Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The String Quartets of Beethoven

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post addressed two anniversaries: the 337th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach on March 21, 1685, and the 196th anniversary of the premiere of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130, on March 21, 1826.  That quartet, like so very much of Beethoven’s late music, demonstrates explicitly the influence of Bach’s music on Beethoven’s own in its sixth (and final) movement fugue. That sixth movement fugue is the key to Beethoven’s conception of the piece, as the preceding five movements of the quartet are related not so much to each other as they are to the culminating fugue.    Sadly, Beethoven’s late-in-life infatuation (obsession would not be too strong a word) with both fugues and the High Baroque/Sebastian Bach-inspired aesthetic they represented, was not shared with most members of his contemporary musical community. For all his cantankerous individuality, Ludwig (aka Louis/Luigi) van Beethoven (1770-1827) was still part of a musical community, and it was a community that had long before rejected the Baroque era musical style that had preceded it. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) – one of the intellectual pillars of the Enlightenment – wrote apropos of fugues and the High […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Georg Philipp Telemann: Concerti per molte stromenti 

In his lifetime, the composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was considered the single greatest composer living and working in the German-speaking world. (Whereas his contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach [1685-1750], was perceived as being a composer of third-rate importance, if that.) By the late-nineteenth century, Telemann’s music had come to be considered by many “authorities” – when it was considered at all – to be the work of a fifth-rate talent, hardly better than a charlatan. By the mid-twentieth century, his work had been reappraised once again, and a more balanced and frankly more fair evaluation had been made, one we can live with today. A few quotes will establish nicely these “changing views” of Telemann’s music. In the eighteenth century, Telemann’s music was universally admired, as the following quotes attest. The famed German composer, singer, lexicographer, and music theorist Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) wrote this bit of doggerel in 1740: “A Lully is renowned;Corelli one may praise;But Telemann alonehas above mere fame been raised.” In 1754, the German writer and editor Friedrich Wilhelm Zachariae (1726-1777) opined: “Yet who is this ancient, who with flowering pen, full of holy fire, the wond’ring temple charms? Telemann, none but thou, celestial music’s sire.” The […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Modest Mussorgsky: Complete Songs

You Know It When You Hear It For 35 years – from 1984 until 2019 – I was part of a composers’ collective called “Composers, Inc.” As originally construed, we were six San Francisco Bay Area composers that banded together to produce concerts of new American music, concert that would – obviously – include our own, under-performed and under-appreciated works as well. Over the years, we staged hundreds of world and West Coast premieres and contributed mightily, or so we all continue to believe, to the American new music scene. Self-congratulations can be unseemly but, in this case, they are deserved. Fairly early in the organization’s life, Composers, Inc. instituted a composition contest, which came to be known as the “Suzanne and Lee Ettelson Composition Competition.” Composers from across the United States were invited to submit chamber works to Composers, Inc. An administrator logged the entries and removed any names and identifying marks from the scores and recordings. Those scores and recordings (usually between 300 and 400) were then divided into six groups/batches. Each of the six composers that made up the “Artistic Board” of Composers, Inc. (the photo above) then listened to two batches of music. (This way, every […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Wolfgang Mozart, Masses

In his heart-of-hearts, Wolfgang Mozart was a believer. Like so many other aspects of and lessons in his life, Wolfgang Mozart got his earliest exposure to religious piety from his father, Leopold (1719-1787). Having said that, we’d observe that Leopold’s own piety towards the Roman Catholic church was rather late in coming. As a young man, he was, in Maynard Solomon’s words: “Constitutionally incapable of simple obedience to his superiors, and his deep resentment of authority frequently erupted in imprudent words or actions.” Those superiors and authorities to which Solomon refers are the Church authorities who employed the young Leopold Mozart. It wasn’t just a case of disliking his bosses; Leopold’s letters of the time reveal a degree of general disdain and even outright hostility towards Catholic priests, Jesuits, monks, and canons that bordered on the heretical. But like so many professional musicians of his day, Leopold Mozart had no choice but to make his career working for the Church. In Leopold’s case it was the Archbishopric of Salzburg, and his professional and financial survival depended upon his getting along with those clerics that were his bosses and colleagues. So Leopold mastered his heretical tendencies and innate disobedience and became, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Franz Schubert, Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, D. 485

Schubert and the First Viennese School Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was born, lived, and died in the Austrian capital of Vienna. Of all the great masters of “Viennese Classicism” – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert – Schubert was the only native-born Viennese. (These composers are often referred to collectively as the “First Viennese School.” The term “Viennese School” was invented in 1834 by the Austrian musicologist Raphael Georg Kiesewetter, who applied it to Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Mozart only. In time, Beethoven and then Schubert were admitted to the “school” as well. The label “first” was added when the term “Second Viennese School” was coined in reference to the early twentieth century compositional triumvirate of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern.) Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. For us, today, these long dead Euro-persons are among the ruling deities of western concert music. But they weren’t just “deities” for Schubert; they were, for all intents and purposes, his contemporaries. At the time of Schubert’s birth at Nussdorfer Strasse 54, Mozart had been dead for a bit more than five years, having died at Rauhensteingasse 8, about a mile-and-a-half from Schubert’s birthplace. At the time of Schubert’s birth, Joseph Haydn was working on […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Lennie Tristano

Let’s get this out of the way up front, because the pretext for today’s post on Lennie Tristano was yesterday’s Music History Monday which, for the large part, was about sightless musicians. Writes Tristano biographer Eunmi Shim (Lennie Tristano: His Life in Music; The University of Michigan Press, 2007): “Born with weak sight, Tristano’s vision grew worse and by the time he was nine or ten years old he became completely blind. According to Bob Blackburn [writing in the Toronto Telegram, July 22, 1964], it was ‘the result of glaucoma probably stemming from his mother being stricken in pregnancy by the post-World War I flu epidemic.’ Judy Tristano, Lennie Tristano’s first wife, recalled that Tristano’s parents tried unsuccessfully to cure his blindness: ‘they had tried everything to cure his glaucoma. Legitimate doctors, quacks, going to church and everybody praying en masse, praying for his sight. But of course, nothing worked. They couldn’t cure glaucoma or treat it.’” As an adult, when the subject of his eyesight came up, Tristano’s standard response was, “I’m blind as a motherf***er.” Brief Biography Leonard Joseph Tristano was born in Chicago on March 19, 1919, and died in New York City on November 18, 1978. […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Trombone

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post featured the trumpet, trombone, and flugelhorn virtuoso Mic Gillette (1951-2016). In fact, Gillette could play virtually all modern brass instruments, and though he was primarily known as a trumpet player, he was an outstanding trombonist as well. (Gillette was known to switch instantly and effortlessly, back-and-forth, between the trumpet and trombone.  This might not sound like a big deal to most of us, but for brass players it was – literally! – breath taking.  In terms of the nature of the embouchure required, the size and shape of the mouth pieces, and playing technique, the trumpet and trombone are two very different instruments.)  (BTW: for those intrepid trombone aficionados out there, I’d refer you to my Instrumental Outliers post for March 25, 2021, which focused on the magnificent, kidney-rattling contrabass and subcontrabass trombones.)  Back, please, to Mick Gillette and his “bipolar/bi-instrumental” personality. The people who play the trumpet and the trombone are usually as different from each other as the instruments they play.  In an orchestra, the flutes, first violins, and trumpets are considered the “glamor” instruments because they are on top and as such, we can always hear them.  Likewise, the fine people who […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Beatles

The Beatles made their first studio recordings – with George Martin at the helm as their producer – on September 4, 1962, at London’s Abbey Road studios. Out of the six songs they rehearsed and recorded, Martin chose two for their first 45-rpm “single”: an original, Love Me Do, and How Do You Do It, by Mitch Murray, which Martin intended to put on side “A” of the single. In those days, British record producers chose the material for their bands, and George Martin was convinced that How Do You Do It was going to be a hit. As for the other song on the single, writes the Beatles biographer Bob Spitz: “Love Me Do was a concession to the band, who practically begged Martin to consider their own material.” (At this point in time, George Martin and the Parlophone label he managed considered the Beatles to be performers, and certainly not songwriters. Martin later claimed that at this early date, he hadn’t heard: “Any evidence of what was to come in the way of songwriting.”) The Beatles collectively hated Mitch Murray’s How Do You Do It, and in the end, to his great credit, Martin relented. That first single […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Aaron Copland, Symphony No. 3

Yesterday’s Music History Monday postmarked the 80th anniversary of the completion of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 on December 27, 1941. The utterly cinematic first movement of the symphony depicts a magnificent and lyric “landscape” gutted by a brutal invasion theme that grows from nothing to a vicious, overpowering, overwhelming musical malignancy. Given current events at the time Shostakovich composed that movement – the German invasion of the Soviet Union – it is natural to assume that the “invasion theme” (as it became known) is a depiction of the encroaching Nazi horde. However, in private, Shostakovich told those he trusted that the symphony – and the theme with it – had been conceived before the German invasion, which began on June 22, 1941: “The Seventh Symphony had been planned before the war and consequently it simply cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler’s attack. The ‘invasion theme’ has nothing to do with the attack. I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme. Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism; any form is repugnant. Nowadays people like to recall the prewar period as an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Frédéric Chopin: Nocturnes

Network television has traditionally served up certain types of programming at certain times of the day.  Non-stop cartoons for kids?  When I was growing up, that what Saturday mornings were all about.  Soap operas?  Traditionally broadcast on weekday afternoons before 3 pm, presumably for housewives who had finished their chores but before the kids came home from school.  Evening news programs? Broadcast daily between 5 pm and 7pm, for adults who’ve just come home from work. Let us dwell, in particular, on two more such network television designations: prime time, and late-night talk shows. Prime time refers to generally adult programming broadcast – depending upon your time zone – between either 8pm and 11pm or 7pm and 10pm.   Late night talk shows refer specifically to variety/interview shows broadcast between 11pm and 1am. Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) would not have understood the concept of Saturday morning cartoons any more than he’d know how to operate a remote control.  Be he would absolutely have understood the concepts of prime time and late-night entertainment because there were media equivalents in his day.  In Mozart’s day, a work designated as being a “serenade” or a “divertimento” was intended to be performed in “prime time”: […]

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