Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Podcast

Music History Monday: “Inappropriate”

There Must Be Something in the Air Have any of you done – or anticipate doing – anything particularly foolish today, anything particularly inappropriate? If you do, know that you will be in good company.  Perhaps it’s the angle of the sun; perhaps it’s something in the air or water, because as dates go, May 27 is ripe with musical stories and actions that we shall deem as being “inappropriate.” For example. On May 27, 1964 – 60 years ago today – four of the eleven 16-year-old boys suspended from Woodlands Comprehensive School in Coventry, UK, for having Mick Jagger haircuts complied with their headmaster’s demand that they cut their hair, and returned to school.  The other seven lads put their hair (or at least the allegiance to Mick Jagger!) before their schooling and remained suspended.  According to an article in the Coventry Evening Telegraph: “their headmaster Mr. Donald Thompson has said that he would not object if they returned to school with a ‘neat Beatle cut.’            Mr. Thompson told the Coventry Evening Telegraph today that he was not against boys having modern hair styles, but he did object to the ‘scruffy, long hair style of the Rolling Stones with hair curling into […]

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Music History Monday: A Difficult Life

Before we get to the principal topic of today’s post, we must note an operatic disaster that had nothing to do with singers or the opera being performed on stage.  Rather, it was a disaster that inspired Gaston Leroux to write the novel The Phantom of the Opera, which was published in 1909. On May 20, 1896 – 128 years ago today – a counterweight helping to hold up the six-ton chandelier at Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera House fell into the audience during a performance of Étienne-Joseph Floquet’s opera Hellé (composed in 1779).  We don’t know how the opera performance was going, but the counterweight was a big hit: one woman in the audience was killed and a number of other audience members were badly injured. The disaster was covered by a reporter for the Parisian daily Le Matin named Gaston Leroux (1868-1927).  The accident – to say nothing for the Paris Opera House itself and the lake beneath it – made quite an impression on Monsieur Leroux. About that underground “lake.” Writing in The New York Times on January 24, 2023, Sam Lubell tells us that: “When digging the foundations [for the Paris Opera House], workers hit a hidden arm of the Seine, […]

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Music History Monday: What Day is Today?

We recognize May 13th as being, among other “days” here in the United States, National Frog Jumping Day, Leprechaun Day, International Hummus Day, National Crouton Day, and – wait for it – World Cocktail Day! National Days, Weeks, and Months! Who creates these damned things? We’ll get to that in a moment.  But first, let’s distinguish between a national holiday and a national day (or week or month). In the United States, national (or “federal”) holidays are designated by Congress and/or the President.  There are presently a total of ten national/federal holidays, meaning that federal employees get to take the day off.  However, anyone can declare a national day (or week or month).  The trick is getting enough people to buy into the “day” that it actually gains some traction and has some meaning.  Such national days are created by advocacy groups; lobbying groups; industry groups; government bodies; even individuals. According to the “National Day Calendar,” today, May 13, 2024, is – along with those “days” listed at the top of this post – National Women’s Checkup Day; National Fruit Cocktail Day; and National Apple Pie Day.  May 13 of this year is also the first day of Bike to Work Week; of […]

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Music History Monday: The Evolution of Western Pop Music: USA (1960-2010)

We mark the public release, on May 6, 2015 – nine years ago today – of a scientific/statistical study published by The Royal Society Open Science Journal, a study entitled “The Evolution of Western Pop Music: USA (1960-2010).” Scoff not, my friends: this was, in fact, a high-end study conducted (and written up) by four high-end scientists: Dr. Matthias Mauch, of the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Queen Mary University of London, whose current professional title is “Research Manager for Recommender Systems and Music Intelligence at Apple Music”; Dr. Robert M. MacCallum, who teaches in the Division of Life Sciences at Imperial College, London; Dr. Mark Levy, a former research assistant at the Centre for Digital Music at the University of London and for the last three years a principal research scientist at Apple, where he researches potential future applications of machine learning to music creation and listening; and finally, Armand M. Leroi, a professor of evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College in London. Scary fine creds on display here: up, down, and sideways. The study’s abstract is as follows.  I figure it’s better to get it directly from the quartet of Mauch, MacCallum, Levy, and Leroi than […]

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Music History Monday: The Duke

We mark the birth of The Duke on April 29, 1899 – 125 years ago today – in Washington D.C.  By “The Duke,” we are not here referring to the actor John Wayne (who was born on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa), but rather, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, one of the greatest songwriters and composers ever to be born in the United States.   Aside from their shared nickname, it would appear that the only thing Duke Ellington had in common with John Wayne was that they both suffered from lung cancer.  In Ellington’s case, cancer killed him at the age of 75 on May 24, 1974, at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City (and not at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, as is inexplicably claimed on certain web sites!). Born in Washington D.C., he grew up at 2129 Ida Place (now Ward Place) NW, in the district’s West End neighborhood. His father, James Edward Ellington, worked as a blueprint maker for the Navy Department and on occasion as a butler, sometimes at the White House.  His mother, Daisy (born Kennedy) was the daughter of formerly enslaved people.  Theirs was a musical household; both […]

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Music History Monday Replay: “The Empress” – Bessie Smith

I am writing this post from my hotel room in what is presently (but sadly, not for long) warm and sunny Vienna.  As I mentioned last week, I will be here for eight days acting as “color commentator” for a musical tour of the city sponsored by Wondrium (a.k.a. The Teaching Company/The Great Courses).  I also indicated, one, that I would keep you up-to-date on the trip with near-daily posts, and two, that Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes will be rather truncated while I am here. We mark the birth on April 15, 1894 – 130 years ago today – of the American contralto and blues singers Bessie Smith.  Appropriately nicknamed “The Empress,” Bessie Smith remains one of the most significant and influential musicians ever born in the United States.  Well, it just so happens that we celebrated Maestra Smith birthday in my Music History Monday post of April 15, 2019, and I will thus be excused for directing your attention to that post through the button below:

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Music History Monday: The Guy Who Wrote the “Waltz”

We mark the death on April 8, 1858 – 166 years ago today – of the Austrian composer, editor, and music publisher Anton Diabelli in Vienna, at the age of 76.  Born on September 5, 1781, his enduring fame is based on a waltz of his composition that became the basis for Beethoven’s epic Diabelli Variations for piano. Quick Work We are, fairly or unfairly, going to make rather quick work of Herr Diabelli.  That’s because, with all due respect, what I really want to write about is Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.   There’s a powerful ulterior motive at work here as well.  In a field of great recordings, my numero uno favorite Diabelli Variations is the recording made by the Milan-born Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini in 1998 and released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2000.  Pollini passed away at the age of 82, on March 23, 2024: 16 days ago.  As such, we will honor Maestro Pollini in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes even as we celebrate his unequaled performance of Beethoven’s variations. Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) Despite his Italian surname, Anton Diabelli was Austrian born-and-bred.   He was born in Mattsee, a market town just outside of Salzburg.  He was a musical […]

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Music History Monday: Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate

On April 1, 2017 – 7 years ago today – Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman, 1941) was awarded his Nobel Prize in Literature in a private ceremony held at an undisclosed location in Stockholm, Sweden.  At the ceremony, Dylan received his gold Nobel Prize medal and his Nobel diploma. The cash prize of eight million Swedish kronor (837,000 euros, or $891,000) was not handed over to Dylan at the time, as he was required to give a lecture before receiving the cash. That lecture was recorded and then released some 9 weeks later, on June 5, 2017.  The private award ceremony was attended by twelve members of the Swedish Academy, that organization tasked with choosing the recipients of the Nobel Prize in literature.  According to Sara Danius, the academy’s permanent secretary, a good time was had by all: “Spirits were high. Champagne was had.” Ms. Danius went on to describe the occasion in a bit more detail: “Quite a bit of time was spent looking closely at the gold medal, in particular the beautifully crafted back, an image of a young man sitting under a laurel tree who listens to the Muse. Taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, the inscription reads: ‘Inventas […]

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Music History Monday: The Towering Inferno

We mark the birth on March 25, 1867 – 157 years ago today – of the cellist and conductor Arturo Toscanini, in the city of Parma, in what was then the Kingdom of Italy.  He died, at the age of 89, on January 16, 1957, at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, in New York City. (Properly embalmed and, we trust, adequately chilled, his no-doubt well-dressed corpse was shipped off to Milan, Italy, where he was entombed in the Cimitero Monumentale.  His epitaph features his own words, words he spoke in 1926 after conducting the posthumous premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot, which had been left unfinished at Puccini’s death: “Qui finisce l’opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto.” (“Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died.”) What Made Toscanini So Special Arturo Toscanini lived a long life, and he lived it to the hilt.  Firmly in the public eye from the age of 19 (in 1886) until his death in 1957, he travelled everywhere, seemed to have performed with everyone, and had more affairs than Hugh Heffner had bunnies.  This is my subtle way of saying that even the most cursory […]

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Music History Monday: Fake It ‘til You Make It

We mark the birth of the Russian composer Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov on March 18, 1844: 180 years ago today.  Born in the Russian town of Tikhvin – roughly 120 miles east of St. Petersburg – Rimsky-Korsakov died at the age of 64, on June 21, 1908, on his estate near the Russian town of Luga, about 85 miles south of St. Petersburg Fake It ‘til You Make It Like most kids growing up, I had various assumptions about grownups (i.e. “adults”).  As someone who has now – presumably – been an adult for very nearly a half of a century, I have learned that my assumptions – a few of which I’ve listed below – were all crazy wrong. Assumption one: at around 21, we cross the line into adulthood.   Wrong.  There are no such “lines”; we’re all changing, all the time. Assumption two: adults are emotionally mature. Wrong.  Physically, yes, I’m pushing seventy.  Emotionally? I’m roughly fifteen. On a good day. Assumption three: adults know what they’re doing. Really?  Adults only “know” what they’re doing (if they ever learn what their “doing” at all) after they’ve been doing it for decades.  Until then, they are apprentices, “learning on […]

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