Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Podcast – Page 3

Music History Monday: Haydn’s Death and His Final Road Trip

We mark the death, on May 31, 1809 – 212 years ago today – of the incomparable Joseph Haydn, at his home in Vienna at Kleine Steingasse 73 (today, the address is Haydngasse 19). At the time of his death, he was 77 years old and was, without any doubt, the most popular and beloved composer in the Western world. Franz Joseph Haydn was born on March 31, 1732 in the Austrian town of Rohrau. He was as self-made a person as any we’ll ever meet. A choirboy at St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna, he was booted out onto the mean streets of Vienna when his voice changed at the age of 16 and left entirely to his own devices. He subsisted in a Viennese garret, giving lessons and playing the violin in dance bands while he taught himself to compose. To indulge the cliché, the young dude attended the school of hard knocks and managed to graduate summa cum laude. He slowly climbed the Viennese musical ladder and in 1761 – at the age of 29 – took up a position with the Esterházy family, a fabulously wealthy family of Hungarian nobles. His position was that of Vice-Kapellmeister – […]

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Music History Monday: George Bridgetower, Louis van Beethoven, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and a Sonata for Violin!

We mark the premiere on May 24, 1803 – 218 years ago today – of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47. When published in 1805, it was dedicated to the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, and has been known as the “Kreutzer Sonata” ever since. However, it was originally dedicated to the famed violinist George Bridgetower, who, along with Beethoven, premiered the work 218 years ago today. How and why George Bridgetower originally received and then lost the dedication of the sonata makes for quite a story! General Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (1763-1844) was an extraordinary character, the only of Napoleon Bonaparte’s generals to achieve any post-Napoleonic success on his own: he reigned as King of Norway and Sweden from 1818-1844. (Not bad for the son of a tailor from the nowheresville city of Pau in southwestern France!)  In February of 1798, long before he became King of Sweden and Norway (where he was known as “Charles/Carl XIV John”), the young and Hollywood good-looking Bernadotte was appointed the French minister to the Habsburg Emperor in Vienna. He didn’t last long in the job; Napoleon himself referred to Bernadotte as being “somewhere between hotheaded and crazy”, but he […]

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Music History Monday: The Making of an Eccentric: Erik Satie

We mark the birth, on May 17, 1866 – 155 years ago today – of the French composer and provocateur Erik Alfred-Leslie Satie. He was born in the ancient port town of Honfleur, situated in Normandy at the mouth of the Seine River on the English Channel, roughly 100 miles northwest of Paris. According to a brief biographical snippet found on the internet, Satie was: “Known for his eccentricities and verbal virtuosity.” Oh my goodness, that’s not even a hundredth of it! This post is dedicated to Satie’s life and personality. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes will delve more deeply into his music, specifically his masterwork, Socrate, of 1918.  A preemptive apologia. There will be sections in this post that will drop names faster than a flock of gulls does guano. That’s okay; Satie lived and worked in Paris during a period called the Belle Époque, during which the city was home to a concentration of talent – artistic, literary, and musical – perhaps unparalleled in human history before or since.  On the Fringe Satie followed his own drummer from almost the beginning of his life. Her lost his mother to illness in 1872, when he was just six. He moved […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Giuseppe Verdi: Ernani

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post about the riot at the Astor Place Opera House noted that the house opened on November 22, 1847 with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Ernani. In fact, it was the first American performance of Ernani, which had received its premiere in Venice on March 9, 1844. Ernani was Verdi’s fifth opera, and it followed on the heels of two great successes: Nabucco (or “Nebuchadnezzar” of 1842)and I Lombardi alla prima crociata (“The Lombards on the First Crusade” of 1843). Nabucco and I Lombardi made Verdi’s reputation. But even more than Nabucco and I Lombardi, Ernani made Verdi’s fame, and remained the most popular of his operas until the premiere of Il Trovatore in 1853. (Factoid: Ernani was also the first opera to be recorded in its entirety, in 1904.) We’ll get to Ernani in a bit. But first, I’d like to use the occasion of its American premiere at the Astor Place Opera House to explore what was Verdi’s formative decade, what he called his “years of the galley slave.” The Years of the Galley Slave On March 20, 1843, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) – seven months shy of his 30th birthday – left his apartment […]

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Music History Monday: The Riot at the Astor Place Opera House

We mark the deadly riot on May 10, 1849 – 172 years ago today – that took place at the Astor Place Opera House in New York City. Between 22 and 31 people were killed and many hundreds more injured, in a riot that pitted immigrants and members of the working class against the wealthy elite who controlled the city’s police and militia.  Gala Openings, Class War, and Opera (and Theater) in the United States We’ve all seen pictures of the things; I imagine some of us have even attended them: opera galas. In San Francisco (where the San Francisco Opera is second only to the Metropolitan Opera in terms of its budget and number of performances), the season opening opera gala is the major social event for those fine people who “do” major social events. Tickets for the gala cost a small fortune. For the men, black tie is de rigueur; for the women, off-the-shoulder gowns, freshly coiffed hair, and tons of jewelry are, but of course. As best as I can tell, the social point of the gala is to be perceived as a member of the exclusive club that is “high society”: to be seen and to […]

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Music History Monday: The Word’s the Thing: Betty Comden and Adolph Green

May 3 is a date rich in birthdays for American popular music. Let us acknowledge three of them before moving on to the particular birthday that has inspired this post. On May 3, 1919 – 102 years ago today – the American folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger was born in New York City. Seeger was the prototypical American folk-singing, left-wing social activist. A man and musician allied with the working class and workers’ rights, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era only to re-emerge as an important singer of protest music in the 1960s in the service of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement, international disarmament, the environment, and whatever might be considered the “counterculture” at any given time. As a prominent voice and songwriter on the radio in the 1940s and founding member of the Weavers (in 1948), Seeger created a body of music that remains the backbone of the folk repertoire, including such songs as Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song), Kisses Sweeter Than Wine and Turn! Turn! Turn! He died an American legend on January 27, 2014 at the age of 94.  On May 3, 1933 […]

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Music History Monday: Tchaikovsky in America

We mark the arrival in New York City on April 26, 1891 – 130 years ago today – of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He had come to America to conduct his own music and to help inaugurate Carnegie Hall (on May 5, 1891) by conducting his own Coronation Festival Overture.  Tchaikovsky at Fifty Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in the Russian town Votkinsk, roughly 630 miles east of Moscow. He might have started his life in the sticks, but he didn’t stay there, and by the age of fifty – in 1890 – he was one of the most beloved composers in the world and a Russian national hero. Photographs taken at the time depict a balding, grey haired and bearded man seemingly well advanced of fifty years, though in this, appearances can be deceiving. At the age of fifty Tchaikovsky was at the very top of his musical game and at the apogee of his fame. A single anecdote will suffice for his stature among contemporary Russian artists. During the winter of 1889, Tchaikovsky met a young medical-student-turned-writer at his brother Modest’s house named Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). At the time of their meeting Tchaikovsky expressed admiration […]

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Music History Monday: To the memory of an Angel

We mark the posthumous premiere on April 19, 1936 – 85 years ago today – of Alban Berg’s breathtaking Violin Concerto. Its score bears a double dedication: “To Louis Krasner” (1903-1995; Krasner was the violinist who commissioned and premiered the concerto) and “To the Memory of an Angel” (the significance of which will be explained in due time). Albano Maria Johannes Berg was born in Vienna on February 9, 1885. He died there 50 years later, on December 24, 1935. Berg was born into a highly cultured family that travelled in the highest circle of Vienna’s cultural elite, at a time when Vienna was home to a staggering amount of talent. Berg numbered among his friends Gustav and Alma Mahler, the writers Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) and Karl Kraus (1874-1936); the architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933); and the artists Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). Among others. That’s quite a crew. A tall (he grew to be 6’5” in height), gangly, shy child, the young Berg was more interested in literature than music. A few elementary piano lessons aside, Berg had no formal musical training whatsoever until 1904, when he was 19. That was when he began composition lessons with the […]

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Music History Monday: Dr. Burney

We mark the death on April 12, 1814 – 207 years ago today – of the English music historian and composer Charles Burney, in London. One rarely achieves much fame or fortune as a music historian; you can trust me on this; it’s something I know about firsthand. Nevertheless, Dr. Burney (he was awarded an honorary Doctor of music degree from Oxford) achieved a bit of both fame and fortune in his lifetime and immortality since. That’s because he didn’t just write blogs or record podcasts about music history; it’s because he lived it. Lots more on this once we (quickly) get through his biographical preliminaries.  He was born on April 7, 1726 in the market town of Shrewsbury, some 150 miles northwest of London. (For our information, Shrewsbury was, as well, the hometown of Charles Darwin.) The artistic gene was in the family: Burney’s father James was a musician, dancer, and portrait painter. Young Charles was trained on the organ, harpsichord, violin and in composition. For three years he was apprenticed in London with Thomas Arne (1710-1778), the most important English-born composer of theater music in the eighteenth century. (Many of us might not have heard of Arne, but […]

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Music History Monday: “Three’s the Charm”

We mark the premiere on April 5, 1803 – 218 years ago today – of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor at a public concert held at the Theater-an-der-Wien, in Vienna. Beethoven was the piano soloist and conducted the Theater-an-der-Wien Orchestra from the piano. The title of this post – “Three’s the Charm” – is meant in no way to diminish Beethoven’s piano concerti nos. 1 and 2. Rather, it would indicate that this third concerto, completed when Beethoven was 32 years old, is the first piano concerto of his compositional maturity and is thus packed with the sorts of modernity and expressive range that the phrase “Beethoven’s maturity” implies. Beethoven’s “Akademies” In the Vienna of Beethoven’s time, public concerts – to which anyone could “subscribe” (that is, buy a ticket in advance) – were called “Akademies”. When a composer staged an Akademie, the concert was additionally referred to as a “benefit” in that the profits went directly into the pocket of the composer.  Staging a benefit concert was a big deal, though not without risk. It was a “big deal” because such concerts were usually the only way for a composer to put his music before the […]

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