Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Beethoven – Page 2

Music History Monday: We Would Raise a Toast to Beethoven, But, Well, That Would Be Inappropriate

On March 26, 1827 – 191 years ago today – Ludwig van Beethoven died at the age of 56 years, 3 months, and 11 days in his third story apartment (what in Europe would have been called the second story) at Schwarzspanierstrasse 15, in a building called the Schwarzspanierhaus. (Schwarzspanierhaus means the “House of the Black-Robed Spaniards”, so-called because it had once been part of a monastery built by black-robed, Montserrat Benedictine monks from Spain. The order auctioned the building off in 1781, at which point it was turned into rental units. Painfully – and despite tremendous contemporary outcry – the building was demolished in the name of “progress” in 1904.) Even by the standards of his day, Beethoven cannot have been considered a particularly healthy man. Along with his chronic hearing disability (which resulted in clinical deafness after 22 years), Beethoven suffered from smallpox, rheumatism and rheumatic fever, typhus, colitis, all sorts of skin disorders and infections, abscesses, ophthalmia (eye inflammations, in particular conjunctivitis or “pink eye”), chronic bronchitis, inflammatory degeneration of his arteries, colic, irritable bowl, foul body odors and extreme halitosis: bad breath. At the end of his life, let us add to this woeful list hepatitis, pancreatitis, jaundice […]

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Music History Monday: Beethoven and Haydn

On Wednesday December 12, 1792, 224 years ago today, the nearly 22 year-old Ludwig van Beethoven jotted down an expenditure he had made that day: “Haidn [sic] 8 groschen.” Beethoven had just taken and paid for his first lesson with Joseph Haydn. The 8 groschen came to about 24 cents(!), typical of the token sums Haydn charged his non-aristocratic students. Haydn had met Beethoven and examined (and heard) his music some five months before – in July of 1792 – when he passed through Bonn on his way back to Vienna after a triumphant 18 months residency in London. Haydn was knocked out by what he saw and heard and arrangements were quickly made for Beethoven to travel to Vienna in order to study with Haydn at the city of Bonn’s expense. On November 2 or 3, 1792, Beethoven left Bonn for Vienna. The plan: Beethoven would study with Haydn for a year or two; get some high-end Viennese caché and then return to Bonn, there to serve – as did his father and grandfather – as a musical functionary of the Electoral Court. (In fact, Beethoven would never set foot in Bonn again.) Beethoven arrived in Vienna on or […]

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Music History Monday: Go Figure

On this day in 1928, Maurice Ravel’s one-movement orchestra work Boléro received its premiere at the Opera Comique in Paris with Ravel conducting. (Various sources variously describe the premiere as having taken place on November 20, November 21, and November 22! We are splitting the difference and going with the 21st.) Boléro was commissioned by the Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein, whose choreography that opening night followed this scenario: “Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. In response to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.” That’s not much of a scenario, and Ravel responded with not much of a musical composition. Boléro begins with a rhythm presented by a side or snare drum. (While it’s usually the other instrumental soloists who take the bows after a performance, it should be the hapless drummer who gets the huzzahs, for having to play the same freaking two-measure rhythm for 17 minutes!) Stacked atop the drum rhythm are two vaguely “Spanish” sounding melodies – each 18 measures long – that alternate with one another. And that’s it. Over time, more […]

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Murray Perahia — Beethoven: Piano Sonata in F Minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata”

Gratitude. It’s cliché but true – at least for me – that we/I should consider spending a bit more time contemplating those things that I am thankful for, those things that make life worth living. Heaven knows, we spend enough time hearing about, reading about, and thinking about those things that suck the lifeblood out of us. We can all fill in the blanks there, though I’d offer up a couple spirit-sappers that generally drive me to distraction: the extraordinary intolerance and lack of civility with which we as a species tend to treat each other and morons with guns (the latter often being a function of the former). It’s a good thing – given my personal proclivity to dwell on the darker side of human nature – that I’m a musician. Nothing restores my fragile faith in humanity and arouses my gratitude more effectively than listening to music beautifully performed. I am frequently asked an impossible question: “who’s your favorite composer?” Who could answer such a question? Certainly I can’t. I’ve said it before, and here I am, saying it again; I am a musical slut: I am in love with whomever I’m presently with. How can I possibly […]

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T-Shirt Comedy

I was all ready to post a longish blog this evening, describing my webcast plans and thanking all those whose comments and advice helped me to formulate those plans when, just moments ago, I received this link from Gethin Jones. It is a Beethoven tee-shirt, with – presumably – the first four measures of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony writ large across the bosom. Except. Except, instead of spelling out Beethoven’s iconic “fate motive” – G-G-G-Eb; F-F-F-D – the genius who designed the shirt instead spelled out “Three Blind Mice” (G-F-Eb). I am not usually a laugh out-loud sort of guy but this has really tickled my funny bone. It could very well be the biggest musical mistake since Pol Pot’s “Christmas Album”. Available in nine(!) different colors and six different sizes, I’m thinking that this is the “must have” of the year; the pet rock, the Chia Porcupine, the “Dog is My Co-Pilot” bumpersticker of 2015. If anyone wants to know, I wear between a large and an X-large.

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Scandalous Overtures: Beethoven’s Death Wish

The Fine Line Between Depression and Genius Where have we heard this before? A beloved, supremely gifted performing artist appears to be at the top of his game and on top of the world. However, unbeknownst to all but a few friends and relatives, he harbors a great darkness within him, a despair that motivates and inspires his art. He is then diagnosed with a progressive and incurable disease, one that will eventually destroy his ability to perform. In his anguish, his mind turns to the most extreme option: suicide. It sounds awfully familiar in light of Robin Williams’ recent passing. But I am referring here to another performing artist, Ludwig (“my friends call me Louis”) van Beethoven. The parallels between Louis van Beethoven and Robin McLaurin Williams are striking, even extraordinary, although in the end the manner in which they dealt with their respective catastrophes were entirely different. Beethoven grew up hard and fast in the backwater German city of Bonn. His astonishing musical talent landed him in Vienna – the capital city of Euro-music – a few days shy of his 22nd birthday.He built his initial fame and fortune on his spectacular improvisations at the piano. Williams grew […]

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Reporting from Vienna — Beethoven Sightings

Proud as I am to be a 36-year resident of Northern California, and proud as I am that all four of my children were born there, I myself grew in the ironically named “Garden State” of New Jersey. This bears mentioning (for the second time in two posts, no less) because one cannot urinate in north, central or south Jersey without hitting a historical marker that says “George Washington Slept Here”. A little Revolutionary history: On June 14, 1775, George Washington was appointed General and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress. It was the wisest of appointments, because only Washington’s extraordinary leadership and generalship managed to preserve the army during the first 30 months of the War. In July of 1776 the English General William Howe landed some 25,000 troops in Staten Island, New York. Outnumbered and outgunned, Washington and the Continentals executed what accounted to a fighting withdrawal from Long Island to Brooklyn to Manhattan and then across the Hudson River to Fort Lee New Jersey (where my father lives today, about a half-a-mile from the Revolution-era fort overlooking the Hudson River). From Fort Lee, Washington and his army traipsed southwest across New Jersey, withdrawing […]

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In honor of the day I offer up a few Beethoven jokes. Beethoven himself loved a good joke. According to his pals, no one laughed louder at Beethoven’s jokes than Beethoven himself, who would throw his head back and howl with inappropriately loud laughter. (We are told that Beethoven’s friends invariably laughed along, not because the jokes were funny but because they got such a kick out of Beethoven’s own reaction to them.) The available repertoire of Beethoven jokes is, unfortunately, rather poverty stricken. Out of sheer stubbornness I refuse to relate any joke that concludes with the line, “Oh, that’s just Beethoven decomposing.” Neither will you find any of the various jokes that conclude with the line, “the bassists were loaded in the bottom of the 9th” or “Arnold Schwarzenegger never performs Beethoven because he claims ‘I’ll be Bach’”. Finally, we will not repeat any of the “what’s on the piano stool?/Beethoven’s last movement” jokes here; HEY, I’m trying to maintain a modicum of taste in this blog, okay? Here we go. Having just crossed the road, why did Beethoven kill the chicken? It kept saying ‘Bach, Bach, Bach’. Why couldn’t Beethoven find his composition teacher? Because he was […]

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Ludwig van Beethoven, Commencement Address, Salzburg A & M, May 22, 1825

I am honored to be with you today, although it might have occurred to someone at A & M to front me the money for the trip from Vienna.  Generally speaking, I don’t do freebies, which is the first and best piece of advice I can give you.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t fall for that line the fat cats so love, “Ooh, Herr Beethoven, you’re so lucky to be doing what you love.  I’ll bet you’d do it for free!”  Bad bet, Kimosabe.   Does anyone ever use that line on his barber? Do you expect free stuff from your wig maker, your gardener, from the cable guy?  No.  Point in fact: you’re worth whatever you say you’re worth. Anyway, I’m thrilled to be here.  Personally, I never graduated from college.  I never even went to college.  It wasn’t an option when I was growing up, although I have done extensive course work at the school of hard knocks.   You don’t actually graduate from that school; you just survive and move on.  So this is the closest I’ve ever come to a real college graduation. Today I’m going to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it: just three […]

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