Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Beethoven

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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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Beethoven Symphonies Nos. 1 – 9, transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt

This is a long piece. Its length is a function of intersecting thematic lines: a number of topics we’ve been discussing on the site – tempo and metronome markings in general; tempo and metronome markings in Beethoven’s symphonies; the piano, pianists, and the virtuosity of Franz Liszt (in particular) – all intersect in this post. Let’s start with my recommendation and move on from there. Cyprien Katsaris (born 1951) performing Beethoven’s Symphonies, transcribed for piano by Franz Liszt. While I write these words I’m listening to Katsaris’ performance of the breakneck fourth movement of Mr. B’s Symphony No. 4, and I’m doing everything I can to focus on typing and not jump out of my skin! In Katsaris’ hands, the symphony is easily as exciting, visceral, and slam-dunk powerful as it is when performed John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantic. Katsaris’ performances of these transcriptions have to be heard to be believed. I do not kid; I do not exaggerate; and I would never waste your time or money: you must have this recording. Stop reading, go on Amazon (or wherever), order it, and then come back. I’ll wait. I’m going to make a statement, for some […]

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Exploring the Dissonant C-sharp in Beethoven’s “Eroica”

Patreon patron, Mr. Sullivan, recently asked the following question: “In several of your courses you have also referred to the C# in the Eroica as implying a modulation to G minor. I have never understood that statement. Would you be so kind as to enlighten me about that?” Mr. Sullivan refers to a (dissonant!) C-sharp that appears out of nowhere in measure 7 of the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3; a dissonance that is to have huge ramifications later in the movement. I have prepared a four-minute video explanation that I hope will do the trick. Watch it now on Patreon Courses on Sale

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Music History Monday: Feast or Famine

I have come to realize over the eighteen months I’ve been writing these Music History Mondays that a date-sensitive blog (like this one) is a metaphor for life itself. On some days you just can’t buy a break while on others there are so many different possibilities that choosing one becomes well nigh impossible, a case of feast or famine. For example. Last week – Monday, April 30th – it was famine. Bereft of a major (or even minor) musical event to write about, I unearthed the fact that on April 30th, 1977 the rock band Led Zeppelin set a new attendance record for a single-act, non-festival ticketed concert, when it played to an audience of 77,229 at the Pontiac (Michigan) Silverdome. This week, today – May 7th – it is feast. And not just any feast; no, today’s date in music history is a cornucopia of gustatory delight; a smörgåsbord the length and breadth of Stockholm; the Carnival World Buffet at Rio Casino in Las Vegas (reputed to be the largest daily pig-out in the world). Check it out: May 7, 1747: Johann Sebastian Bach met with King Frederick II (Frederick the Great) of Prussia in Potsdam. May 7, […]

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Music History Monday: First Firsts

On April 2, 1800 – 218 years ago today – Ludwig van Beethoven staged his first public concert, a so-called “Akademie” or “benefit concert”, in which the financial beneficiary was to be one Ludwig van Beethoven. Among the works on the program were the premiere performances of Beethoven’s Septet for Winds and Strings, Op. 20 and his Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21. Yes! By April, 1800 the 29 year-old Beethoven was prepared to go the distance, take the plunge, go mano-e-mano with the Viennese musical establishment taken as widely as we please: he was ready to stake his claim as a mature compositional artist and put forward his first symphony! Beethoven placed the following advertisement in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (meaning, “General music newspaper”; the most important German-language music periodical of its time). As has been pointed out, the ad copy drops all the right names and italicizes the single most important name five times: Today, Wednesday, April 2, 1800, Herr Ludwig van Beethoven will have the honor to give a grand concert for his benefit in the Royal Imperial Court Theater beside the Burg. The pieces which will be performed are the following: A grand symphony […]

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