Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author


Music History Monday: Fine Dining

January 20 is indeed an interesting day in music history, particularly notable for anniversaries of births and deaths. Among those born on this day was the outstanding Polish/American pianist Józef Hofmann, born in 1876 (and died in 1967; my grandmother took some lessons with Hofmann at the New York Institute of Musical Art between 1914 and 1916, after which he went on to became the director of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, from 1927-1938); also born on this date in 1888 was the 12-string blues guitarist Huddie William Ledbetter (a.k.a. “Leadbelly”; he died in 1949); the Russian/American violinist Mischa Elman was born on January 20, 1891 (and died 1967); the American composer Walter Piston was born on this date in 1894 (he died in 1976 and was featured in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post on March 19, 2019); and Yvonne Loriod, an exceptional French pianist and wife of the composer Olivier Messiaen, was born on this date in 1924 (and died in 2010).  Notable deaths on this date include the Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, who died at the age of 80 in 2014, and the composer, publisher, writer, singer, visual artist, illustrator, patron of young talent, and social activist (wow) […]

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Music History Monday: How to Identify a Gentleman

We would recognize a number of date-worthy events before moving on to the admittedly painful principal topic of today’s Music History Monday. Johann Christoph Graupner We recognize the birth on January 13, 1683 – 337 years ago today – of the German harpsichordist and composer Johann Christoph Graupner in the Saxon town Kirchberg. (He died 77 years later, in Darmstadt, in 1760.) Herr Graupner was known as a good and conscientious man, highly respected by his employers and students alike. He was also a competent and prolific composer, with more than 2000 surviving works in his catalog. Nevertheless, he would be totally forgotten today but for a single event in 1723. In 1722, Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) – the chief musician for the churches and municipality of Leipzig – went on to that great clavichord in the sky. The famous Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), unhappy with his salary in Hamburg, applied for and was offered the job in Leipzig. But it was all a ploy to leverage a higher salary in Hamburg, which he received and where he remained. In early 1723, the paternal units of Leipzig then offered the job to Graupner, who accepted but whose boss – the Landgrave Ernst […]

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Music History Monday: The Odd Person Out

On January 6, 1872 – 148 years ago today – the composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin was born in Moscow. He died in Moscow just 43 years later, on April 27, 1915. Scriabin was not just “the odd person out” of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Russian composers; he was, very arguably, one of the two or three “oddest-people-out” in the history of Western Music. Scriabin didn’t start out as an oddball. He was a piano prodigy and a friend and classmate of Sergei Rachmaninoff, first in the piano studio and private school of Nikolai Zverov and later at the Moscow Conservatory. When they graduated together in 1892 (at which point Rachmaninoff was nineteen and Scriabin was twenty), Rachmaninoff received the “Great Gold Medal” and Scriabin the “Little Gold Medal”, somehow appropriate given that Rachmaninoff stood 6’6” tall while Scriabin stood just over 5’ tall. (That variance of physical stature notwithstanding, the Moscow Conservatory Class of 1892 was pretty impressive!) Scriabin’s early career was not marked by any particular “oddness” either. He began his career as a touring pianist and composed charming piano miniatures a la Chopin. He married and quickly fathered four children. When he wasn’t on tour, he taught at the Moscow Conservatory. […]

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Music History Monday: Richard Rodgers and the American Crucible

We mark the death on December 30, 1979 – 40 years ago today – of the American composer Richard Rodgers at the age of 77. A life-long New Yorker, Rodgers was one of the most prolific American composers of all time, having written the music for – among other works – 43 Broadway musicals and over 900 songs. He is one of only two people to have scored an EGOT, meaning that he received an Emmy, a GRAMMY® (three of them, actually), an Oscar, a Tony (seven in all) along with a Pulitzer Prize (for the musical South Pacific, in 1950). (For our information, the only other person to have won all five awards was the phenomenal Marvin Hamlisch, 1944-2012.) We will discuss Maestro Rodgers as an exemplar of the “American crucible” in a bit. But first, permit me some first-person information that, believe it or not, will eventually have a direct bearing on this post. An observation: we all do things to our bodies when we are young (or relatively young) that, in retrospect, we should not have. For me it was fairly serious weightlifting, which I took up in my early 30’s and continued until I was 51. […]

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Music History Monday: Is There Something Strange in the Air?

As readers of this blog and/or listeners to this podcast are aware, some Mondays present us with a plethora, a Mother’s Day buffet of musical topics from which to choose, while others are as dry as a perfect martini. During such days of topical feast or famine, coming up with a topic is equally challenging: in the case of feast, the challenge is choosing one topic over the others and in the case of famine, manufacturing a post out of topical crumbs, dust motes, and bed mites.

Having said that, December 23 presents us with a situation I have never before faced in the 3½ years I’ve been writing this post. Yes, there are a couple of events – a birth and a death – that we will mark in a moment. But in doing my research, I have discovered a gaggle of strange, even horrific musical events associated with December 23, making me wonder whether there is some genuine weirdness in the air on this date. Is it the proximity of December 23 to Christmas Eve Day (the 24th) or the Winter Solstice (the 21st)? Is it a reflection of “The Night of the Radishes”, an annual celebration held on December 23 in Oaxaca, Mexico dedicated to carving oversized radishes? Perhaps it is a function of “Operational Servicemen Day”, a military holiday observed by all service personnel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine? Or maybe it’s all a result of the spirit of Festivus (“Festivus for the rest of us”), a secular holiday presumably “celebrated” on December 23 as an antidote to the materialism and commercialism of Christmas? (Festivus was invented in 1966 by the writer Daniel O’Keefe, though it gained prominence thanks to a 1997 Seinfeld episode called The Strike, which featured a Festivus dinner and such “traditional” Festivus activities as “The Airing of Grievances”, “Feats of Strength”, the labeling of commonplace events as “Festivus miracles”, and the display of a “Festivus pole”: a plain aluminum pole mounted on a wooden stand.

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Music History Monday: The Man

We mark the birth on December 16, 1770 – 249 years ago today – of Ludwig, or Louis, or Luigi (he went by all three names) van Beethoven, in the Rhineland city of Bonn. Although there is no documentary evidence confirming that Beethoven was actually born on the 16th, we assume – with that proverbial 99.99% degree of certainty – that he was. This is because the Catholic parishes of the time required that newborns be baptized within 24 hours of birth and Beethoven’s baptism was registered at the church of St. Remigius on December 17, 1770.

As we brace ourselves for the hoopla celebrating the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth, we pause and ask ourselves, honestly, why Beethoven: why do we, as a listening public, so adore his music?

I would answer that question by drawing on some material from my recently published “Audible Original Course”, Beethoven: The First Angry Man (which, gratuitously, will be the topic of tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post)

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Music History Monday: A Life for the Tsar

On December 9, 1836 (or November 27, 1836 in the old style, Russian Julian calendar), Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar received its premiere at the Imperial Bolshoi Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. More than just an opera and a premiere, the opening night of A Life for the Tsar – 183 years ago today – marks the moment that a tradition of cultivated Russian music came into existence!

Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) was the right musician at the right place at the right time. Born in the village of Novospasskoye, in the Smolensk Oblast (or “province”), he came from a wealthy, highly cultured, land-owning family. As a child he studied piano and violin and received a first-rate education, first at the hands of his governess Varvara Fedorovna Klammer, and then in St. Petersburg at the Blagorodny School, an exclusive private school for the children of nobility. When he graduated, he did what young men of his class did, and that was take a cushy civil service job. In Glinka’s case, he became assistant secretary of the Department of Public Highways.

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Music History Monday: Turangalîla

December 2 is – was – a great date for world premieres, as well as for one unfortunate and extremely notable exit.   Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 received its first performance on December 3, 1883 – 136 years ago today – in Vienna, when it was performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Hans Richter.   On this date in 1949 – 70 years ago today – Béla Bartók’s Viola Concerto, completed posthumously by Tibor Serly [TEE-bor SHARE-ly] (Bartók himself had died four years earlier, in 1945), received its premiere in Minneapolis, where it was performed by violist William Primrose and the Minneapolis Symphony, conducted by Antal Dorati.    We would note the unfortunate exit, on December 2, 1990, of the composer Aaron Copland.  He died at the age of 90 in North Tarrytown (known today as “Sleepy Hollow”), New York, about 30 miles north of New York City. There’s one more premiere to note, which will occupy the remainder of today’s post.  We mark the premiere, in Boston on December 2, 1949 – the same day as the premiere of Bartók’s Viola Concerto – of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by […]

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Music History Monday: A Critical Voice

We recognize the birth on November 25, 1896 – 123 years ago today – of the American composer and music critic Virgil Thomson in Kansas City, Missouri.

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Music History Monday: The Grand Journey

On November 18, 1763, 256 years ago today, the Mozart family – father Leopold, mother Anna Maria, daughter Marianne (12 years old) and son Wolfgang (7 years old) – arrived in Paris. They were in the midst of their “Grand Journey”, a 3½ year concert tour of Central and Western Europe that was to change the history of Western music.

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