and never to show us how very clever he is. For example, the lyric to Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee, written in 1932 during the darkest days of the Depression, in which he rhymes […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mozart Piano Sonatas

My Dr. Bob Prescribes post for October 23, 2018, was titled “Fine Dining”. The post featured Ronald Brautigan’s revelatory performances of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas recorded on modern copies of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century pianos built by Paul McNulty (born in Houston in 1953). (These early pianos are often referred to as “fortepianos”, which simply means “loud-soft.” By definition, a fortepiano is an early piano that employs thin, harpsichord-like strings; leather-covered – as opposed to felt – hammers; a wooden harp; and lacks any metal bracing. The term fortepiano, then, designates pianos built from the invention of the instrument by Bartolomeo Cristofori sometime before the year 1700 to approximately 1825, when larger metal harped and thicker stringed pianos – proto-modern pianos, as they were – began to become the norm.) The title of that post – “Fine Dining” – referred to the crow I was obligated to eat as a result of Brautigam’s recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. I wrote: “For lo these many years, I have always looked down on the fortepiano: those early pianos distinguished by their wood-framed (as opposed to metal-framed) harps, built between 1700 and 1825. In my ignorance, I have long considered wooden-harped pianos […]

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