Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Richard Strauss – Four Last Songs

There are fighting words, and then there are FIGHTING WORDS.

Maria Callas (1923-1977) as Floria Tosca
Maria Callas (1923-1977) as Floria Tosca

As for the former, small-case version of “fighting words” I would lump political discourse (which can, admittedly, get pretty hot these days; I trust none of you are put off by the fact that I keep politics out of this site, not because I am an apolitical wuss but because I want this to be a safe place for everybody); the question as to whether steroid-era baseball superstars like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mark McGuire belong in the hall of fame; or whether Certs should be considered a breath mint or a candy mint.

As someone writing on topics musical, I would list but one category of true, all caps FIGHTING WORDS, and that topic/category is singers.

I have found that you can say pretty much anything about someone’s children, mother, pets, and car (okay; maybe not their car), but mess with that person’s favorite singer(s) and you will be in for a world of hurt.

For example. In last week’s Music History Monday, I extolled the glories of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca. In the course of the post, I indicated that my favorite recording of the opera features Renata Tebaldi in the title role. Patreon patron Frank Schmidt commented:

“Tosca – Callas – I’m easy.”

Mr. Schmidt is not alone in his appraisal. In an article published in the New York Times on December 29, 2017, chief music critic Anthony Tommasini claimed that Maria Callas’ 1953 recording of Tosca (available on Warner Classics) is “the best opera recording ever.” His support for that statement consists of describing Callas’ remarkable dramatic persona: her tremendous emotional range, her subtlety of expression, her timing, her preternatural ability to make us care about the character Floria Tosca; in a word, her acting. 


Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004)
Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004)

But for my ear, for my taste, in my opinion (for whatever it’s worth), I find Callas’ vocal quality lacking. Don’t get me wrong; I own her 1953 recording of Tosca, as should every opera fan. Still, for me, Callas’ instrument lacks depth, dimensionality, consistency and range, which she often compensated for by forcing things such that her tone could be – on occasion – harsh.

Renata Tebaldi, on the other hand, had a one-in-a-billion instrument, utterly consistent from top-to-bottom: never harsh or strained, lush, nuanced, multi-layered, full-bodied.

To my ear, comparing the voice of Maria Callas to the voice of Renata Tebaldi is like comparing a light-bodied Pinot Noir to a rich, complex, well-rounded, well-aged Cabernet Sauvignon.

Yup: them be FIGHTIN’ WORDS! I can see a legion of Callas fans, with Frank Schmidt in their lead, rolling up their sleeves and heading towards me with torches, pitchforks and axe handles. (Careful! I’m a bleeder! All right, not really but I do have young kids, so be chill, be chill!)………

The silly, but nevertheless useful, comparison of certain women’s voices to certain wines continues, along with the reveal of a voice like a 1961 Chateau La Tour Grand Vin Bordeaux, which belongs to the prescribed recording of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs of 1948, can all be found on

Patreon subscriptions start at $2/month

Robert Greenberg Courses on Sale