Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Beethoven

Music History Monday: What Day is Today?

We recognize May 13th as being, among other “days” here in the United States, National Frog Jumping Day, Leprechaun Day, International Hummus Day, National Crouton Day, and – wait for it – World Cocktail Day! National Days, Weeks, and Months! Who creates these damned things? We’ll get to that in a moment.  But first, let’s distinguish between a national holiday and a national day (or week or month). In the United States, national (or “federal”) holidays are designated by Congress and/or the President.  There are presently a total of ten national/federal holidays, meaning that federal employees get to take the day off.  However, anyone can declare a national day (or week or month).  The trick is getting enough people to buy into the “day” that it actually gains some traction and has some meaning.  Such national days are created by advocacy groups; lobbying groups; industry groups; government bodies; even individuals. According to the “National Day Calendar,” today, May 13, 2024, is – along with those “days” listed at the top of this post – National Women’s Checkup Day; National Fruit Cocktail Day; and National Apple Pie Day.  May 13 of this year is also the first day of Bike to Work Week; of […]

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Music History Monday: The Guy Who Wrote the “Waltz”

We mark the death on April 8, 1858 – 166 years ago today – of the Austrian composer, editor, and music publisher Anton Diabelli in Vienna, at the age of 76.  Born on September 5, 1781, his enduring fame is based on a waltz of his composition that became the basis for Beethoven’s epic Diabelli Variations for piano. Quick Work We are, fairly or unfairly, going to make rather quick work of Herr Diabelli.  That’s because, with all due respect, what I really want to write about is Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.   There’s a powerful ulterior motive at work here as well.  In a field of great recordings, my numero uno favorite Diabelli Variations is the recording made by the Milan-born Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini in 1998 and released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2000.  Pollini passed away at the age of 82, on March 23, 2024: 16 days ago.  As such, we will honor Maestro Pollini in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes even as we celebrate his unequaled performance of Beethoven’s variations. Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) Despite his Italian surname, Anton Diabelli was Austrian born-and-bred.   He was born in Mattsee, a market town just outside of Salzburg.  He was a musical […]

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Music History Monday: The Blockhead – Anton Felix Schindler – and Beethoven’s Conversation Books

We mark the death on January 16, 1864 – 159 years ago today – of Anton Felix Schindler, in Frankfurt, at the age of 68.  Born on June 13, 1795, in the town of Medlov in today’s Czech Republic, Schindler was, for a time, Beethoven’s “factotum”: his secretary and general assistant.  He was also a scoundrel and a profiteer, who after Beethoven’s death lied about his relationship with Beethoven, stole irreplaceable objects and documents from Beethoven’s estate, and falsified and destroyed many of those documents (some of which he later sold off) in order to make himself look better in the eyes of history.  Boo-hoo for Schindler: the “making-himself-look-better-in-the-eyes-of-history” thing didn’t work, and today he is regarded as the patron saint of lying and thieving employees. Among the Beethovenian documents Anton Schindler took upon himself to “remove for safekeeping” were Beethoven’s so-called “Conversation Books.” Beethoven’s Conversation Books It took an agonizingly long time for Beethoven to go completely deaf. His hearing loss began in 1796, in his 26th year: a buzzing in his ears and a slow but progressive loss of high frequency hearing.  By the fall of 1802, Beethoven had cut himself off from much of his world out […]

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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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