Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Music History Monday: Franz Xaver Mozart and the Grandmother of All Shadows

Let us wish a happy birthday to three notable musicians, the third of whom will be the topic of today’s post. On July 26, 1785 – 236 years ago today – the composer, pianist, and teacher John Field was born in Dublin. His Nocturnes for piano powerfully influenced those of Frédéric Chopin. Field died far from home, in Moscow, on January 23, 1837, at the age of 51. We mark the birth on July 26, 1874 – 147 years ago today – of the conductor and double-bass player Serge Koussevitzky in the Russian city of Vishny Volotchok. He served as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949 and was a tireless champion of contemporary music. He founded the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Massachusetts in 1937 and created the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in 1942. He died at the age of 76 in New York City on June 4, 1951. Okay: here we go. We mark the birth on July 26, 1791 – 230 years ago today – of the composer, pianist, conductor and teacher Franz Xaver Mozart, in Vienna. He died in Karlsbad, Austria at the age of 53, on July 29, 1844. He also went […]

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Music History Monday: “V” for Victory!

On July 19, 1941 – 80 years ago today – the BBC World Service began using the first four notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 of 1808 as a “linking” device on its broadcasts into Nazi-occupied Europe.  Why the BBC chose to use music by a German-born composer, and what those four notes meant makes for quite a story. Background The European phase of World War Two began on September 1, 1939, when Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded its neighbor to the east, Poland.  The invasion had been made possible just 8 days before, when the Soviet Union entered into a so-called “non-aggression” pact with Nazi Germany.  It was an act that stunned the world: these two greatest enemies, these two most diametrically opposed political ideologies – fascism and communism – had made nice: Hitler and Stalin had cozied up, climbed into the sack, and done the thang with each other.  Here are two of the many contemporary political cartoons that satirized the pact: The treaty was called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named for the foreign ministers, respectively, of the Soviet Union and Germany who negotiated the thing: Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop. The “planned” expiration date of the pact […]

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Music History Monday: Johann Joachim Quantz and his Most Famous Student

We mark the death on July 12, 1773 – 248 years ago today – of the German composer, flutist, and teacher Johann Joachim, or “J. J.” Quantz, in Potsdam Germany, at the age of 76.  Honchos Who Can Play We contemplate the musical abilities of some national leaders. The Roman Emperor Nero (that would be Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who lived from December 37 to June 68, when he was assasinated at the age of 30 after a 14-year reign).  Nero famously played the lyre (and not the “fiddle”, which only came into existence some 1500 years after his death). Whether he actually “lyred” as Rome burned on the night of July 18 and 19, 64 we’ll never really know. What we do know is whatever other issues he had (and Nero had issues), artistic self-doubt was not among them. Anticipating his death, he paced up and down, muttering “Qualis artifex pereo” (“What an artist dies in me”).  Harry Truman (1884-1972), the 33rd President of these United States, was a competent pianist. Richard Nixon (1913-1994), the 37th President of the United States, was an even more accomplished pianist than Truman, and an equally accomplished violinist (he studied both instruments from […]

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Music History Monday: George Rochberg and the Great Dilemma

We mark the birth on July 5, 1918 – 103 years ago today – of the American composer George Rochberg (pronounced ROCK-berg). He died at the age of 86 on May 29, 2005. Rochberg was of that generation of composers who, having served in the military during World War Two, found himself a radically changed person and artist by the war’s end in 1945. Like other composers of his generation – Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and György Ligeti – to name but a few – Rochberg’s aesthetic and world view were altered forever. Like the composers named above, he sought a modernist musical language relevant to what appeared to be an entirely new world. We’ll talk about the nature of much post-war modernism in just a bit; suffice it for now that it is music of daunting compositional complexity and sadly, far more often than not, unremitting ugliness. But then personal tragedy forced Rochberg to re-examine the roots and premises of his musical modernism. In 1972, with the composition of his String Quartet No. 3, Rochberg, musically reborn, re-emerged as a composer of a different sort of music with an entirely new aesthetic behind it. George […]

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Music History Monday: Adolphe Sax

On June 28, 1846 – 175 years ago today – Adolphe Sax patented the saxophone family as a group of eight (not seven, as is often erroneously stated) instruments. Of these eight “saxophones”, four remain in common use today: the soprano and tenor saxophones, both pitched in B-flat, and the alto and baritone saxophones, both pitched in E-flat. The invention of the saxophone was a stunning achievement. Never before or since has a single individual created an entirely new family of instruments. That’s Not Funny! In the musical world there are all sorts of jokes (nasty jokes!) that are considered stereotypically appropriate for the sorts of people that play certain instruments. Most common are viola jokes. That’s not because there’s anything inherently funny about violas or the people who play them but because violists tend to be naturally supportive, genuinely nice people, people who will usually will not fight back when joshed but rather, will smile a melancholy smile, roll their eyes, and shake their heads. Question: what’s the difference between a viola and a coffin? Answer: with the coffin, the dead person is on the inside. No respect. But other instruments and their players have their own jokes as […]

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Music History Monday: The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

We mark the premiere performance on June 21, 1868 – 153 years ago today – of Richard Wagner’s music drama The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. The performance took place at the National Theater Munich, which today is the home of the Bavarian State Opera. Conducted by Franz Liszt’s student (and son-in-law) and Wagner’s protégé Hans von Bülow, the performance was sponsored and paid for by none-other-than the mad king himself, Ludwig II of Bavaria (1885-1886). Excepting Wagner’s second complete and first performed opera Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love” of 1836, a work that Wagner ultimately rejected) The Mastersingers of Nuremberg was Wagner’s one-and-only operatic comedy. Wagner and Verdi: A Brief (and Important!) Comparison For all their many and seemingly irreconcilable differences, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi had rather more in common than we might think. They were exact contemporaries, born 4 months and 19 days apart: Wagner on May 22, 1813 (he died on February 13, 1883) and Verdi on October 10, 1813 (he died on January 27, 1901). They were the leading nineteenth-century exponents of their respective operatic traditions: Verdi Italian opera and Wagner German. They were both considered ardent patriots by their countrymen, composers who, each in his own […]

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Music History Monday: Henry Mancini

We mark the death on June 14, 1994 – 27 years ago today – of the composer, songwriter, conductor, and arranger Enrico Nicola “Henry” Mancini in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of seventy. Known primarily for his film and television scores, Mancini received twenty Grammy Awards and four Oscars.  Today’s Music History Monday and Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes posts are conceived as a single large unit. Here’s how they will play out. Henry Mancini was the most influential American film composer of his generation. He was also the outstanding composer of what is now called the “modern Hollywood film score.” Today’s post will dwell on what constitutes the “modern Hollywood film score”, how it evolved, why it evolved, and why Mancini is considered its supreme representative. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will offer up Mancini’s biography along with the recommended discs, which feature his best-known works, including his Oscar-winning songs Moon River and Days of Wine and Roses, and his scores to Peter Gunn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Pink Panther, among many others.  My Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes posts for February 8 and 9 of this year, respectively, dealt with the life and music of […]

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Music History Monday: When Opera Singers Misbehave

On June 7, 1727 – 294 years ago today – a long-running feud between the sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni broke out into open warfare – a screaming, hair-pulling, dress-ripping physical altercation on stage, in London – during a performance of Giovanni Bonancini’s opera Astianatte (of 1725). After pulling the “ladies” apart and dragging them from the stage, not only was the remainder of the performance cancelled but the remainder of George Frederick Handel’s Royal Academy of Music opera season as well! (FYI: Sources are in disagreement as to whether this brouhaha took place on Tuesday, June 6 or Wednesday, June 7, 1727. Obviously, I’ve chosen to run with the latter date.) Here’s what happened. The Italian operatic soprano Francesca Cuzzoni was born in Parma on April 2, 1696, and died on June 19, 1778 in Bologna. In 1718, at the age of 22, she made her Venetian operatic debut: the equivalent today of making a La Scala or Metropolitan Opera debut.  By 1723 – the year she made her London debut – Cuzzoni was one of the most celebrated singers in all of Europe. Then as now, star singers ruled the operatic roost, and London’s greatest opera impresario […]

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Music History Monday: Haydn’s Death and His Final Road Trip

We mark the death, on May 31, 1809 – 212 years ago today – of the incomparable Joseph Haydn, at his home in Vienna at Kleine Steingasse 73 (today, the address is Haydngasse 19). At the time of his death, he was 77 years old and was, without any doubt, the most popular and beloved composer in the Western world. Franz Joseph Haydn was born on March 31, 1732 in the Austrian town of Rohrau. He was as self-made a person as any we’ll ever meet. A choirboy at St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna, he was booted out onto the mean streets of Vienna when his voice changed at the age of 16 and left entirely to his own devices. He subsisted in a Viennese garret, giving lessons and playing the violin in dance bands while he taught himself to compose. To indulge the cliché, the young dude attended the school of hard knocks and managed to graduate summa cum laude. He slowly climbed the Viennese musical ladder and in 1761 – at the age of 29 – took up a position with the Esterházy family, a fabulously wealthy family of Hungarian nobles. His position was that of Vice-Kapellmeister – […]

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Music History Monday: George Bridgetower, Louis van Beethoven, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and a Sonata for Violin!

We mark the premiere on May 24, 1803 – 218 years ago today – of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47. When published in 1805, it was dedicated to the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, and has been known as the “Kreutzer Sonata” ever since. However, it was originally dedicated to the famed violinist George Bridgetower, who, along with Beethoven, premiered the work 218 years ago today. How and why George Bridgetower originally received and then lost the dedication of the sonata makes for quite a story! General Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (1763-1844) was an extraordinary character, the only of Napoleon Bonaparte’s generals to achieve any post-Napoleonic success on his own: he reigned as King of Norway and Sweden from 1818-1844. (Not bad for the son of a tailor from the nowheresville city of Pau in southwestern France!)  In February of 1798, long before he became King of Sweden and Norway (where he was known as “Charles/Carl XIV John”), the young and Hollywood good-looking Bernadotte was appointed the French minister to the Habsburg Emperor in Vienna. He didn’t last long in the job; Napoleon himself referred to Bernadotte as being “somewhere between hotheaded and crazy”, but he […]

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