Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Charles-Valentin Alkan

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post acknowledged the anniversary of the birth of Charles-Valentin Alkan on November 30, 1813. A contemporary (and friend) of both Chopin and Liszt, Alkan was – in his lifetime – considered their equal as a pianist and by those (few) who knew his mature music, their near-equal as a composer. Like Chopin, Alkan’s compositional output consists almost entirely of solo piano music. (Alkan did indeed complete a “piano concerto” and a “symphony”, though both are “scored” for solo piano!) However, unlike Chopin and Liszt, Alkan’s music fell into obscurity in the mid-nineteenth century – during Alkan’s lifetime – not to be resurrected until the 1960s. Let’s hear it for resurrections: it is wonderful music! Alkan died in Paris on March 29, 1888, by which time he was already considered an enigma. In 1877, eleven years before Alkan’s death, Antoine Marmontel – the head of the piano department at the Paris Conservatoire – wrote of the then 64-year-old Alkan: “If there were a strange, eccentric artistic personality to study it must surely be that of Ch-V Alkan, in whom interest is quickened by a screen of mystery and enigma which surrounds him.” Alkan’s “eccentricities” came to dominate […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Manuel de Falla, El Amor Brujo

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post offered up a heart-felt happy birthday to the Spanish composer and conductor Manuel María de los Dolores Falla y Matheu (“y Matheu”, because Spaniards customarily add their mother’s maiden surname to their own), who was born on November 23, 1876 in the Andalucían port city of Cadiz. Falla (when only the surname is used the de is omitted) died “in exile” on November 15, 1946 in Alta Gracia, Argentina, eight days short of his 70th birthday. (Falla had fled to Argentina in 1939 after Francisco Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War.) Andalucía – the southernmost region of Spain – is the birthplace of flamenco, a genre of Spanish song and dance that we celebrated together in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post on June 9, 2020. I said it then and I’ll say it again now: 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 […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mahler Symphony No. 6

Mahler’s first four symphonies, composed between 1888 and 1901, are “program symphonies”: multi-movement works that tell an extra-musical, literary story. In order to help his audience follow those “stories”, Mahler (1860-1911) prepared written “programs” for each of his first four symphonies. For example, in reference to the titles he gave the movements of his Symphony No. 3 (“Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In”; “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me”; “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me”; “What Man Tells Me”; “What the Angels Tell Me”; “What Love Tells Me”) Mahler wrote the conductor Josef Krug-Waldsee: “These titles can certainly be instructive. . . [They represent] an attempt to give non-musicians some point of reference or signpost to suggest the ideas, or rather the mood, of the individual movements and their relationship to each other and to the whole. They also give a hint of how I conceived the increasingly articulate expression, which proceeds from the muffled, static and merely rudimentary existence (of the forces of nature) [in the first movement], to the tender image of the human heart, which reaches towards God [in the final movement].” Nevertheless, in that same letter to Krug-Waldsee, written during the summer of […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Rachmaninoff Piano Concerti

Yesterday’s Music History Monday began with the story of the tenor Michele Molese’s call out of the critic Harold Schonberg from the stage of the New York City Opera in 1974 after Schonberg had made a snarky critical remark about Molese’s singing of a high “C”. It’s appropriate then, or so I think, to begin today’s post with another Schonberg appraisal, this one of Sergei Rachmaninoff the pianist. No snark here; Schonberg – who was the senior music critic of The New York Times for 20 years – had the opportunity to hear Rachmaninoff in concert when he (Schonberg) was a young man. Writing many years later, Schonberg was still in awe. “There was nobody like him. Rachmaninoff would come on stage stiff and severe, never smiling, with his hair cropped as close as a convict’s. With terrible dignity he would seat himself and wait for the audience to quiet. He played with a minimum of physical exertion, brooding over the keys. From his fingers came an indescribable tone: warm, projecting into every corner of the hall, capable of infinite modulation. When Rachmaninoff played, everything was perfectly planned, perfectly proportioned. Melodies were outlined with radiant authority; inner voices were brought […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Dmitri Shostakovich, Complete String Quartets

Question: is it true that only by working directly with a composer can an ensemble deliver a “definitive” performance? Answer: no. Composer supervision guarantees nothing. Beethoven, for one, oversaw the premieres of every one of his nine symphonies (though the deaf Beethoven’s “oversight” of his Ninth Symphony in 1824 was much more a hindrance than a help). His supervision notwithstanding, we can be assured that he never heard a single one of his symphonies played with the sort of precision and expressive sympathy we routinely hear today. Generally but accurately speaking, modern professional orchestral players – like modern athletes – are simply better than their early nineteenth century counterparts, and they have the advantage of having played Beethoven’s symphonies since they were children. Consequently, we would hazard to say that in his lifetime, Beethoven never heard anything close to a “definitive performance” of any one of his symphonies However, when it comes to chamber music, particularly string quartets, the presence of a composer will consistently make a difference – often a huge difference – in a performance. A chamber group has many fewer working parts than an orchestra, allowing specific issues to be addressed directly and more easily. And a […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Steve Reich

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post, entitled “Musical Riots and Assorted Mayhem”, included a report of what happened when Steve Reich’s Four Organs for four electric organs and maracas (composed in 1970) was performed at Carnegie Hall on January 19, 1973. As we noted yesterday, the boos and catcalls began from almost the beginning of the performance. Of the performance, the New York Times critic Harold Schonberg observed: “The audience reacted as though red-hot needles were being inserted under their fingernails. There were yells for the music to stop, mixed with applause to hasten the end of the piece.” According to Michael Tilson Thomas, who was one of the organ players in the performance (as was Steve Reich): “One woman walked down the aisle and repeatedly banged her head on the front of the stage, wailing ‘Stop, stop, I confess!’” Tilson-Thomas is an undependable witness; the woman, in fact, merely banged her shoe on the front of the stage. Still. I’ll be the first to admit that Reich’s early work (like Four Organs) is best enjoyed and understood while the listener is, perhaps, under the influence of some consciousness raising/dulling substance. However, his later works – like Eight Lines and New […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes George Gershwin Songs

Two weeks ago, my Dr. Bob Prescribes post featured the guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, despite the fact that it would have been entirely appropriate – given the Music History Monday post the day before on Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice – to feature a post on that opera. Given yesterday’s Music History Monday post on Franz Schubert’s song Gretchen am Spinnrade, today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes might appropriately feature a recording of Schubert’s songs or, perhaps, some relatively obscure work by Schubert. However, like two weeks ago, I have chosen to take a different path in today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes because I personally require (at present) a rather different sort of music, given the state of things “out there”. Color me escapist, but there you have it. And since I long ago realized that there is nothing particularly special about what I think, I naturally assume that we all presently require regular doses of joyful escapism to get us through these times. For some people it comes from the out-of-doors; for some it is food and drink; for many it is non-prescription pharmaceuticals (I judge not!); for myself, it is music (and yes, food and drink). Early in the pandemic it was the […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5

We are compelled, for a moment, to discuss the food of the British Isles. We ask: why should such a sophisticated and culturally diverse nation – one just a few miles away from France – be so gastronomically bereft by comparison? How many of us would honestly prefer an English kidney pudding to a French cassoulet, a cock-a-leekie stew to a fine bouillabaisse, boiled beef to a medium rare Chateaubriand? The names alone of much British fare are enough to spoil an appetite: there’s likky pie: there’s syllabub; and then there’s everybody’s favorite dessert, spotted dick. Be still our colons. Why bring this up? Because like English food, it is oh-too-easy to make fun of English music. Afterall, England produced not a single important composer between Henry Purcell – who died in 1695 – and Edward Elgar, who was born in 1857. What’s that all about? Let us observe upfront that it had nothing to do with England’s air, water, or food. In fact, England was not always bereft of great composers. The late 1500s and early 1600s – the latter part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I – saw a brilliant group of composers working in and around […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mozart: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings

This post is a sort of hybrid of what we might call a combination of “Music History Tuesday” (if such a thing actually existed) and Dr. Bob Prescribes. Here we go! We mark the completion – on September 29, 1789 – 231 years ago today – of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581. It remains one of Mozart’s (admittedly many) chamber music masterworks, and among the handful of greatest early works for the clarinet, all of which – not coincidentally – were composed by Mozart himself. We often take for granted that the instruments of the Western orchestra have existed in their present form for many hundreds of years, and that they all came into existence at more or less the same time.  In fact, like any ongoing technology, instrumental design is in a constant state of “tweak.” Granted, some instruments – like the violin, viola, and violoncello (aka the “cello”) – achieved a certain evolutionary equilibrium (I’m loath to say “perfection”) by the early eighteenth century. (For our reference, Antonio Stradivari lived from 1644-1737.) But the vast majority of orchestral instruments did not achieve their present form and design until the mid- to late-nineteenth century; in some […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Michael Haydn Symphonies

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the 283rd birthday of the composer, organist, and violinist Michael Haydn, a musician of outstanding talent whose reputation has, sadly and unfairly, been obscured by that of his older brother, Joseph Haydn. Michael Haydn was five years younger than Joseph, having been born in the Austrian village of Rohrau on September 14, 1737. He died in Salzburg on August 10, 1806, predeceasing his older brother by some three years.  At the age of eight, Michael followed his brother to Vienna to become – as had Joseph – a student and choirboy at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Of the two, Michael was considered the superior student and singer. Like Joseph, Michael harbored the ambition to be a composer, an ambition he was able to freely indulge when he took up the position – in 1743, at the age 26 – of concertmaster in Salzburg, a job he held for the remaining 43 years of his life. Among the people responsible for actually hiring Michael Haydn (which occurred the previous year, in 1762) was Salzburg’s new court Kapellmeister, one Leopold Mozart, who in 1762 was preparing to take his preternaturally talented children – Wolfgang, 6 and Nannerl, […]

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