Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Beethoven

Dr. Bob Prescribes Ludwig van Beethoven – Fidelio

In referring to Fidelio as Beethoven’s only opera, we often overlook the fact that for all its preliminary versions it was also his first opera.  As such, it has been pointed out that Fidelio, which Beethoven began composing when he was 34 years old, is “the best first opera ever written.”  Writes Paul Robeson in The Cambridge Opera Handbook: Fidelio: “Certainly, it surpasses the first efforts of better-known opera composers: Wagner’s Die Feen, Verdi’s Oberto, Puccini’s Le Villi, and Richard Strauss’ Guntram.” (We would observe that the little whippersnapper, Wolfgang Mozart, composed his first opera – La finta semplice – at the age of 12, so comparisons to Beethoven here are inappropriate.  We’d further observe that he was just 30 years old when he composed The Marriage of Figaro; 32 years old when he composed Don Giovanni; and 33 years old when he composed Cosí fan tutte.  Freak.) As his “first” opera and as a slow worker, Beethoven labored long and hard on Fidelio.  It began its life with the title Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe (meaning “Leonore, or The Triumph of Marital Love”). The opera is a setting of a German-language libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner which was based […]

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Music History Monday: Beethoven and the Human Voice

We mark the premiere on May 23, 1814 – 208 years ago today – of Ludwig van Beethoven’s one-and-only opera, Fidelio, at the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna.  While Beethoven (1770-1827) had composed two preliminary versions of the opera, which had been performed in 1805 and 1806, it is this third and substantially different version that we will hear in the opera house today. It’s an odd but, in this case, an applicable idiom, “red herring.” Literally, a “red herring” is, believe it or not, a red herring (see image above): a dried and smoked herring that’s turned red due to being smoked.  However, for our purposes, a “red herring” is: “something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question. It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences toward a false conclusion.” The Beethovenian red herring to which we are referring started with the German author, legal scholar, composer, music critic, and artist Ernst Theodor Amadeus (or “E. T. A.”) Hoffman (1776-1822).  Hoffman wrote a lengthy and frankly worshipful appreciation of Beethoven’s instrumental music entitled “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music” in 1813, when Beethoven was in his 43rd year.  In the course of […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The String Quartets of Beethoven

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post addressed two anniversaries: the 337th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach on March 21, 1685, and the 196th anniversary of the premiere of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130, on March 21, 1826.  That quartet, like so very much of Beethoven’s late music, demonstrates explicitly the influence of Bach’s music on Beethoven’s own in its sixth (and final) movement fugue. That sixth movement fugue is the key to Beethoven’s conception of the piece, as the preceding five movements of the quartet are related not so much to each other as they are to the culminating fugue.    Sadly, Beethoven’s late-in-life infatuation (obsession would not be too strong a word) with both fugues and the High Baroque/Sebastian Bach-inspired aesthetic they represented, was not shared with most members of his contemporary musical community. For all his cantankerous individuality, Ludwig (aka Louis/Luigi) van Beethoven (1770-1827) was still part of a musical community, and it was a community that had long before rejected the Baroque era musical style that had preceded it. Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) – one of the intellectual pillars of the Enlightenment – wrote apropos of fugues and the High […]

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Music History Monday: Ludwig van Beethoven and the Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach

We mark the birth on March 21, 1685, of Johann Sebastian Bach in the Thuringian town of Eisenach, in what today is central Germany.  He died 65 years later, on July 28, 1750, in the Saxon city of Leipzig. I can hear the howling now, “Dr. B, hello, Bach was born on March 31, 1685, not March 21; March 31: it says so on Wikipedia!” Chill out and unknot those jockeys; let’s talk.   Wikipedia and various other sources do indeed indicate, not incorrectly, that Bach was born on March 31.  But according to the irrefutable and unassailable Bach scholar Christoff Wolff writing in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Sebastian Bach was born on March 21.  And in fact Bach celebrated his birthday on March 21.  So what gives? A Brief Contemplation of Dates (by which we do not refer to one’s social life but the calendar) Old style and new style; in style and out-of-style.  It is a question of almost Talmudic complexity.   We’re talking about calendars and the confusion wrought by changing calendars. In 46 BCE (two years before his conversion into a human pincushion), Julius Caesar proposed replacing what was the 10-month Roman […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven’s Three String Trios, Op. 9

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post featured the composer, pianist, friend of everybody (including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert), the Benedictine abbot Abbé Maximilian Stadler (1748-1833). During the course of that post, we observed that Stadler believed the music of Mozart to be the very last word when it came to artistry and expression. We also observed that the Abbé understood Beethoven’s music not a whit and that he was notorious for getting up and leaving a room when a work of Beethoven’s was about to be performed. (That Beethoven forgave him these indiscretions is an indication of the respect and affection Beethoven felt for Stadler, a measure of respect and affection shared by the larger Viennese musical community.) However, there was an occasion when Stadler stayed put for a performance of a work by Beethoven, an event rare enough to be singled out in Alexander Thayer’s monumental Life of Beethoven (originally published in 1866 but extensively revised and edited by Elliott Forbes and republished in 1967). “But once he stayed and not only listened to a Beethoven piece but praised it. It was the Trio for Strings, Op. 9, which had been composed nearly a generation before! [The violinist and […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Complete Beethoven Sets

Spending Other People’s Money I’ve always had a talent for spending other people’s money. 35 years ago, when Berkeley California had more hi-fi/stereo shops then fleas on a feral dog, I used to take anyone who asked me stereo shopping. (I had a lot of requests as I was teaching adult extension classes for UC Berkeley, the San Francisco Conservatory, and my own private “living room” classes in San Francisco and Oakland.) I would take folks to the appropriate shop depending upon how much money they wanted to spend.  Shopping for a decent hi-fi could be intimidating, especially in those days, with the advent of digital equipment. Folks didn’t know what questions to ask, what to listen for, or whether they were being conned by salespeople. I couldn’t be conned; I knew what to listen for and what equipment was good and what was not; I knew which shops were run by honest and knowledgeable managers and which were not; and which shops provided in-home setup and did not charge extra for extended warranties.  Again, in the early days of digital (1985-1995, or so) I’d take friends to Tower Records (a moment of respectful silence, please) in San Francisco or […]

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Music History Monday: “V” for Victory!

On July 19, 1941 – 80 years ago today – the BBC World Service began using the first four notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 of 1808 as a “linking” device on its broadcasts into Nazi-occupied Europe.  Why the BBC chose to use music by a German-born composer, and what those four notes meant makes for quite a story. Background The European phase of World War Two began on September 1, 1939, when Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded its neighbor to the east, Poland.  The invasion had been made possible just 8 days before, when the Soviet Union entered into a so-called “non-aggression” pact with Nazi Germany.  It was an act that stunned the world: these two greatest enemies, these two most diametrically opposed political ideologies – fascism and communism – had made nice: Hitler and Stalin had cozied up, climbed into the sack, and done the thang with each other.  Here are two of the many contemporary political cartoons that satirized the pact: The treaty was called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named for the foreign ministers, respectively, of the Soviet Union and Germany who negotiated the thing: Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop. The “planned” expiration date of the pact […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano

By the Numbers Some important Beethoven numbers. Zero: the number of wastepaper baskets Beethoven owned. (The man kept everything.) Zero: the number of hair-styling implements found in Beethoven’s apartment at the Schwarzspanierhaus after his death on March 26, 1827. (Does this surprise any of us?) One: the number of beautiful, leggy, rich aristocratic women who returned Beethoven’s love in his lifetime. (That would be Antonie “Toni” Brentano, the woman Beethoven addressed as his “Immortal Beloved.”) Two: the number of middle fingers Beethoven was wont to raise to anyone who was even remotely critical of him. Three: number of composition students Beethoven taught. They were Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838), Carl Czerny (1791-1857), and Archduke Johann Joseph Ranier Rudolph (1788-1831). Four: the number of ear-trumpets made for Beethoven in 1813 by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel that reside in the Beethoven-Haus Museum in Bonn. (Ironically, the things look more like musical instruments than anything else.) Five: in 1825, the number of publishers to which Beethoven sold the “exclusive publication rights” of his Missa Solemnis – the “Solemn Mass”: the houses of Diabelli, Probst, Schlesinger, Schott and Peters. (How do we spell “dastardly, dishonorable dealings?” There, we just spelled it.) Sixty (60): the number of coffee […]

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Music History Monday: George Bridgetower, Louis van Beethoven, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and a Sonata for Violin!

We mark the premiere on May 24, 1803 – 218 years ago today – of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47. When published in 1805, it was dedicated to the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, and has been known as the “Kreutzer Sonata” ever since. However, it was originally dedicated to the famed violinist George Bridgetower, who, along with Beethoven, premiered the work 218 years ago today. How and why George Bridgetower originally received and then lost the dedication of the sonata makes for quite a story! General Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (1763-1844) was an extraordinary character, the only of Napoleon Bonaparte’s generals to achieve any post-Napoleonic success on his own: he reigned as King of Norway and Sweden from 1818-1844. (Not bad for the son of a tailor from the nowheresville city of Pau in southwestern France!)  In February of 1798, long before he became King of Sweden and Norway (where he was known as “Charles/Carl XIV John”), the young and Hollywood good-looking Bernadotte was appointed the French minister to the Habsburg Emperor in Vienna. He didn’t last long in the job; Napoleon himself referred to Bernadotte as being “somewhere between hotheaded and crazy”, but he […]

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Dr. Prescribes Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 is the first of his “mature” piano concerti. While he had sketched bits and pieces of it as far back as 1799, he didn’t get to the nuts and bolts/nitty-gritty/down ‘n’ dirty essentials of composing the thing until early 1803, by which time – in response to the suicidal depression over his hearing he experienced in October 1802 – he had reinvented himself as a hero battling fate through music. The concerto received its premiere on April 5, 1803, at an Akademie (public concert) held at Vienna’s Theater-an-der-Wien. Anxious to get as much of his new music before the public as possible, Beethoven, true to form, overloaded the concert with way too much music: a repeat performance of his Symphony No. 1 and the premieres of his Symphony No. 2, Piano Concerto No. 3, and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. (According to Beethoven’s friend and student Ferdinand Ries, the concert was originally slated to be even longer: “The concert began at six o’clock, but it was so long that a couple of the pieces were not performed.” Try as I might, I have not been able to track […]

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