Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Music History Monday: Pierre Monteux: One of the Great Ones

We acknowledge the death – on July 1, 1964, 55 years ago today – of the French-American conductor and teacher Pierre Monteux, who passed away at his home in Hancock, Maine at the age of 89. Conductors: love them or hate them, we can’t live without them. Composers and instrumental musicians have mixed feelings about conductors, and rightly so. (I’m leaving singers out of the mix here because it’s been my experience that singers, bless them, will generally do what they damn please, conductor or no conductor.)  As a composer, I can tell you that it is disquieting to hand over a “child of my imagination” – a score – to a conductor. I know that 99% of the time that conductor will do her level best to perform the piece to my specifications, whether she herself “likes” the piece or not. But you never really know what’s going to happen in a performance, and every composer I know has at least a couple of horror stories to tell when it comes to their experience with conductors. (I had a Concerto for Vibraphone and Chamber Orchestra premiered on a Monday Evening Concert at the Los Angeles County Museum some 25… 

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Dr. Bob Recommends: Aaron Copland, Short Symphony

Thus far, this post series has celebrated eight mid-twentieth century American composers – Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Samuel Barber, Henry Cowell, David Diamond, Peter Mennin, William Schuman and Walter Piston – each and every one of whom deserves to be respected and his music embraced. For better or for worse, the one mid-century American composer who has come to overshadow them all is Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Yes, for both the American public and professional music community, Copland is considered the most representative “American” composer of the twentieth century. Having said that, we’d also observe that Copland was a genuinely nice man, someone who believed deeply in the essential role of the arts in a free society, and he would be nothing less than mortified by the present obscurity of so many of his contemporaries. Barber, Diamond, Mennin, Schuman and Piston (and Morton Gould and Roger Sessions and Irving Fine and Virgil Thomson, etc.) were not just Copland’s fellow mid-century composers; they were also his colleagues, his collaborators, and his friends. See the post and celebration of Copland’s little-known masterpiece – his Short Symphony of 1933, only on Patreon!

Exploring the Dissonant C-sharp in Beethoven’s “Eroica”

Patreon patron, Mr. Sullivan, recently asked the following question: “In several of your courses you have also referred to the C# in the Eroica as implying a modulation to G minor. I have never understood that statement. Would you be so kind as to enlighten me about that?” Mr. Sullivan refers to a (dissonant!) C-sharp that appears out of nowhere in measure 7 of the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3; a dissonance that is to have huge ramifications later in the movement. I have prepared a four-minute video explanation that I hope will do the trick. Watch it now on Patreon Courses on Sale

Talking Royalties on the Habeas Humor Podcast

I joined Charone Frankel’s “Habeas Humor” podcast to talk about music royalties and licensing from my perspective as a composer and as a content producer for The Great Courses. Listen to the standard version for free, or hear the full, “director’s cut”, podcast on her Patreon channel. My own Patreon patrons will also be able to hear the full podcast. Thank you to Ms. Frankel for having me on, and for allowing me to share!   Final day on sale for many of these courses:

Music History Monday: Mily Balakirev

A happy 180th birthday to Mily Balakirev, the man who became – virtually – the Tsar of nineteenth century Russian music. More than anyone else, it was Mily Balakirev who postulated and promulgated precisely what Russian nationalist music should be. Balakirev was born in the city of Nizhny Novgorod – which was known as “Gorky” from 1932 to 1990 – about 240 miles east of Moscow. He was a child prodigy as both a pianist and conductor and began composing at the age of 15. Among his early compositions was a virtuosic piano fantasy based on themes from Mikhail Glinka’s groundbreaking opera, A Life for the Tsar. Thanks to his two operas: A Life for the Tsar (known during the Soviet era as “Ivan Susanin”) of 1836 and Ruslan and Lyudmila, of 1842, Glinka was embraced (and continues to be embraced) as the “Messiah of Russian music”, that single composer credited with having lead Russian concert music out of the wilderness of Western European domination to a place of paradisiacal narodnost’, of Russian musical authenticity. In 1855, at the age of 18, Balakirev moved to St. Petersburg, where he met and played piano for his hero, Mikhail Glinka. Glinka –… 

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Music History Monday: Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich

Last week’s “Music History Monday” was about the premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 on December 18, 1962 and the official Soviet silence that greeted that premiere on December 19, 1962. We’re going to stay with Shostakovich this week because on January 21, 2017 the Alexander String Quartet and I are going to begin a two-season, nine-concert perusal of the string quartets and chamber music of Dmitri Shostakovich in San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre. Along with Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets, we will examine and perform as well Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57 (1940), Piano Trio in E Minor, Op. 67 (1944), and his Viola Sonata Op. 147 (1975). The lessons to be learned from Shostakovich’s life, his times, and his music are as real and relevant today as they were when Shostakovich was alive. Russian repression and adventurism are alive and well today in the kleptocracy of Tsar Vladimir the First as they were under the Soviets. “Mistakes that were made” are once again being made, and Shostakovich’s life and music offer a degree of insight into these current events that few other things can. Art and politics can be problematic bedfellows, but they are an indivisible… 

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Music History Monday: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13

The Premiere That Almost Wasn’t: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 Wednesday, December 19, 1962 was significant for something that didn’t happen. On the day before – Tuesday, December 18, 1962 – Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 received its premiere in Moscow with Kirill Kondrashin conducting the bass soloist Vitali Gromadsky, the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, and the basses of the Gnessin Institute and Republican State Choirs. The symphony – which set to music five poems by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (who was 29 years old at the time of the premiere) – created a sensation. Yevtushenko recalled: “At the symphony’s premiere, the audience experienced something rare: for fifty minutes, they wept and laughed and smiled and grew pensive.” The Russian-American sculptor Ernst Neizvestny remembered: “It was major! There was a sense of something incredible happening. The interesting part was that when the symphony ended, there was no applause at first, just an unusually long pause—so long that I even thought that it might be some sort of conspiracy. But then the audience burst into wild applause with shouts of ‘Bravo!’ At the time of the premiere, the 56 year-old Dmitri Shostakovich was a Soviet icon, an institution, the most famous and… 

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Music History Mondays: Mozart – A Diagnosis

December 5 is an important date in music history. On December 5, 1830 (which was a Sunday) Hector Berlioz’ ground-breaking Symphonie Fantastique received its premiere at a concert that began at 2 P.M. at the Paris Conservatoire, then located on the Rue Bergère – what today is called the Rue de Conservatoire – in the 9th arrondissement. Tuesday, December 5, 1865 saw the public premiere of Johannes Brahms’ crazy-awesome Trio for Horn, Violin, and Piano in E-flat Major, Op. 40, in the southwestern German city of Karlsruhe, with the 32 year-old Brahms at the piano. The Barry Tuckwell, Itzhak Perlman, and Vladimir Ashkenazy recording on London affords more pleasure than any of us have a right to experience. Acquire it. Now. It gets no better. But these and other events pale to insignificance next to what happened on Monday, December 5, 1791 in Vienna. It was then and there – at 55 minutes past midnight – that Wolfgang Mozart died in the music room of his first story (what we in the U.S.A. call the second story) flat, located in a house called “das kleine Kaiserhaus” (“the small imperial house’) at Rauhensteingasse 8 in central Vienna. Mozart was 35 years,… 

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Music History Monday: The Gnarly Demise of a Nasty Man

On November 28, 1632 – 284 years ago today – Giovanni Battista Lulli was born to a working class family in a working class neighborhood in Florence. As “Jean-Baptiste Lully”, his rags-to-riches life would see him climb to the very pinnacle Euro-music, becoming the first important composer of French-language opera, the all-powerful director of the Paris Opera, and confident to King Louis XIV of France, the great “Sun King” himself. Yet for all his fame and power, Lully would be almost entirely unknown today except for the way he died. Here’s what happened. Giovanni Battista was a very talented kid: early on he learned to play the guitar, the violin, to compose and to dance; he was said to excel at pretty much everything. At the age of fourteen he caught the first of his lucky breaks. It was Mardi Gras in Florence; he was dressed as Harlequin and was clowning around with his violin on the street, amusing bystanders and picking up a few coins. He was noticed by a Frenchman named Roger de Lorraine, Chevalier de Guise who, as you might expect from all his names, was a very important person. The Chevalier de Guise was on his… 

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Music History Mondays: Too Many Birthdays!

I began this “Music History Monday” project by scouring the Web for musical events from which I assembled a master list of what happened in the world of Western concert music on each of the year’s 366 days. (Indeed: 366; we cannot forget February 29. And yes, February 29 is a significant date in the history of Western concert music. Since February 29 will not again fall on a Monday until 2044, I don’t mind spilling those leap year beans right now: On February 29, 1792, the extraordinary Italian opera composer Gioachino Antonio Rossini was born in Pesaro, Italy. In his 76 years, the poor dude managed to celebrate only 19 birthdays!) My master list catalogs over a thousand noteworthy musical events. On most Mondays I have two or three events to choose between, although – every now and then – there are Mondays during which nothing noteworthy happened: nada, niente, zilch, zed, zero. Monday, September 19, 2016 was just such a day. Yes, many other noteworthy things occurred on September 19, among them: on September 19, 1870 the Prussian Army laid siege to Paris; on September 19, 1893, New Zealand became the first country to grant all women the… 

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