Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 10

A Nice Hike In early September of 1940, Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma (1879-1964) – now married to the Jewish author Franz Werfel (1890-1945) – walked from France to Spain in order to escape the Nazi occupation of Europe. (Time out. We read constantly about those intrepid individuals who, in order to escape the Nazis, “walked across the Pyrenees from occupied France to neutral Spain.” The image so conjured is one of daring and desperate people braving an alpine climb and descent – after all, the Pyrenees rise to a height of 11,168 feet – all the while avoiding border patrols, searchlights, and barking dogs. In fact, the crossing from the French town of Cerbère to the Spanish town of Portbou involves walking a roughly two-mile-long path up and over a hill along the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a stroll, for heaven’s sake, one that hardly constitutes a hike!) Alma had been told to bring only what she could carry, but she showed up in Marseilles (the point of departure for escapees) with twelve trunks worth of luggage. The man who arranged her escape from France was the American journalist and first order hero Varian Fry (1907-1967). (For our information: working for […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Robert Schumann: Kreisleriana

Romanticism The nineteenth century saw the emergence of a new sort of European literature.  The cutting-edge writers of the time were consumed by a number of particular themes: the glorification of extreme emotion, particularly love; nostalgia for a distant, mystical, legendary past; and a passionate enthusiasm for nature wild and free, unspoiled by humanity and its bourgeois values! Soon enough, visual artists and composers embraced these themes as well.  For many such nineteenth century writers, poets, visual artists, and composers, over-the-top expressive content, nostalgia for the past, personal confession and the depiction of nature wild and free were the vehicles for achieving what their art – at its essence – was all about: spontaneous and magnified emotional expression. The adjective “Romantic” came to be used to describe such emotionally charged and self-expressive art. And no nineteenth century, “Romantic era” composer believed more fervently in music as personal, emotional, and spiritual confessional than did Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Robert Schumann: Early Life He was born in the central German town of Zwickau on June 8, 1810, the fifth and last child of August Schumann and Joanna Christiana Schumann (née Schnabel).    We are told that if we do what we love, we’ll […]

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Music History Monday: Robert and Clara, Sittin’ in a Tree…

We mark the marriage on September 12, 1840 – 182 years ago today – of the pianist and composer Clara Wieck (1819-1896) to the composer and pianist Robert Schumann (1810-1856).  The couple were married the day before Clara’s 21st birthday (September 13, 1840), for reasons that will be explained in detail in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post. Not for the Timid I ask: what are the most difficult things any person can attempt?  To summit K2 and return alive?  To win Olympic gold?  To overcome addiction?  To row solo across the Pacific?  All tough things to accomplish, no doubt.   What are the scariest things anyone can do?   Swim with piranhas? Eat at a barbecue restaurant next to a cat hospital?  Urinate on Mike Tyson?  Scary stuff, dangerous stuff, that. But to my mind, nothing is more soul-searingly difficult-slash terrifying than one, raising children and two, staying in a first marriage.  (Okay; I’ve probably told you more about my life than I intended to, but there it is.) Children are to people what water is to a house: children will find and reveal every flaw in your “structure” – your personality – while simultaneously sucking dry your money, patience, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a prodigiously gifted pianist and composer.  All in all, he composed 5½ piano concerti.  (That was not a typo; an explanation will follow in a bit.) The first two of his piano concerti were composed while Prokofiev was still a student at the Petrograd/Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which he attended from 1904 until 1914; from the ages of 13 to 23.  On May 11, 1914, Prokofiev performed his Piano Concerto No. 1 (composed in 1912) at his Conservatory graduation ceremony. The ceremony was nothing less than a Prokofiev lovefest, as he graduated with high honors and was awarded the prestigious Anton Rubinstein Prize in piano, a prize that included a brand new Shreder grand piano. (“Shreder” was a Russian-made piano that was “based” on American Steinway pianos, a not unfamiliar example of Russian appropriation of American technology.) Prokofiev chose to play his Piano Concerto No. 1 at his graduation ceremony rather than his Piano Concerto No. 2 (of 1913) because the premiere of that second piano concerto – 8 months prior, on September 5, 1913 – had created a scandal.  Prokofiev, ordinarily as sensitive to such things as a lump of basalt, decided that the Second: “would […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Charlie Parker

The Way He Lived and Played In the parlance of the sports world, Charlie Parker “left it all on the field.” The unstoppable, overwhelming intensity with which he played the saxophone was mirrored in the way he lived his life as well. When he died in the New York City apartment of Baroness Panonnica de Koenigswarter at the Hotel Apartments Stanhope (at Fifth Avenue and 81st Street) on March 12, 1955, he was just 34 years old. Based on Parker’s appearance at the time of his death, the attending physician, Dr. Robert Freymann, estimated his age as being between 55 and 60; the coroner who conducted his autopsy put an age of 53 on his death certificate. Parker’s immediate cause of death was unclear, because after a lifetime (albeit a short lifetime) of living at the very edge, his body had simply given out. His stomach wall was perforated by a peptic ulcer; he was suffering from lobar pneumonia; his cirrhotic liver had stopped functioning; and he suffered a massive heart attack, pretty much all at once. It has been said that Charlie Parker wasn’t so much as dead as he was used up. According to the founder of Dial […]

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Music History Monday: Bird

We mark the birth on August 29, 1920 – 102 years ago today – of the alto saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker. The trumpet player (and one-time member of Charlie Parker’s quintet) Miles Davis (1926-1991) famously said: “You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.” Miles Davis never minced words, and he does not mince them here. Along with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker was (and remains) the most innovative, influential, and technically brilliant jazz musician to have yet lived. However, before moving on to Parker, we have one other piece of date-related musical business. I know, I know: I am most aware that having broached the subject of Charlie Parker, it behooves us – out of awe and respect – to get on with his story. But along with Parker’s birth, one other event occurred on this date that demands – demands! – our attention. So please, allow me this brief excursion. On this Day in Music History Stupid On August 29, 1977 – 45 years ago today – three people were arrested in Memphis after trying to steal Elvis Presley’s body. (The New York Post headline pictured above indicates that four people were […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music

Indulge me, please, the musings of a 68-year-old baby boomer. Aging sucks. Like you needed me to tell you, right? I’m not just talking about our knees, shoulders, fingers, hairlines and waistlines; sagging, spotted skin; sore hips, fatty livers, and forgetfulness; and the terrible knowledge that our physical discomfort notwithstanding, our time on this earth is dwindling. Neither am I just talking about the psychic damage of getting older, in particular loss: of seeing friends, family, and spouses pass, or heaven forbid, children and grandchildren predecease us. There are times when I do wonder how we “elderly” (legally defined as someone 65 years and older) manage to simply cope with accumulated grief. Now, we tell ourselves – rightly, I think – that in exchange for our losses and increasingly irksome bodies and memories, our life experience gifts us with wisdom. We come to realize that nothing is simple; that nothing is black and white; that good and evil are relative concepts; that nothing is forever and all we can really count on is change. Unfortunately, it is my experience that this “wisdom” often verges into pessimism because with wisdom – with knowledge and experience – comes a certain and unavoidable […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Wilhelm Friedemann Bach

Weimar On July 14, 1708, the newly appointed court organist Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and his wife Maria Barbara Bach (1684-1720) arrived in the Thuringian (central German) city of Weimar from Bach’s previous post in the Thuringian city of Mühlhausen.  The young couple moved into an apartment in a house owned by another employee of the court, Adam Immanuel Weldig, who was master of the pages and a falsettist (a non-surgical male soprano) in the chorus of the court chapel.  (Coincidentally, this same Adam Weldig was an alum of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig, where Bach would be the master of music for the last 27 years of his life, from 1723 to 1750). Whatever else its amenities, Weldig’s house had location in spades.  It was located at number 5 Markt, on Weimar’s Markplatz (market square), which had been the city’s most important public space since around 1300.  From there, it was just a five-minute walk to the Ducal palace (the Wilhelmsburg), where both Bach and Weldig worked.  It was at the Weldig house that Bach’s first child, Catharina Dorothea, was born on December 29, 1708, and where his second child – Wilhelm Friedemann – was born on November […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Thomas Hampson

Back on June 21, in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post entitled “The Joys of Bassi”, I asserted that, in my experience, baritones, bass-baritones, and bass singers – like the people that play their instrumental equivalents, the string bass and low brass – are the salts of the earth of the vocal world. I observed that, in my experience: “They show up early and stay late; they help set up chairs before a rehearsal and stack them up afterwards. They don’t cut to the front of the line (remind me to tell you my Thomas Hampson story; what a wonderful guy he is!) or exercise ‘artistic prerogative.’ Their collegiality, sense of humor, and general lack of bad attitude will, as my experience has played out over and over again, keep a rehearsal on an even keel.” I would observe with some pique that no one took me up on what are actually my Thomas Hampson stories. Well, if you’re not going to ask, I’ll just going to have to tell you. Story one. Sometime around 1992/1993, Hampson (born 1955) came to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) to do a master class. Here’s how a musical master class works. A […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes – Lost and Found: Puccini at the Organ!

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post celebrated the premiere (on July 18, 2003) of a newly discovered piano work by Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Composed in late February/early March of 1917, Les Soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon (“the evenings lighted by the glow of the coals”) was, in fact, Debussy’s final piano work; he died of colorectal cancer a year later, on March 25, 1918. (Yesterday’s post also discussed the initial Dead Sea Scroll discovery, in November 1946, just because. Because it was the grandmother of all manuscript discoveries! Because any other manuscript discovery made during the twentieth century shrinks to near insignificance by comparison and because, for me, the discovery of those scrolls will always boggle my bean!) For our information, Debussy’s Les Soirs illumines. . . is not the only significant musical manuscript discovered in recent memory. For example. Where’s That Cello Concerto Been Haydn? (apologies) For nearly 200 years, the musical community knew that Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) had composed his first cello concerto around the year 1765 for his great friend, the cellist Joseph Weigl. We “knew” this because Haydn himself kept meticulous records of the music he composed. Unfortunately, that’s all anyone knew about the concerto, because […]

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