Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Podcast – Page 2

Music History Monday: The Top “ZZ’s” – Frank Zappa and Zdeněk Fibich

We mark and celebrate two composers born on this date. Zdeněk Fibich was born on December 21, 1850; 170 years ago today. Frank Zappa was born on December 21, 1940, 80 years ago today. The two had more in common with each other than just a name that started with the letter “z”. They were both eclectic composers, who brought to bear in their music a wide variety of influences, influences that were deemed “incompatible” by their critics. Oh yes, their “critics”: as composers, both Fibich and Zappa were controversial. They both suffered from poor health and they both died young: Fibich at 49 and Zappa at 52. Frank Vincent Zappa was born on this date in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, the eldest of four children in an Italian-American family. Zappa’s father Francis was a defense-industry scientist, and as such the family lived a peripatetic existence: Baltimore, then to Florida; back to Maryland; then to Monterey, California; Claremont, California; El Cajon, California; San Diego, California; and finally, in 1956 (when Zappa was sixteen) to Lancaster, California, an aerospace and farming community in the Antelope Valley, in the Mojave Desert, near Edwards Airforce Base. The young Frank Zappa was chronically ill; […]

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Music History Monday: Wozzeck

We mark the premiere performance on December 14, 1925 – 95 years ago today – of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck in Berlin, conducted by Erich Kleiber. That premiere performance was preceded by 137 rehearsals. Wozzeck was, and remains, one of the great masterworks of the twentieth century. Johann Franz Wozzeck, the title character of Berg’s opera, is described as being: “Thirty years and seven months old, militia man and fusilier in the second regiment, second battalion, fourth company; uneducated, uncomprehending.” Wozzeck is slowly being driven insane by those around him, something we become aware of early in the first act. Composed in greatest part during and immediately after World War One, Johann Franz Wozzeck’s incipient madness reflects not just the eroding mind of a doomed soldier but a doomed generation as well. According to the musicology Professor Glenn Watkins of the University of Michigan: “Wozzeck’s growing madness is as vivid a projection of impending world doom as any to come out of the Great War.” Berg’s opera is based on a play based on a real-life person: a confessed murderer named Johann Christian Woyzeck (W-o-y-z-e-c-k). This Woyzeck was a Leipzig-born wigmaker and barber who later enlisted in the army. In […]

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Music History Monday: The Worthy and Unworthy, from High Taste to Low

Prince Josef Lobkowitz and Some Number One Songs That Will Live in Infamy! We have three items on our calendar-driven agenda today, which also happens to be the 79th anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. One of these items is a birth; one of them is a recording session; and one of them notes some songs that will live in infamy! We begin with the recording session.  On December 7, 1967 – 53 years ago today – Otis Ray Redding, Jr. (1941-1967) entered the recording studio of Stax Records in Memphis Tennessee and recorded (Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay. Redding had written the first verse of the song while staying on a houseboat at Waldo Point, in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Sausalito (which I am presently looking at as I write this from across the Bay in Oakland).  The song went on to become his greatest hit, something – tragically – the 26-year-old Redding never lived to see; he was killed in an airplane crash just three days after the recording date, on December 10, 1967. Redding’s whistling at the conclusion of the song, just before […]

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Music History Monday: Furtwängler

We mark the death on November 30, 1954 – 66 years ago today – of the German conductor and composer Gustav Heinrich Ernst Martin Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was one of the most important and controversial musicians of the twentieth century. We will talk all about Maestro Furtwängler in just a moment. But first: November 30 is a busy day in music history, and we have some important births and deaths to mark. We mark the birth on November 30, 1813 – 207 years ago today – of the French pianist, composer, and teacher Charles-Valentin Alkan in Paris. Alkan was a great piano virtuoso and an equally great oddball, who composed some of the most impossibly virtuosic piano music ever put to paper. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will celebrate Alkan and his Grande Sonata, Op. 33; his Sonatine, Op. 61; and his “Twelve etudes in all the minor keys” Op. 39, No. 12, an etude entitled “Aesop’s Feast”. The following three November 30th oriented entries all deal with musicians who made a profound impression on me growing up in the 1960s. Long before “Weird Al” Yankovic (born 1959) created satirical songs parodying pop culture, there was Allan Sherman, who was […]

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Music History Monday: Musicians Behaving Badly

Before getting on to our central topic for today’s post – naughty, naughty musicians – we need to give a shoutout to the great Spanish composer and conductor Manuel de Falla who was born on November 23, 1876 – 144 years ago today – in the Andalucían port city of Cadiz. We will celebrate de Falla tomorrow in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post, which will focus on his ballet El amor brujo (meaning “The Magician Love”) of 1915, and the Carlos Saura movie of the same title (from 1986) based of de Falla’s ballet. On to today’s feature presentation, Musicians Behaving Badly. On November 23, 1956 – 64 years ago today – a sheet metal worker named Louis Balint was arrested after attacking the King – Elvis Presley – in Toledo, Ohio. Here’s what happened. On November 22, 1956, Elvis Presley and his band played two shows in Toledo’s Sports Arena. Elvis’ fame and popularity had skyrocketed since his first two appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show just a few weeks before, on September 9 and October 28, 1956. Along with the concerts, November 22, 1956 was an auspicious day for Elvis and his fans in Toledo, as that was […]

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Music History Monday: Chopin’s Last Concert

It was on November 16, 1848 – 172 years ago today – that Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) performed his final concert. It was given at a benefit ball held in London’s Guildhall, staged to raise money for Polish exiles. Chopin, 38-years-old, was desperately ill. And although he lived another 11 months, he was never to perform again.  Frédéric François Chopin (born Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin) was a quintessential Romantic figure: a restless man of genius; a forlorn lover who could never settle down; a prodigy whose music and piano playing enchanted his listeners from the time he was an adolescent; someone whose muse demanded that he work in a white heat for days at a time despite his physical frailty and dismal health. He was a consumptive at a time when consumption (that is, tuberculosis) was considered that most “romantic” of illnesses, the “disease of genius”.  Of course, if you actually had tuberculosis, you didn’t consider it “romantic” at all; you were too busy trying not to cough your lungs out and to just freaking breathe. Chopin himself had no patience for the entire Romantic trip and claimed to be disgusted with the artistic precepts and pretentions of Romanticism, which he considered self-indulgent […]

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Music History Monday: “You will write your concerto. . .”

We mark the first complete performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on November 9, 1901 – 119 years ago today – in Moscow. Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was the piano soloist. The performance was conducted by his cousin: the pianist, conductor and composer Alexander Siloti (1863-1945). Before moving on to Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto and the compelling story behind it, we’ve an utterly irresistible anniversary to note.  It was on this day in 1974 – 46 years ago today – that the unthinkable occurred onstage at the New York City Opera, and no, I’m not talking about copulating dogs during the Act I party scene of Rigoletto. The opera being performed was Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in Maschera (“The Masked Ball”) of 1859. In the starring role of Riccardo was the Italian-American tenor Michele Molese. Molese was a mainstay of the New York City Opera, and over the years he appeared there in almost every leading tenor role in the standard repertoire. He was known, particularly, as being among Beverly Sills’ favorite leading men, and together they appeared in new productions of, among other operas, Manon (by Jules Massenet, 1884), Faust (Charles Gounod, 1859), and Lucia di Lammermoor (Gaetano Donizetti, […]

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Music History Monday: Shostakovich and His String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110

I’m doing something today that I have never done before in Music History Monday and which, I hope, I will never have to do again. November 2 is not a day bereft of musical events. For example, November 2, 1739 saw the birth, in Vienna, of the composer and violinist Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, who was a friend of Beethoven’s and who went on to become the concertmaster of the Esterhazy Orchestra. November 2, 1752 saw the birth of Count Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky in St. Petersburg. In 1792, Count Razumovsky became the Russian Ambassador to the Austrian Court in Vienna. It was as a resident of Vienna that he formed his own house string quartet and commissioned Beethoven to compose three quartets for his “Razumovsky String Quartet” (those quartets would be Op. 59, nos. 1, 2, and 3). Beethoven further immortalized Razumovsky by dedicating both his Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 to the Count. On this day in 1984, the Reverend Marvin Gaye Sr. was given a suspended six-year sentence and probation for shooting and killing his son, the singer and songwriter Marvin Gaye (1939-1984). Initially charged with first degree murder, the charges were reduced to voluntary manslaughter when it […]

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Music History Monday: Musical Riots and Assorted Mayhem

We mark the riot that occurred on October 26, 1958 – 62 years ago today – when Bill Haley and his Comets played a concert at Berlin’s Sportpalast to an audience of some 7000 people. Signs of trouble had occurred at Haley’s first two German concerts on the previous two evenings, the first one in Hamburg and the next in Essen. But no one could have anticipated the mayhem in Berlin, where some 500 rock ‘n’ rollers and police staged a fist-and-stick battle during the show. Five policemen were badly beaten, six audience members severely injured, while damages to the venue amounted to over 50,000 Deutsche Marks. Both the East and West German authorities reacted with outrage. The West Berlin senate banned all future rock ‘n’ roll concerts. In East Germany, Neues Deutschland, the official Communist Party organ, condemned Haley in a front-page editorial for: “turning the youth of the land of Bach and Beethoven into raging beasts.” (With all due respect we would observe that just a few years before, “the youth of the land of Bach and Beethoven” had indeed behaved like raging beasts.) The newspapers in both East and West Berlin agreed that the Haley riots were: […]

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Franz Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”

On October 19, 1814 – 206 years ago today – Franz Schubert composed his first masterwork, the song Gretchen am Spinnrade – “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” – for solo voice and piano, on a text by Johann von Goethe. Schubert was 17 years old. It is an enduring and, in the end, unanswerable question: how many songs did Franz Schubert compose? It’s not that various sources haven’t tried to answer the question. For example, according to volume twenty of the Schubert Gesamptausgabe (“complete edition”), a massive project completed in the 1890s, Schubert composed 603 songs. According to the Belgian musicologist and Schubert scholar Reinhard van Hoorickx (1918-1997), writing in his Thematic Catalog of Schubert’s Works: New Additions, Corrections and Notes (published in1976), Schubert composed 660 songs. Not to be outdone, the English Schubert scholar, Maurice John Edwin Brown writing in his Essays on Schubert (Macmillan, 1966), claims that Schubert composed 708 songs. FYI, in a lecture I gave at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater on February 25, 2003 entitled “Schubert: On the Wings of His Songs” I indicated that he had composed 637 songs. (I know I wouldn’t have made that number up, but presently, I can’t for the life of […]

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