Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Podcast

Music History Monday: I Left My Heart in Doylestown, Pennsylvania

On June 29, 1941 – 79 years ago today – the Polish pianist, composer, philanthropist, vintner, and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski died in New York City. He was 80 years old. Before moving on to the story of that truly remarkable man’s life, we would grudgingly allot 230 words to a story so wonderfully ridiculous that I’d wager not a one of us could have made it up. On this day in 2000, Marshall Bruce Mathers III (born 1972) – better known by his stage name of “Eminem” – was sued for $10 million for slander and defamation of character by his mother Debbie Mathers-Nelson (born 1955). She had taken offense from a line in Eminem’s breakthrough single “My Name Is” (from his 1999 debut album The Slim Shady LP). The offending line? “My mom smokes more dope than I do”.  For his part, the rapper maintained that his lyric about his mother was totally true: that she did smoke more dope than he did. By her conduct during the suit, Ms. Mathers-Nelson provided all the evidence necessary to support her son’s assertion. According to her attorney Fred Gibson “she was the most high-maintenance client I’ve had in my legal career.” […]

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Music History Monday: The Damrosch Dynasty: Where Would We Be Without Them?

We mark the birth on June 22, 1859 – 161 years ago today – of the German-born American conductor and educator Frank Heino Damrosch.   Permit me, please, a personal reminiscence before moving on to establish why Frank Damrosch, his father Leopold, his brother Walter and his sister Clara were nothing less than the first family of American music from the 1870s through the 1920s.   It was one of those days I will never forget.  We all have them – a wedding; a graduation; the birth of a child; heaven help us, the death of someone dear – days during which events occur that by their sheer magnitude become indelibly printed in our memories.  Many thousands of us had just such a day on Sunday, October 19, 1991.  It was a hot, martini-dry, cloudless and very windy day in the San Francisco Bay Area; fire weather, as it is colloquially known.  We were at the end of our so-called “dry season”; it hadn’t rained since March.  We were also in the midst of a multi-year drought, and dead trees, dried out eucalyptus bark (eucalyptus trees molt/shed like Siberian Huskies in July); dried leaves and brush and pine needles had […]

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Music History Monday: Ella Fitzgerald: Singer and Musician

We mark the death on June 15, 1996 – 24 years ago today – of the singer and musician – the First Lady of Song, the Queen of Jazz, Lady Ella – Ella Jane Fitzgerald at the age of 78.  We contemplate singers. I would begin by making a couple of distinctions, distinctions that might trouble any number singers. My apologies, then, in advance (though, frankly, if I was worried about upsetting singers I would never have become a composer in the first place). Distinction one: in the world of music, there is often a divide – a big divide – between musicians and singers. A musician is someone who can not only sing and/or play a musical instrument and/or compose, but someone who knows something of music. Whether a concert violinist, a rock guitarist, an operatic soprano, or a jazz saxophonist, someone who “knows something of music” is a musician who is familiar with the repertoire and the history of her discipline, and has attained a working technical knowledge of the vocabulary of music: rhythm, melody, harmony, etc.  Many singers grow up as musicians, who studied voice and/or a musical instrument as children. But not infrequently, singers are laypeople […]

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Music History Monday: The One Who Doesn’t Want Me Can Lick My [expletive deleted]

We note the death on June 8, 1839 – 181 years ago today – of the German soprano Aloysia Weber Lange. Don’t know who she is? You will soon enough. Our story begins in March of 1777, in the city of Salzburg, in the spacious 8-room apartment at No. 8 Markartplatz that the Mozart family called home. It was there and then that it was decided that Salzburg was no place for someone as talented as the 21 year-old Wolfgang, and that a job commensurate with his great talents could only be found in that greatest of cities: Paris. On March 14, 1777, Mozart’s father Leopold petitioned the Prince of Salzburg – Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo (1732-1812) – for permission to take Wolfgang “on tour” to Paris. Such leaves-of-absence had never been a problem in the past, as young Mozart’s European tours had brought tremendous prestige to his hometown of Salzburg. But it was a problem now; the archbishop had had enough of his Kapellmeister (Leopold) gallivanting around Europe with his snotty little son. The archbishop turned down the petition and threatened Leopold with dismissal. Wolfgang, likewise threatened, quit his job as concertmaster of the court orchestra before he could be […]

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Music History Monday: Elvis Presley’s Birth House

It was on June 1, 1971 – 49 years ago today – that the two-room shotgun house in Tupelo Mississippi in which Elvis Presley (1935-1977) was born was opened to the public as a tourist attraction. The house, located at 306 Old Satillo Drive (today 306 Elvis Presley Drive) was built by Presley’s father Vernon, his grandfather Jesse, and his uncle Vester in 1934 for $180. It was designated a State Historical Site by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History on January 8, 1978, on what would have been Elvis’ 43rd birthday. The house is but one small step removed from the fabled log cabin birth houses of such American icons as Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses Grant (and yes, Millard Fillmore). In total, Presley’s birth house can’t occupy much more than 600 square feet.  Behind the front door is the house’s one-and-only bedroom, in which Elvis was born. Behind the bedroom is the kitchen, and that’s it: a rear door leads to the back yard where the outhouse once stood. It was a difficult birth for Gladys Presley (1912-1958). Elvis was a twin. He was born some 35 minutes after his identical twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, […]

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Music History Monday: If a Building Could Speak, this One Would Sing: The Vienna State Opera House

We mark the opening on May 25, 1869 – 151 years ago today – of the Vienna Court Opera (or Wiener Hofoper), which has been known since 1921 as the Vienna State Opera (or Wiener Staatsoper). The opening was a gala event: a performance of Wolfgang Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni attended by, among many others, Emperor Franz Josef I and his bride, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (know to her intimates as Sisi).  Last week’s Music History Monday post noted the deaths of both the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz and the Bohemian-born composer Gustav Mahler. In the course of that post, we observed that between 1897 and 1907 Mahler was Director and Principal Conductor of what was, and arguably still is, the most prestigious opera house in the world: the Vienna Court/State Opera.  (Along with Mahler, the Vienna Court/State Opera has had some pretty impressive Directors over the years, including Felix Weingartner [who served for 4 years], Richard Strauss [5 years], Bruno Walter [2 years], Karl Böhm [4 years], Herbert von Karajan [8 years], Lorin Maazel [2 years], Claudio Abbado [5 years], and Seiji Ozawa [8 years].  If a building can be said to tell the story of modern Vienna, […]

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Music History Monday: Mahler’s Last Words

We mark the passing, on May 18, 1911 – 109 years ago today – of the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler. Mahler, who was born on July 7, 1860 in the Bohemian village of Kalischt, died all-too-young in Vienna, two months shy of his 51st birthday. But before moving on to the painful circumstances of Mahler’s death and his “last words”, we would mark the painful circumstances of the death of his exact contemporary, the Spanish-born composer and pianist Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz Y Pascual, or simply Isaac Albéniz. Albéniz was born on May 20, 1860 – 39 days before Gustav Mahler – in Camprodon, a town in northern Catalonia not far from the French Border. A spectacularly gifted child, he made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of four and began his concert career at the age of nine. As a composer, he embraced the music of his native Spain in 1883 at the age of 23, when he began composing avowedly “Spanish-styled” works. His great masterwork is Iberia a set of twelve virtuosic piano works composed between 1905 and 1909, completed just three months before his death. (For those interested in an examination of […]

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Music History Monday: The Melody Lingers On: Irving Berlin

We mark the birth on May 11, 1888 – 132 years ago today – of the Russian-born American songwriter Irving Berlin (1888-1989). Berlin wrote the words and music to over 1500 songs across a 60-plus year career. He is an American institution, whose life was, according to his obituary in the New York Times, “a classic rags-to-riches story that he never forgot could have happened only in America.” Having emigrated from his native Russian Empire at the age of five, Berlin grew up dirt poor in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Nevertheless, he was a legend by the age of 23. All told, he wrote the scores for 20 Broadway musicals and 15 Hollywood movie musicals. His songs were nominated for eight Academy Awards. (His one Oscar win came in 1943, for the song White Christmas. Bing Crosby’s recording has sold upwards of 100 million copies, and remains the best-selling single of all time).  A word. I have been writing these Music History Monday posts since Monday, September 5, 2016. Over the years, these posts have run between 1500 and 2000 words; a few shorter and a very few longer. (I figure if you can’t tell a good story in 2000 […]

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Music History Monday: Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Invention of the Piano

We mark the birth on May 4, 1655 – 365 years ago today – of the inventor, musical instrument builder, and engineer extraordinaire Bartolomeo Cristofori. Though born in the northern Italian city of Padua in the Republic of Venice, Cristofori spent the bulk of his professional life in Florence, where he designed and then built the first piano sometime before the year 1700. No less than the inventions of Archimedes, Johannes Gutenberg, Karl Benz, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and the Wright Brothers, Cristofori’s “piano” changed the world. Inventors are a breed apart. Whether they’re tinkering in a garage or working in a high-end laboratory, an inventor requires imagination, originality, innate engineering skills, deep powers of analysis, and perseverance. And more perseverance. And still more perseverance. (Did I mention perseverance?) But just as much, someone who would be an inventor cannot believe in the status quo, that things are okay as they are. Inventors don’t perceive the world as it is, but rather, as it could be.  In terms of his imagination, originality, innate engineering skills, deep powers of analysis, perseverance, and dissatisfaction with his world “as it was”, Bartolomeo Cristofori was a quintessential inventor.  Pardon me the colloquialism, but […]

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Music History Monday: This is What Heroism Looks Like

We mark the birth – on April 27, 1920, 100 years ago today – of the conductor Guido Cantelli, in Novara, Italy, some 30 miles west of Milan.  Perhaps the most overused words in our top-ten culture of superlatives are “genius” and “hero”. We’ll contemplate the word “genius” (and the folly of its current usage) at another time. For now, I’d ask that we consider the word “hero”. Heaven knows, given the state of our world just now, we need heroes more than ever: people we can look up to and be inspired by; people whose accomplishments and decency remind us all of how good we can be. But I also think that, perhaps, we require heroes too much and as a result we elevate many individuals of questionable heroic worth to that lofty status just, well, because we can. The word itself derives from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs), which means, literally “protector” or “defender”. Both “protector” and “defender” imply someone who would stand in harm’s way for some greater good. And that is indeed the operable definition of a hero or heroine: “someone who, in the face of danger, combats adversity; who performs great deeds or selfless acts for […]

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