Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Uncategorized – Page 2

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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Music History Mondays: Good Advice

159 years ago today, on November 7, 1857, Franz Liszt’s Dante Symphony for orchestra and female choir received its premiere at the Royal Theater in the Saxon capital of Dresden. The 46 year-old Liszt was, at the time, the most famous and beloved performing musician in all of Europe, and nowhere was he more popular than in Dresden, where he was considered something of a second son by the locals. Alas, Liszt’s popularity in Dresden did him no good; the premiere performance of his Dante Symphony was a fiasco and Liszt was all but hissed off the stage. The disaster was attributable to one thing: Liszt’s failure to take his own advice. Advice. Along with talking politics, religion, and dangling our feet in piranha-infested rivers, few things are more fraught with danger than giving (or receiving) advice. Yes: on occasion, we will solicit advice, and sometimes we’ll even follow that advice (provided that it corresponds with what we were going to do in the first place). But as often as not we receive (or give) advice that was neither asked for (unsolicited advice) nor desired (well-intended advice), advice that can cause no end of bad feelings between advisor and advisee. […]

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Music History Mondays: Steinway Concert Hall

On October 31, 1866 – 150 years ago today – Steinway Hall opened on East 14th Street, between Fifth Avenue and University Place in New York. (As a native of New York City, I would tell you that when a New Yorker says “New York”, she is referring specifically to the island of Manhattan. You got a problem with that?) Steinway Hall, which cost $90,786 to build there in 1866, served two mutually reinforcing purposes. Purpose one: to provide the city of New York with a state-of-the-art concert hall. To that end, Steinway Hall contained a concert hall with 2500 seats and a stage that could accommodate a 100-piece symphony orchestra. It was – at the time it opened – among the largest and certainly the most opulent and prestigious concert venue in New York City. It was the home of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for 25 years: from the day it opened its doors in 1866 until 1891, when the orchestra moved to the newly built Carnegie Hall. Purpose two: to sell pianos! Steinway Hall’s grand showroom was big enough to display over 100 pianos. According to the president of Steinway & Sons, William Steinway (born Wilhelm Steinweg, […]

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Music History Mondays: George Crumb: A Birthday Appreciation

A most happy birthday to the iconic American composer George Crumb, who was born in Charleston, West Virginia 87 years ago today. Youth is indeed wasted on the young. One of the many wonderful things about being a kid (and here I’m talking about anyone under the age of 25) is the revelatory, earth-shaking, full-contact emotional body slam that comes from discovering something new. And since most everything is new for young ‘uns, the pace of such revelations can be daily, creating a level of existential excitement that an old fart like me can only look upon with melancholic envy. (I would note that this “excitement of discovery” doesn’t necessarily provoke a positive response. I remember well when my daughter Lily—the third of my four kids—first tasted ice cream. She was about 18 months old; her eyes rolled back in her head and a beatific smile crossed her face when suddenly she fixed me, her father, whose loins contributed to giving her life, with a death glare that Medusa herself would have envied. I understood immediately what she was thinking: “you rotten b*stard, I’ve been alive for a year-and-a-half and you’ve only now allowed me to taste this bit of […]

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Music History Monday: Chopin’s Heart

167 years ago today – on October 17, 1849 – the brilliant Polish-born composer Frédéric Chopin died in his apartment in Paris’ très chic Place Vendome. He was 39 years, 6 months, and 16 days old when he died and was attended by Dr. Jean Cruveilhier, France’s leading authority on tuberculosis. A few months before his death, Dr. Cruveilhier had diagnosed Chopin with tuberculosis, and Cruveilhier ascribed TB as the cause of Chopin’s death on his death certificate. There was a certain tragic romance associated with tuberculosis in nineteenth century Europe. Dubbed the “White Plague”, TB was thought to imbue its victims with a heightened artistic sensibility. Reflecting on just this, the prototypical Romantic poet Lord George Gordon Byron, wrote, “I should like to die from consumption.” (He didn’t; he died of a septic infection at the age of 36. No romance there at all.) In a letter to a friend, George Sand wrote of her beloved Frédéric Chopin, “Chopin coughs with infinite grace.” So idealized was the “spiritual purity” tuberculosis presumably bestowed on its sufferers that it became stylish for mid-nineteenth century women to affect the appearance of a consumptive by making their skin as pale as possible. (As […]

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Music History Mondays: Porgy and Bess

81 years ago today – on October 10, 1935 – George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess opened at the Alvin Theater in New York City. With a libretto by Dubose Heywood (whose play Porgy was the basis of the libretto) and Gershwin’s older brother Ira, Porgy and Bess ran a frankly unimpressive (by contemporary Broadway standards) 124 performances before it closed. Porgy and Bess was applauded for the beauty of its numbers but roundly criticized for being neither fish nor fowl. The critic Samuel Chotzinoff – ordinarily friendly to Gershwin – wrote: “As entertainment it is a hybrid, fluctuating constantly between music drama, musical comedy, and operetta.” Given the version of Porgy and Bess that he heard, Chotzinoff’s criticism is entirely justified. And therein lies a tale. George Gershwin’s amazing success as a composer of Broadway musicals and jazz-influenced concert works lit a fuse deep inside him: a desire to compose a full-length, no-holds-barred, knock-‘em-out-of-their seats American opera. His life-long affinity with the music of the African-American community – drumming, ragtime, jazz, and the spiritual – drew him like a bear to honey to a play called Porgy by Dubose Heywood. Heywood’s Porgy was produced on Broadway in 1927 and depicts […]

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T-Shirt Comedy

I was all ready to post a longish blog this evening, describing my webcast plans and thanking all those whose comments and advice helped me to formulate those plans when, just moments ago, I received this link from Gethin Jones. It is a Beethoven tee-shirt, with – presumably – the first four measures of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony writ large across the bosom. Except. Except, instead of spelling out Beethoven’s iconic “fate motive” – G-G-G-Eb; F-F-F-D – the genius who designed the shirt instead spelled out “Three Blind Mice” (G-F-Eb). I am not usually a laugh out-loud sort of guy but this has really tickled my funny bone. It could very well be the biggest musical mistake since Pol Pot’s “Christmas Album”. Available in nine(!) different colors and six different sizes, I’m thinking that this is the “must have” of the year; the pet rock, the Chia Porcupine, the “Dog is My Co-Pilot” bumpersticker of 2015. If anyone wants to know, I wear between a large and an X-large.

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HAPPY 243RD BIRTHDAY LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN!

In honor of the day I offer up a few Beethoven jokes. Beethoven himself loved a good joke. According to his pals, no one laughed louder at Beethoven’s jokes than Beethoven himself, who would throw his head back and howl with inappropriately loud laughter. (We are told that Beethoven’s friends invariably laughed along, not because the jokes were funny but because they got such a kick out of Beethoven’s own reaction to them.) The available repertoire of Beethoven jokes is, unfortunately, rather poverty stricken. Out of sheer stubbornness I refuse to relate any joke that concludes with the line, “Oh, that’s just Beethoven decomposing.” Neither will you find any of the various jokes that conclude with the line, “the bassists were loaded in the bottom of the 9th” or “Arnold Schwarzenegger never performs Beethoven because he claims ‘I’ll be Bach’”. Finally, we will not repeat any of the “what’s on the piano stool?/Beethoven’s last movement” jokes here; HEY, I’m trying to maintain a modicum of taste in this blog, okay? Here we go. Having just crossed the road, why did Beethoven kill the chicken? It kept saying ‘Bach, Bach, Bach’. Why couldn’t Beethoven find his composition teacher? Because he was […]

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What Killed Mozart? The Real Story

Mozart died 222 years ago today at the not-at-all ripe age of 35 years, 10 months, and 8 days. In yesterday’s post I described some of the conspiracy theories that have accumulated around Mozart’s death like guano on seaside rocks. Today we move on to some of the medical diagnoses that have been proposed to explain his untimely death. What killed Mozart? According to his death certificate, Mozart died of “heated miliary fever” which was eighteenth century for “haven’t a clue.” A contemporary newspaper claimed that he died of “dropsy of the heart,” a swelling of the body due to water retention as a result of kidney failure. So, kidney failure has also been blamed for Mozart’s death, a failure that could have been brought on by a streptococcal infection (strep throat), viral hepatitis, scarlet fever, or some other viral illness. According to Dr. Peter J. Davies in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (1983), Mozart died from Henoch-Schonlein syndrome, another secondary illness brought on by a viral infection. In fact, some 150 separate diagnoses have been proposed to explain Mozart’s death. According to Dr. Jan Hirschmann of Puget Sound Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Seattle, Mozart died […]

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Mozartian Conspiracy Theories

Tomorrow, December 5, marks the 222nd anniversary of the Death of Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, who died in Vienna at the age of 35 on December 5, 1791. Few historical events have been subjected to as much speculation as the cause of Mozart’s death. So many different theories and stories have been suggested over the years that it’s impossible to discuss (or refute) them all. So let’s examine the facts as best as we can and then discuss a few of the alternative explanations for Mozart’s death. First, “the plot.” During the summer of 1791, Mozart was anonymously commissioned to write a Requiem mass. More than any other single element, it is this fact that served to create the myth of Mozart’s murder: “An uncanny messenger had delivered a summons from the underworld to prepare a doomed hero for an appointment in Samarra.” Near the end of her life, Mozart’s widow Constanze purportedly told Mozart researchers Vincent and Mary Novello that: “Some six months before his death he was possessed with the idea of his being poisoned – ‘I know I must die’, he exclaimed, ‘someone has given me aqua toffana [a mixture of arsenic and lead] and has […]

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