Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Furtwängler

Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1912
Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) in 1912

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.

Charles -Valentin Alkan
Charles -Valentin Alkan (1813-1888)

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 entitledAesop’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.

Allan Sherman, My Son the Folk Singer
Allan Sherman (1924-1973), My Son the Folk Singer (1962)

Long before “Weird Al” Yankovic (born 1959) created satirical songs parodying pop culture, there was Allan Sherman, who was born on this date in 1924 in Chicago, 96 years ago today. Sherman was primarily a creator of “contrafacta”: he assigned new words to old melodies, perhaps most famously converting Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” (from La Gioconda) into a letter from summer camp, Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh! I lived for Sherman’s first three albums – My Son the Folk Singer (1962), My Son the Celebrity (1963), My Son the Nut (1963) – all of which I still have memorized. Poor Allan Sherman: he died broke, broken, and forgotten (though not by me) in 1973, at the age of 48.

It was on this day in 2017 that the actor, singer, and comedian Jim Nabors passed away at the age of 87. His signature role was that of a good-natured, unsophisticated, pre-Forrest Gump southern boy named Gomer Pyle. Initially a cast member of the Andy Griffith Show, the character “Gomer Pyle” proved so popular that Nabors got his own spinoff show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., which ran from 1964 to 1969. (Gomer’s familiar taglines were “gawwwleee”, a wide-eyed “shazam!”, and most memorably, “surprise, surprise, surprise!”) The show was based on a dramatic premise called “fish-out-of-water”; like its exact contemporary, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. featured a rustic character out and abroad, removed from his native rural setting. The show was sweet (if dumb and predictable) but I liked it because every now and again, Jim Nabors would sing, and when this guy sang no country bumpkin was he! Nabors had a big, beautiful, silky-smooth baritone voice.

Herbert Butros Khaury in 1969
Herbert Butros Khaury (1932-1996) in 1969

Finally, it was on November 30, 1996 – 24 years ago today – that the singer and ukulele player Herbert Butros Khaury (known by many stage names but most famously as “Tiny Tim”) died while performing in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the age of 71. Khaury – who had been a staple on the Greenwich Village nightclub scene for years – was instantly vaulted to fame when he appeared on Dan Rowan and Dick Martin’s NBC show Laugh In on January 22, 1968. While Khaury’s most famous number was Tip Toe Through the Tulips With Me, he made his national television debut singing a medley of A Tisket-a-Tasket and On the Good Ship Lollypop. That performance is linked below. I remember watching the show, and the look of incredulity on Dick Martin’s face in the video matched our own at home.


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