Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Podcast

Music History Monday: The Prodigal Son Returns

On September 21, 1962 – 58 years ago today – the composer Igor Stravinsky returned to Russia for the first time in 48 years: he had been gone since 1914. Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882 in the tony summer resort town of Oranienbaum (today known as Lomonosov) on the Gulf of Finland, about 25 miles from St. Petersburg. His father Fyodor Ignatievich Stravinsky (1843-1902) was a well-known opera singer – a bass (oh, how the Russians love their bass singers!) – with the Kyiv Opera and Mariinsky Theater there in Peter. The Stravinsky family was of Russian-Polish heritage, descended, we are told by biographer Steven Walsh: “from a long line of Polish grandees, senators and landowners.” Stravinsky’s mother Anna Kirillovna Stravinskaya (born Kholodovskaya, 1854-1939) was from Kiev, and came from a family hardly less distinguished than her husband’s: landowners from the governing class of 19th century Russia. She numbered among her ancestors distinguished politicians, military officers, noblemen and noblewomen.  Igor Stravinsky grew up in St. Petersburg with his three brothers (two older, one younger), his mother and father, and the servants (as many as five or six), in a large, eight-room, second-story flat at No. 66 […]

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Music History Monday: The “Other” Haydn

We mark the birth on September 14, 1737 – 283 years ago today – of the composer, organist, and violinist Johann Michael Haydn, in the western Austrian town of Rohrau. (Rohrau lies about 20 miles west of today’s capital of Slovakia – Bratislava – a city called Pressburg in Haydn’s day.) Forgive me a classic/stupid question-and-answer: Question: “what’s that guy doing in the corner?” Answer: “he’s Haydn”. Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.  You’ll notice that in answering that question, we’ll naturally assume that the “Haydn” in the corner is Franz Joseph Haydn, as if there are no other Haydns out there whose existence we might need to account for. Did any of us, even for a moment, stop to consider whether that “Haydn” could have been Michael Haydn? And there it is, in that most convenient of nutshells, yet another example of life’s inherent unfairness: when one sibling, no matter how talented, is overshadowed by an even more talented brother or sister.  There are so many examples! Continue Reading, only on Patreon! Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

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Music History Monday: François-André Danican Philidor

We mark the birth on September 7, 1726 – 294 years ago today – of the composer and chess master (properly, the “unofficial” world chess champion!) François-André Danican Philidor.  In my Dr. Bob Prescribes post for Tuesday, September 1 (all of last week), we observed that the composer and conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli died all-too young of a heart attack (while conducting a performance of Aida in Berlin), on April 20, 2001, at the age of 54. We further observed that he died two days before he was to receive a Laurea in Archeology – a bachelor’s degree in archeology – from the Università La Sapienza in Rome. Finally, we observed that among Sinopoli’s publications is a book entitled Masterpieces of Greek Ceramics from the Sinopoli Collection. Ah: “the Sinopoli Collection.” So, either he was himself a collector or he grew up with a family collection of Greek ceramics. Was he, then, just a hobbyist, a passionate collector, or something more? We would observe that hobbyists do not generally suffer the rigors of attaining a bachelor’s degree at the age of 54 just because they like to collect stuff. No: Giuseppe Sinopoli would appear to be that fairly rare, world-class professional […]

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Music History Monday: I Want, I Need, I Must Have: Rock Stars and Their Riders

According to “This Day in Music.com”, on August 31, 2006 – 14 years ago today – the Times of London ran an article on the sometimes outright whacko-crazy demands made by rock stars when on tour. Today we’ll live vicariously through a few of these rockers and see what sort of extravagance we too could command if we were among their number. But first, let us mark three worthy birthdays and one death. On August 31, 1879 – 141 years ago today – the composer, pianist, and muse Alma Maria Schindler was born in Vienna; she died in New York City on December 11, 1964. Had Ms. Schindler been born 100 years later, in 1976 rather that 1886, she would almost certainly be a professional composer today with a career of very much of her own. But alas and alack, the time and place of her birth forced her to find self-realization through the many men in her life, three of whom she actually married: the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911); the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969); and the author Franz Werfel (1890-1945). That this extraordinarily talented and literate woman should be best remembered for the men she slept […]

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Music History Monday: Bohemian Rhapsody

It was on August 24, 1975 – 45 years ago today – that Queen began recording Bohemian Rhapsody at Rockfield Studio No. 1 in Monmouth, Wales. It would take a total of three weeks to record the song. We are told that Freddie Mercury had “mentally prepared the song beforehand” and thus he directed the sessions. We are also told that Mercury, along with fellow bandmembers Brian May and Roger Taylor, sang their vocal parts pretty much non-stop for “ten to twelve hours a day”, resulting, in the end, in 180-plus separate overdubs (to say nothing for sore throats and hoarse voices!).  I Confess I have been accused of being a critical Pollyanna, of heaping praise on every work and performance I write about; of employing such adjectives as “brilliant”, and “amazing”, and “outstanding”, and “singular”, and “awesome”, and “astonishing”, and “extraordinary” to a frankly tiresome degree. To such accusations I stand guilty as charged. Here’s the thing (or “things”, as the case may be). First, my formal training is in music composition, not musicology. I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, a “musicologist” (though I am occasionally billed as such by good people who do not […]

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Music History Monday: The Miracle at Bayreuth!

On August 17, 1876 – 144 years ago today – Richard Wagner’s music drama Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) received its premiere in his newly-opened “Festival Theater” in Bayreuth, Germany. That performance of Götterdämmerung brought to its conclusion the first production of Wagner’s epic four evening tetralogy, The Ring of the Niebelung.  Let’s say it up front because it needs to be said. That performance concluded what was and remains the greatest single undertaking in the history of Western music: not just Wagner’s writing and composition of the four music dramas that make up The Ring, but of the construction and opening of Wagner’s great shrine to himself: his custom-built Festival Theater in the Bavarian city of Bayreuth. The Conception and the Creation of The Ring of the Nibelung On May 16, 1849, an arrest warrant was issued by the Dresden police for the 36-year-old Richard Wagner (1813-1883). He was charged with treason due to his actions in the just terminated Dresden uprising, a charge that carried with it the death penalty. The warrant read as follows:  “Wagner is of medium stature, has brown hair, an open forehead; eyebrows, brown; eyes, grayish blue; nose and mouth, proportioned; chin, round, and […]

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Music History Monday: Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and the Summer of 1788

We mark the completion, on August 10, 1788 – 232 years ago today – of Mozart’s Symphony in C major, catalogued by Ludwig Köchel as K. 551 and nicknamed the “Jupiter”. It was Mozart’s final symphony, a towering, innovative masterwork, the greatest symphony ever composed to its time and by any standard of measure one of a handful of greatest symphonies ever composed. That it took Mozart all of 16 days to commit it to paper defies our imaginations. That it was composed back-to-back with the luminous, transcendentally lyric Symphony in E-flat major and the tragic, gut-busting Symphony in G Minor in something under a total of eight weeks beggars our belief. Finally, that Mozart managed this mind-blowing compositional feat while under a black cloud of grief, physical ill-health, and mounting financial disaster is just, well, inconceivable. Let’s add a bit more head-shaking information to the mix. At the same time he was composing these last three symphonies, Mozart was composing a number of other works as well! He completed his Trio for piano, violin and cello in E Major, K. 542 on June 22, 1788 and the Trio in C Major, K. 548, on July 14; he finished his […]

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Music History Monday: The Grandmother of them all: the Teatro alla Scala

We mark the opening on August 3, 1778 – 242 years today – of the grandmother of all opera houses, the Teatro alla Scala, or simply “La Scala.” The inaugural performance was the premiere of Antonio Salieri’s opera Europa Riconosciuta, or “Europe Rewarded”.  I trust we’re all aware that something being touted as “baseball season” has begun. Ordinarily, the return of professional baseball in the first week of April is a cause for celebration in my house, a seasonal marker as sure as the turning of the leaves in the fall and the true coming of spring, when the camellias bloom in mid-January (I know: if I didn’t live here I’d hate California too). But baseball in the time of COVID is, frankly, absurd; with more and more players being tested positive (today it was an unspecified number of St. Louis Cardinals), it seems to me that it’s only a matter of time before this truncated season is shut down for good. (I’m writing this on Friday, July 31; for all I know, by Monday, August 3 the “season” will already be over.) This sorry state of affairs calls for a necessary dose of nostalgic escapism. A particular badge of […]

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Music History Monday: Ferruccio Busoni

We mark the death on July 27, 1924 – 96 years ago today – of the composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, who great fame rests on having invented the ice-smoothing machine popularized by none-other-than Charles Schulz’s Snoopy. Nah, I’m just messing with you: it was Frank Zamboni, 1901-1988, who invented the ice-thing in 1949.  We’re here to talk about Ferruccio Busoni, who was born in Empoli, Italy – a suburb of Florence – on April 1, 1866 and died on this day at the age of 58 in Berlin.  But before moving on to Signore Busoni, a tip-of-the hat to his countryman, Antonio Vivaldi – Il Prieto Rosso, “The Red Priest” – who died on this day in 1741 in Vienna, age 63. Vivaldi’s birth on March 4, 1678 was the subject of my Music History Monday post on March 4, 2019; I would invite you to check it out. Ferruccio Busoni was a phenomenon, a figure almost unique in Western music, a man and musician impossible to pigeon-hole. He was a virtuoso in pretty much every field of music he chose to explore. He was a pianist of other-worldly ability; a visionary composer possessing the very highest technical skills; […]

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Music History Monday: Shostakovich: Time magazine, a String Quartet, and a Symphony!

July 20th was a very important date in the life of the Soviet composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich. On July 20, 1942 – 78 years ago today – he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, wearing his Leningrad firefighter’s helmet and becoming, all at once, an international symbol for the Soviet struggle against the invading German horde. On this date in 1962 – 58 years ago today – Shostakovich completed his Symphony No. 13, subtitled “Babi Yar”, itself a stunning indictment of Soviet anti-Semitism and truly, the entire Soviet system. How and why he managed to get away with composing and premiering such a symphony without being strung up by his short-‘n’-curlies will be the subject of tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post. Finally, on this day in 1964 – 56 years ago today – Shostakovich completed his String Quartet No. 10 in A-flat major, Op. 118. Yes indeed, July 20 was an important date in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich. But before we can get to Shostakovich and that Time magazine cover, we’ve got two other events to observe from this day in music history. We begin with a call-out to the songwriter, guitarist, and fusion bandleader Carlos Santana, who […]

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