Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Podcast

Music History Monday: Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky

We mark the birth on June 20, 1843 – 179 years ago today – of the Russia bass opera singer Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky, in the city of Minsk, which is today the capital of Belarus but was then part of the Russian Empire.  Considered one of the greatest singers of his time, Fyodor Ignatyevich has largely been forgotten because, one, he never recorded and, two, he’s been eclipsed by the fame of his son, the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). He was born of Polish descent in the “Government (province) of Minsk”, in what had been part of Poland until 1793, when the Russian Empire sliced off and annexed a large chunk of Poland in what is euphemistically called the “second partition of Poland.”  (Today, the “province of Minsk” is part of the “nation” of Belarus, which is advised to mind its P’s and Q’s, as Tsar Putin no more considers Belarus to be separate country than he does Ukraine.  Not that you need me to point this out, but I’ll do it anyway: the “annexation” of Crimea in 2014 and the present attempts to destroy Ukraine and annex the Donbas demonstrate that Russian actions towards its neighbors have not changed […]

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Music History Monday: The Ultimate Fanboy: The Mad King, Ludwig II

We mark the death (the most suspicious death) on June 13, 1886 – 136 years ago today – of the ultimate Richard Wagner fanboy King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The Running Man Richard Wagner was among the least-athletic looking people to ever grace a composing studio or a conductor’s podium.  Depending upon the source, he was between 5’ 3” and 5’ 5” in heights.  His legs were too short for his torso, and his oversized square head was perched on an otherwise frail body.  In his lifetime, an unknown wag referred to him as “that shovel-faced dwarf”, an unkind if not inaccurate description of the man. But despite his physical shortcomings, Wagner – believe it or not – could run like the wind for remarkable distances. These miracles of sustained athleticism were inspired by Wagner’s creditors and/or the law, from which Wagner was forced to flee on a regular basis.   For example, in April of 1836, following the failure of his opera Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love”; for your information, my spell check just tried to change “liebesverbot” to “lobster pot”).Again: in April of 1836, following the failure of his opera Das Liebesverbot in the central German city […]

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Music History Monday: Siegfried Wagner

We mark the birth of Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried Wagner on June 6, 1869 – 163 years ago today – in Lucerne, Switzerland.  Like the sons of so many great men groomed to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, he could never hope to measure up to or escape from his father’s shadow. Cliché We contemplate, for a moment, this thing called a “cliché.” Strictly defined, a cliché is: “an element of an artistic work, saying, or idea that has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.” Granted. But clichés didn’t become the tiresome, oft-repeated, over-used devices that – by definition – they are without carrying within them a kernel of truth. Admittedly, some clichés express stereotypes that may (or may not) be true, but the vast majority of them are analogies that do indeed express truisms.  In fact, when it comes to expressing a truism succinctly, nothing succeeds more quickly that a cliché. For example: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” (Parenthetically, some folks would tell us that “the apple doesn’t fall […]

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Music History Monday: Benjamin Britten War Requiem

We mark the premiere performance on May 30, 1962 – 60 years ago today – of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.  Completed in early 1962, the War Requiem was commissioned to mark the consecration of the “new” Coventry Cathedral, which was built to replace the original fourteenth century cathedral that had been destroyed on the evening and night of November 14 and 15, 1940. Today’s post will deal entirely with the events that led up to the composition of Britten’s War Requiem: the destruction of Coventry’s Cathedral of St. Michael, the extraordinary spirit of forgiveness and redemption that came to be identified with its ruins, and the New Cathedral that was built between 1956 and 1962.  We cannot appreciate the meaning and spirit of Britten’s War Requiem unless we first come to grips with the meaning and spirit of the destruction and rebirth of Coventry Cathedral.  Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will get into the specifics of the Requiem itself, along with a recommended recording of the piece. Coventry and its Cathedral Coventry is a city in the West Midlands of England, 95 miles north-west of London.  Founded by the Romans, by the fourteenth century Coventry had become a major center […]

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Music History Monday: Beethoven and the Human Voice

We mark the premiere on May 23, 1814 – 208 years ago today – of Ludwig van Beethoven’s one-and-only opera, Fidelio, at the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna.  While Beethoven (1770-1827) had composed two preliminary versions of the opera, which had been performed in 1805 and 1806, it is this third and substantially different version that we will hear in the opera house today. It’s an odd but, in this case, an applicable idiom, “red herring.” Literally, a “red herring” is, believe it or not, a red herring (see image above): a dried and smoked herring that’s turned red due to being smoked.  However, for our purposes, a “red herring” is: “something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question. It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences toward a false conclusion.” The Beethovenian red herring to which we are referring started with the German author, legal scholar, composer, music critic, and artist Ernst Theodor Amadeus (or “E. T. A.”) Hoffman (1776-1822).  Hoffman wrote a lengthy and frankly worshipful appreciation of Beethoven’s instrumental music entitled “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music” in 1813, when Beethoven was in his 43rd year.  In the course of […]

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Music History Monday: The Phoenix Rises!

We mark the opening on May 16, 1792 – 230 years ago today – of Venice’s principal opera house, the Teatro la Fenice, meaning the “The Phoenix Theater.” Excepting, perhaps, the magnificent phallus that is the Washington Monument, dedicated as it is to “The Father of Our Country,” rarely – if ever – will a building be better named than La Fenice, which has risen from the ashes three times. Background The first public opera house – the Teatro San Cassiano – opened in Venice in 1637.  Public opera quickly proved to be tremendously popular and immensely profitable, and Venice – already the tourist capitol, the Las Vegas of the European world – had yet another recreational activity to offer its endless stream of visitors.  By 1700, there were some twenty opera theaters operating  in Venice, cranking out operas the way Hollywood cranked out movies in the pre-television glory days of the 1930s and 1940s.   As the popularity of public opera spread first across Italy and then all of Europe, so opera theaters were built across Europe.  No longer the singular purveyor of public opera, many of Venice’s opera houses closed, so that by 1770 only five remained.  Of […]

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Music History Monday: Little Richard: The King and Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll

We mark the death on May 9, 2020 – just two years ago today – of the American musician, singer, and songwriter Richard Wayne Penniman, known universally by his stage name of “Little Richard.” Born on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, he died at his home in Tullahoma, Tennessee two years ago today from bone cancer.  He was 87 years old. As a founding inductee to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, the following statement was read aloud: “He claims to be ‘the architect of rock and roll’, and history would seem to bear out Little Richard’s boast. More than any other performer—save, perhaps, Elvis Presley – Little Richard blew the lid off the Fifties, laying the foundation for rock and roll with his explosive music and charismatic persona. On record, he made spine-tingling rock and roll. His frantically charged piano playing and raspy, shouted vocals on such classics as Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, and Good Golly, Miss Molly defined the dynamic sound of rock and roll.” Along with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ike Turner, and Bo Diddley, Little Richard was one of that handful of Black American musicians who synthesized blues, rhythm and blues […]

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Music History Monday: Giacomo Meyerbeer and French PopOp

We mark the death on May 2, 1864 – 158 years ago today – of the German-born opera composer Jacob Liebmann Beer, also-known-as Giacomo Meyerbeer.  Born in Berlin on September 5, 1791, he died in Paris during the rehearsals for the premiere of his opera L’Africaine – “The African” – which turned out to be, no surprise then, his final opera.   Let us get to know Herr/Signore/Monsieur Meyerbeer a bit even as we explore the tremendous popularity of his operas, the reasons behind that popularity, and the reasons for their fall from popularity!   No Exaggeration: As Popular as Elvis Incredible though it may seem to us, here today, Meyerbeer was the Elvis Presley of nineteenth century opera.  Not that he was a pelvis gyrating,  groupie groping “rock star” as we understand a rock star to be today, no; but in the world of nineteenth century opera, he was the most popular musician of not just his time but of his century: the single most frequently performed opera composer of the nineteenth century.  In terms of his singular international fame and his income, Meyerbeer was – more than Gioachino Rossini, more than Giuseppe Verdi, more than Richard Wagner –the […]

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Music History Monday: Puccini’s Turandot: An Opera That Almost Wasn’t

We mark the premiere performance on April 25, 1926 – 96 years ago today – of Giacomo Puccini’s twelfth and final opera, Turandot.  The premiere took place at Milan’s storied La Scala opera house and was conducted by Puccini’s friend (and occasional nemesis!) Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957).  At the time of the premiere, Puccini himself had been dead for 17 months.  And therein lies our tale.  Because given the delays in creating the libretto for Turandot, Puccini’s failing health, his leaving the opera incomplete at his death, and the controversy surrounding Turandot’s subsequent completion by the composer Franco Alfano (1875-1954), itwas indeed an opera that almost didn’t happen. Giacomo Puccini was born in the Tuscan city of Lucca on December 22, 1858, and died in Brussels, Belgium on November 29, 1924, three weeks shy of his 66th birthday.  Puccini’s operas remain among the most popular in the repertoire, but among the most critically controversial as well.  It is a controversary we will not discuss in this post; rather, I’d direct you to Music History Monday for January 14, 2019.  That post – on Puccini’s opera Tosca – wades chin-deep into the critical issues that continue to dog his work. Sometime in […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Robert M. Greenberg — Collected Yiddish Songs

As begun in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, we will continue to trace what I think of as my compositional apprenticeship up to my 30th birthday, and then on to some music! California and Graduate School I arrived in Berkeley, California on September 9, 1978, to attend graduate school in music composition at the University of California, Berkeley. I moved in with a friend and Princeton classmate, a fellow composer named Eric Moe, who had started graduate school immediately after we graduated in 1976. He found us an apartment in “north side” at 1822 Francisco Street. (For our information: Berkeley is divided into three large regions: “north side”, meaning the area north of the U.C. campus; “south side”, south of the campus; and “west Berkeley”, the large area of flatlands west of the campus going down to San Francisco Bay. There is no “east” of the campus as U.C. extends east all the way to the top of the hills.) September 10, 1978 – the day after I arrived – is a day I will always remember for the following revelatory event. I got up early and decided to walk to Morrison Hall, the music building on the Berkeley campus […]

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