Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Bela Bartok

Music History Monday: Four Birthdays and a Painful Death

Some birthday greetings to four wonderful musicians before diving into the rather more grim principal subject of today’s post. Four Birthdays A buon compleanno (“happy birthday” in Italian) to the legendary Italian conductor (and cellist) Arturo Toscanini, who was born on March 25, 1867 – 152 years ago today – in the north-central Italian city of Parma (the home of Parmigiano-Reggiano, or “parmesan” cheese and the simply exquisite cured ham known as Prosciutto di Parma). Toscanini was as famous for his incendiary temper as he was for his streamlined, rhythmically propulsive, honor-the-composer’s-score-at-all-costs performances. Decorum and good taste precludes me from sharing many of the nicknames he was awarded by his performers; one such nickname I can share is “The Towering Inferno.” A boldog születésnapot (“happy birthday” in Hungarian) to the killer-great Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Bartók, who was born on March 25, 1881 – 138 years ago today – in what was then the town of Nagyszentmiklós, in the Kingdom of Hungary in Austria-Hungary. (It was a source of ever-lasting pain for the adult Bartók that the town and district in which he grew up was ceded to Romania in 1920 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up by the… 

Continue Reading…

Dr. Bob Prescribes Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

I am frequently asked “who is my favorite composer?” My typical response – flippant but not insincere – is that I am a musical slut: I love whomever I’m with at the moment. I mean, really: when listening to Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or playing the Goldberg Variations, how in heaven’s name would it be possible for any of us to favor any composer over Bach? Ditto when listening to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro; a Beethoven Symphony; Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov;a Brahms Piano Quartet; Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; Schubert’s Wintereisse; Haydn’s Creation; Verdi’s Otello; Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto; and a thousand-and-one other works by a hundred-and-one other composers. So much great music; so little time. How can we possibly choose favorites among such a wealth of extraordinary work? On seemingly the same lines, I am also not-infrequently asked, “who is my favorite twentieth century composer?” Now: that is, in fact, a very different question. It’s a different question because starting around the first decade of the twentieth century, the vast majority of young composers began taking it upon themselves to create their own musical languages, partly if not wholly divorced from the melodic, harmonic, and formal traditions of seventeenth, eighteenth, and… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: Béla Bartók – An Appreciation

Seventy-one years ago today – on September 26, 1945 – the composer, pianist, ethnomusicologist and Hungarian patriot Béla Viktor Janos Bartók died at the age of 64 in self-imposed exile in New York City. Sixteen years later, in 1961, the composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, the enfant terrible of post-World War Two musical modernism, wrote this about Bartók’s music: “The pieces most applauded are the least good; his best products are loved in their weaker aspects. His work triumphs now through its ambiguity. Ambiguity that will surely bring him insults during future evaluation. His language lacks interior coherence. His name will live on in the limited ensemble of his chamber music.” Boulez was not just wrong: he was snotty wrong. And in this he was not alone. Most of the post-War compositional modernists – which includes most of my own teachers – rejected Bartók because they believed he had squandered his potential as a compositional radical by employing elements of folk-music, neo-tonality, dance rhythms, and Classical era forms to create a body of music that was on occasion – God forbid – viscerally exciting and, even worse, accessible; music that employed such antediluvian elements as tunes and melodic sequences and… 

Continue Reading…