Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Brahms

Music History Monday: A Very Bad Ending

We mark the death on July 29, 1856 – 163 years ago today – of the German composer, pianist, and music critic Robert Schumann at the age of 46. The actress Valerie Harper was back in the news this week. Now nearly 80 years old (her birthday is on August 22nd), she is best remembered for her role as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then its spin-off, Rhoda, in the 1970s. Ms. Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer back in 2009, and she has fought like the proverbial tiger since. Her time is almost up; this week’s news was about her husband’s refusal to ship her off to a hospice. During the course of her illness, she has pointed out – correctly, if painfully for us all – that we are all “terminal.” I know, I know, I know: it’s not something anyone wants to think about, especially not on a Monday, which by itself is depressing enough. Yes, our time will come when it comes, but I, for one, want to spend as little energy as possible thinking about it. But having buried three beloved family members long before their time should have been up, […]

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Music History Monday: Battered but Unbroken

With our heads bowed and our hands on our hearts, we mark the death – 123 years ago today – of the pianist and composer Clara Wieck Schumann, who died of a stroke at the age of 76 on May 20, 1896. She was among the most outstanding pianists of her time, a child prodigy whose performances were described with awe by her contemporaries. She was a composer of outstanding promise, who – for reasons having to do with the world in which she lived and her own self-doubts – never had the opportunity to fulfill that promise. She was the compositional muse for her fiancé and husband, the great Robert Schumann, and the spiritual muse of her best friend, the even greater Johannes Brahms. And she was a survivor: someone whose life reads like some endlessly tragic Victorian novel, only without the “happy ending” tacked on at the end. Honestly: whenever any of us get into one of those self-pitying funks (of which I am an especial virtuoso), during which we stand convinced that our personal lives represent the very nadir of human existence, I would recommend that we think of Ms. Wieck-Schumann and her life as an example […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Johannes Brahms, Horn Trio in E-Flat Major, Op. 40 (1865)

When the Hamburg born-and-raised Johannes (“Hannes”) Brahms was around four years old, his father Johann Jakob Brahms decided it was high time the kid learned to play the three instruments that he himself played. Papa Brahms wanted his eldest son to follow him into the family trade and be, bless him, employable. Those three instruments were violin, cello, and the valveless, “natural” horn. The young Brahms gained a degree of competence in all three instruments, in particular the cello. However, to his father’s apparently endless annoyance, what the little fella really wanted – what he demanded! – was to learn how to play the piano. We can well imagine the conversations between father and son, played out over several years: “Daaaaad! I wanna play the piano.” “Hannes, dude, how many pianos are there in the Hamburg Philharmonic?” “Uh . . . zero?” “How many pianos in a dance band?” “Maybe . . . um . . . one?” “You got it. Violinists? There’s always work. Cellists? Ditto. Horn players? There are never enough decent horn players: horn players gig. Piano players? A dime-a-dozen and there’s no work. Besides, we don’t even own a piano and we don’t have the ducats […]

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Further adventures in Paradise

Last week I wrote about the Apollo Academy, a wonderful four-day retreat at a facility called “Ratna Ling” located in the coastal mountains of Northern California’s Sonoma County. The Academy – the brainchild of a surgeon and cellist named Bill Moores – focuses on “mind/body synchronization that enhances mental and physical health. Optional sessions include immersion in the natural environment, poetry-writing, yoga, and the role of seasonal foods.” Yes, lovely and all very well-and-good, though the heart and soul of the Academy is chamber music. Open to performers and non-musician auditors alike, this year’s program was entitled “String Quartet Masterpieces of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms.” These quartet masterworks were performed by the Alexander String Quartet with yours truly acting as host and lecturer.   Here’s how our concert-presentations worked: Each of our three sessions was delivered in two parts: for an hour before dinner (4:30pm-5:30pm) and hour-and-a-half after dinner (6:30pm-8:00pm). On day one (September 6), we presented a program entitled “The Mendelssohn Conundrum”, during which I discussed and the ASQ performed Mendelssohn’s String Quartets in A Minor, Op. 13 (of 1827); F Minor, Op. 80 (of 1847) and excerpts from his String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 44 (of 1837).   […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes

Welcome to my new series, “Dr. Bob Prescribes”, in which I will “prescribe” recordings, books, events, videos, websites, etc. on a weekly basis, with the intention of improving our musical health and thus raising our spirits and making happier our souls. In conversation with my Patreon patrons Jane Varkonyi and Frank Schmidt, I recommended Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor as one of those works that, should we find ourselves stranded on that proverbial desert island, we would have to have for company. I would take the conversation a step further and recommend my numero uno favorite recording of not just the Brahms but Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat, which qualifies as another of my desert island works. (FYI, my desert island will require a large library, an air-conditioned listening room, a great hi-fi rig, and a well-stocked fridge and bar, because I have a lot of desert island works!) My absolutely favorite recording of both the Schumann and Brahms Piano Quintets is: 🤐🤐🤐🤐. Dang, but I hate being a tease! But for the remainder of this post – which names and describes my favorite recording and offers up as well both pertinent and anecdotal information about these extraordinary […]

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Music History Monday: A Very Tough Crowd

156 years ago today – on March 13, 1861 – Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser was first performed in Paris at the Théâtre Imperial de l’Opéra. The Paris production of Tannhäuser remains one of the greatest operatic flops of all time: a scheduled ten-performance run that was reduced to three disastrous performances before the opera was withdrawn. Aside from its fabulous gossip value, it’s a story that must be told because it is this Paris version of Tannhäuser that continues to be the version performed today. Richard Wagner had a checkered history with Paris and the Parisians. He lived there in terrible poverty between 1839 and 1842. He returned there in 1859 under very different circumstances: he was no longer an unknown and had, for the time being, some real money in his pocket. While in Paris this second time around, Wagner made friends in very high places, including Princess Pauline Metternich, the daughter-in-law of the former Austrian Chancellor Prince Clemens Wenzel von Metternich. It was thanks to the intervention of the Princess that in March of 1860 the French Emperor, Louis-Napoleon, commanded a performance of Tannhäuser at the Paris Opera. Tannhäuser was not a new work. It had been premiered […]

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Scandalous Overtures — Brahms: The King of Practical Jokes

According to my Oxford English Dictionary, a practical joke is “a trick played on someone in order to make them look foolish and amuse others.” As definitions go that one is DEAD ON. Unlike a verbal joke, which features a storyteller and a presumably amused listener, a practical joke requires a victim: a patsy, a fall guy (or gal) whose victimization (and potential humiliation) becomes the source of amusement for the perpetrator and whomever else is looking on. Some practical jokes can be funny; for example, the ones on the old Candid Camera TV show. Still, I suspect that many of the show’s victims were not particularly amused at all, and only acted like good sports because they saw the camera at the conclusion of their ordeals. Generally speaking, I have found that people do not like to be publicly duped, embarrassed, and held up to ridicule. The advent of YouTube has turned everyone and her sister-in-law into an Allen Funt (the host of Candid Camera). We can watch folks become the butt of someone else’s pranks all day, along with that offshoot of the practical joke, the video “fail”. It makes us wonder: What sort of people perpetrate practical […]

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Scandalous Overtures — Johannes Brahms & Clara Schumann: Did They Or Didn’t They?

There is a cadre of power-elite, formerly-married women in the entertainment biz today who have a reputation for dating significantly younger men, among them Jennifer Lopez, Susan Sarandon, Sharon Stone, Madonna, Demi Moore, and Cher. And who can blame them? My only problem with this is that none of them ever dated me when I was a lad! Oh, to have been the arm candy of a beautiful, successful, and experienced woman. It would have been, I think, a little slice of heaven. Of all the composers I can think of, the only one who has lived that heaven was Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). The familiar image of Johannes Brahms is that of a portly, late middle-aged man with a big beard and an omnipresent cigar; an image that exudes a bourgeois, professorial machismo. But for most of his life, Brahms did not physically look like the Brahms we are familiar with today. The paunch didn’t start to appear until his late thirties. And the beard?Brahms was what we might call a “late shaver” — his whiskers didn’t even start to grow in until his early forties, and he didn’t grow the beard until his mid-forties. Johannes Brahms at twenty looked […]

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Reporting from Vienna — The Haydn House

For my two Euros, the best monument to a composer in Vienna is – by far – the house in which Joseph Haydn lived during the last twelve years of his life, from 1797 to 1809. Here’s the story: Between 1791 and 1795, Joseph Haydn twice visited England. The first of Haydn’s most excellent English adventures took place between January of 1791 and June of 1792, and the second one between January of 1794 and August of 1795. These trips cemented Haydn’s reputation as the world’s most famous and popular living composer and made him – as composers go – a rich man. It was thanks to the money Haydn earned during his first English adventure that he was able to do something that neither Antonio Vivaldi (who died in Vienna in 1741) nor Wolfgang Mozart (who died in Vienna in 1791), nor Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, nor Mahler (who died in Vienna in, respectively, 1827, 1828, 1897, and 1911) ever managed to do: Haydn bought his very own house in Vienna. It was a one-story house on Kleine Steingasse in the Viennese suburb of Obere Windmūhl. It had been spotted by Haydn’s wife Maria Anna while he was away in […]

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