Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Beethoven

Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte

Covid-19 be damned, it’s still Beethoven’s 250th birth year and that celebration stops for nothing and no one, certainly not here on the pages of Dr. Bob Prescribes. Let us then continue to revel in some of Beethoven’s lesser-known works and lesser-known performances. Today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes is the third and final post to be dedicated to Beethoven’s songs, which together constitute the most under-appreciated segment of his entire output. (Instead of the word “output”, I was about to write oeuvre, which is French for “the collected works of a painter, composer, or author.” But I’ve decided that an English language post shouldn’t refer to a German’s compositional output using a French word. Which immediately brought to mind – as I sure it does for you as well – Henry Watson Fowler’s injunction against using French words in his wonderful A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford, 1926, which can actually be read for pleasure so entertaining are the entries. Here’s what Fowler [1858–1933, the so-called “Warden of the English Language”] writes: “FRENCH WORDS. Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth – greater, indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Beethoven Lieder

Beethoven Songs Beethoven’s songs? Yes indeed, Beethoven composed over 90 songs for voice and piano and arranged an additional 179 Irish, Scottish, Welsh and other folksongs for voice, piano, violin and cello. Beethoven’s songs are among his least known and least appreciated works, and this must and will stop, at least here on the cyber-pages of Dr. Bob Prescribes!  Here’s what I intend to do about it. Over the course of the next two months, I will dedicate three posts – starting today – to Beethoven’s songs. Today’s post will establish Beethoven’s bona fides as not just a composer of songs but as a composer for the voice. The next post will deal with his folk song arrangements and finally, the third post will celebrate a brilliant performance of Beethoven’s greatest single vocal work, the song cycle An die ferne Gelibte (“To the Distant Beloved”), Op. 98, of 1816. Readers of this post are aware that I usually begin with the background of the work in question before moving on to the recommended recording. We’re going to do things differently here by beginning with the recommended recording and then moving on to something of a tutorial on Beethoven’s songs. This […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Life and Times of Beethoven – The First Angry Man

In February of this year, I was asked to be among the first “influencers” (yes, that’s how I was referred to: I, who am incapable of “influencing” my daughter to turn out the lights when she’s left a room or my son to flush the freakin’ toilet) to record original content for Amazon’s Audible brand. The result is a ten-lecture, five-hour (30 minutes per lecture), 40,000-word biography of Beethoven titled The Life and Times of Beethoven: The First Angry Man. Created in conjunction with The Great Courses, the course was recorded in Chantilly, Virginia in July and hit the market last month. A couple of points before moving on.  Point one. By titling my course The First Angry Man, I have, admittedly, indulged in the tired cliché that Beethoven was angry pretty much all the time, a cliché reinforced a gazillion-fold by the famously scowling images of Beethoven that became stock-in-trade of the Beethoven myth as it evolved during the nineteenth century. In response to the clichéd images of a sullen, glowering Beethoven, enjoy the included image of Beethoven smiling. Yes, of course, it is bogus, but so is the impression that he never smiled or laughed, which he did, […]

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Music History Monday: The Man

We mark the birth on December 16, 1770 – 249 years ago today – of Ludwig, or Louis, or Luigi (he went by all three names) van Beethoven, in the Rhineland city of Bonn. Although there is no documentary evidence confirming that Beethoven was actually born on the 16th, we assume – with that proverbial 99.99% degree of certainty – that he was. This is because the Catholic parishes of the time required that newborns be baptized within 24 hours of birth and Beethoven’s baptism was registered at the church of St. Remigius on December 17, 1770.

As we brace ourselves for the hoopla celebrating the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth, we pause and ask ourselves, honestly, why Beethoven: why do we, as a listening public, so adore his music?

I would answer that question by drawing on some material from my recently published “Audible Original Course”, Beethoven: The First Angry Man (which, gratuitously, will be the topic of tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post)

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Emil Gilels

This post continues the celebration of Beethoven’s upcoming semiquincentennial (250th anniversary of his birth) by featuring what is, for me, my out-of-the-ballpark favorite performance of what is, for me, my favorite Beethoven Piano Concerto. We contemplate, for a moment, youth, innocence, and the inevitable loss of both. I am writing this post on October 14, 2019. Today is my daughter Lillian Patricia’s 13th birthday; for not the first time in my life I have a teenaged daughter under my roof. Lily is still – may it long last – as sweet as can be, as the picture to the right (taken last night in her Halloween outfit) attests. But. But as experience has taught me, I am (painfully) aware that some point in the next two years she will suddenly and inexplicably disappear, to be replaced by an irrational, cynical, hypersensitive, over-emotional, easily angered, appearance-obsessed clone, someone pathologically hostile towards my jokes and given to door-slamming exhibitions of pique. I am additionally aware that it could take up to five or even six years to find my real daughter, during which time the rest of us will have to tread as if walking on glass.  Lillian’s childhood is almost over, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Beethoven Piano Quartet No. 3, WoO 36

The year 2020 will mark our adored Louis van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. As discussed in Dr. Bob Prescribes on July 23, among my contributions to the coming year-of-living-Beethoven hoopla will be a series of posts exploring some of Beethoven’s lesser-known works and/or performances we should all know about. On July 23, the object of our affection was Beethoven’s magnificent Mass in C of 1807. Today we turn to Beethoven’s Piano Quartet in C Major, WoO 36, No. 3 of 1785. (“WoO” does not signify a fist-pumped expression of approbation: “woo, WOO!”, but rather, “Werke ohne Opuszahl”, a “work without opus number.” Werke ohne Opuszahl is a catalog published in 1955 that lists most the works by Beethoven that did not receive an opus number or that survived only in fragmentary form.)  Beethoven composed the three piano quartets of “WoO 36” when he was but a wee shaver of 14. What makes the third of these piano quartets super-special is that despite its obvious debt to Mozart, it is the first work by Beethoven that sounds like Beethoven. For this we have one person to thank, the single person who allowed Beethoven to become “Beethoven”: his principal music teacher, Christian Gottlob […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Beethoven, Mass in C, Op. 86

I trust we are all preparing for it: that we’re stockpiling party hats, noisemakers, birthday candles and those blowy-things consisting of a mouthpiece and a flattened, coiled paper tube that extends obscenely when blown into, something variously called a “party horn”, “party blower”, “party pipe”, or a “blow tickler.” We’ll want to have this stuff in hand in quantity because we have a year-long birthday celebration coming up, as the year 2020 will mark Ludwig/Louis/Luigi van Beethoven’s 250th (or Semiquincentennial, meaning literally “half-of-500”) birthday. Roughly once-every-other-month through the end of 2020 – starting today – I’m going to offer up posts on some of Beethoven’s more obscure works and recordings of those works that we should all own. We begin with Beethoven’s Mass in C of 1807, which is much less well known and less frequently performed than his “Solemn Mass”, the Missa Solemnis, of 1823. Beethoven’s Mass in C was first performed on September 13, 1807, in Eisenstadt, Austria, by the musical establishment of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II. It did not go well. The mass had been commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II (1765-1833), an excessively-wealthy Hungarian Prince. Today, we rightly consider the Mass to be the masterwork that it is (although […]

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Music History Monday: Appassionata

On February 18, 1807 – 212 years ago today – Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, nicknamed by the publisher the “Appassionata”, was published in Vienna. The “Appassionata” is one of Beethoven’s most spectacular works, a piano sonata that over the years has evoked some pretty spectacular comparisons: the German-born, American musicologist Hugo Leichtentritt compared it to Dante’s Inferno; the German-born musicologist Arnold Schering likened it to Shakespeare’s Macbeth; Romain Rolland, the French dramatist, novelist, essayist, art historian and mystic (who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915) compared the Appassionata to Corneille’s tragedies; and the English musicologist and music theorist Donald Francis Tovey set it side-by-side with nothing less than Shakespeare’s King Lear. That’s Sir Donald Francis Tovey, and yes, even Sir Donald – that paragon of English restraint, dignity, and self-control (stiff upper lip and all that rot) – becomes a breathless, idolatrous, Beethoven fan-boy when attempting to describe the expressive content of the Appassionata Sonata: “This sonata is a great hymn of passion, which is born of the never-fulfilled longing for full and perfect bliss. Not blind fury, not the raging of sensual fevers, but the violent eruption of the afflicted soul, thirsting […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes (sort of): Beethoven, Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7, as “retouched” by Gustav Mahler

In November 1899 the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) told his friend, the violist Natalie Bauer-Lechner:  “Beethoven’s First, Second, and Fourth Symphonies can still be performed by modern orchestras and conductors. All the rest, however, are quite beyond their powers. Only Richard Wagner and I myself have done these works justice. And even I can manage it only by terrorizing the players; by forcing each individual to transcend his little self and rise above his own powers.”  Mahler goes on to say that: “Beethoven’s symphonies present a problem that is simply insoluble for the ordinary conductor. I see it more and more clearly. Unquestionably, they need re-interpretation and reworking. The very constitution and size of the orchestra necessitates it: in Beethoven’s time, the whole orchestra was not as large as the string section alone today. If, consequently, the other instruments are not brought into a balanced relationship with the strings, the effect is bound to be wrong. Wagner knew that very well; but he too had to suffer the bitterest attacks because of it.”   Mahler (who, I will gladly confess, is one of my very favorite composers) did not just talk-the-talk but eventually put his pencil where his […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas – Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano

I am presently looking for recipes for the best way to prepare crow. Sadly, there seem to be any: I’m told that crow meat smells bad and tastes worse (the things eat carrion, after all). Consequently, I fear that I’ll have to eat mine raw, crow tartare, as it were. (Does anyone out there want the eyes? The beak?) What, pray-tell, has forced me into such a wretched gastronomic situation? Alas, as is usually the case when one must eat crow, it is my own ignorance and hubris. To wit. For lo these many years, I have always looked down on the fortepiano: those early pianos distinguished by their wood-framed (as opposed to metal-framed) harps, built between 1700 and 1825. In my ignorance, I have long considered wooden-harped pianos to be transitional instruments, prototypes, transiting the temporal space between the invention of the piano by Bartolomeo Cristofiori to the Erards and Pleyels of the 1830s and finally to the Steinways of the 1860s (now THAT’S a piano!, or so I thought).  A couple of months ago, we engaged here on this site in what was a spirited and most constructive discourse on HIPs (historically informed performances, meaning “original instrument” recordings) […]

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