Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Dr Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes George Gershwin, Concerto in F

A statement I’ve made before and will gladly make again: George Gershwin is among the handful of greatest composers the United States has produced, and his death at the age of 38 (of a brain tumor) should be considered an artistic tragedy comparable to the premature deaths of Schubert (at 31), Mozart (at 35), and Chopin (at 39). He was born Jacob Gershovitz (though his birth certificate reads “Jacob Gershwine”), the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, on September 26, 1898 at 242 Snediker Avenue in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (For our information: in 1963, a bronze plaque commemorating Gershwin’s birth was affixed to the building. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had fallen on very hard times: the plaque was stolen – it is still MIA – and the building vandalized. It burned down in 1987, and all that remains of the neighborhood today is a blighted area of warehouses and junkyards.) Rarely has a major composer begun his life in an artistically less promising manner. Tall, athletic, and charismatic, Gershwin was the leader of various tenement gangs, played street ball, roller skated everywhere and engaged in petty crime. By his own admission, he cared nothing for music […]

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Dr Bob Prescribes: Maurice Ravel, ‘Valses nobles et sentimentales’

The “Waltz” Experienced ballroom dancers aside, I would suggest that most of us consider the “waltz” to be a stodgy thing, a choreographic burden to be born at weddings and such during which we shuffle out an approximation of a three-step, attempting to lead a partner who would rather not be lead (at least not by me), to the scintillating strains of such triple meter standards as the Anniversary Waltz and Sunrise, Sunset. It is easy, today, to forget that at the time of its creation, the waltz was considered a lewd and lascivious dance, one that led to moral degradation in this world and damnation in the next! The waltz originated in eighteenth century Austria as a peasant’s dance. What distinguished it from the beginning was its wide, gliding steps and the fact that the dancers held each other as closely as possible (at a time when courtly dancing forbade almost any touching at all). The relative simplicity and physicality of this new, gliding and whirling dance made it extremely popular among the lower classes, who were no more likely to dance the more sophisticated Minuet than Ozzie Osborn a Virginia Reel. By the late-eighteenth century, the gliding and […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Yiddish Song and Klezmer

Sitting around the dinner table recently, my son Daniel (11 years old) asked the rest of us what single superpower each of us would choose if we could only choose one. He went first, and predictably, he chose the power to choose an unlimited number of superpowers. His sister Lily (13 years old) immediately disqualified him based on his own stated criteria. Once they stopped arguing, I made my choice, which was easy. I no longer want to be able to fly (where would I fly to in these days of COVID? and where would I put my carry-on?), and the thought of being able to make myself invisible strikes way to close to the reality of my career as a composer. My choice: I want to be able to speak (and read, if written) every language – past and present – ever spoken, including hump-back whale, crow, and porpoise (color me “Dr. Bob-Doolittle”). How incredible would it be to be linguistically at home anywhere, with anyone! How fantastic it would be to be able to read everything in its “original!” Nothing cuts to the essence of a culture like its language. A tribe’s, a people’s, a nation’s music is […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mahler Symphony No. 5

When it came to his music, particularly its orchestration, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was fussy. Starting with his Symphony No. 5, which he began in 1901 and initially completed in 1903, Mahler was never completely satisfied with anything he composed; he was always reworking this, re-orchestrating that, fussing to a degree that pretty much everything composed between 1901 and his death in 1911 must be considered a “work in progress”.  Mahler’s fussing with his Fifth Symphony began soon after its completion in 1903. After a reading in 1904 he removed a considerable bit of the percussion parts. In 1906 he again made significant revisions in anticipation of a performance in Amsterdam. In 1908 he revised the symphony yet again. Finally, in early 1911, just a few months before his death on May 18, he wrote: “The Fifth is finished. I have been compelled to re-orchestrate it completely. I cannot understand how I could have written so much like a beginner at that time [meaning 1901-1903]. It is clear that the method I had used in the first four symphonies deserted me altogether, as if a totally new message demanded a new technique.” That “new message” to which Mahler refers is the […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Flamenco

“Flamenco” is a genre of Spanish song and dance that originated in the southern Spanish region of Andalucía. It is an utterly remarkable, physically and expressively thrilling hybrid/synthesis/melding of native Spanish, North African, Arab, and especially gypsy influences. In my humble (but well-informed) opinion, Flamenco is – along with jazz – the most viscerally exciting music to be found on this planet. I would go so far as to suggest that if Andalucía were a media giant equal to the U.S. of A., we’d all be singing and dancing to Flamenco and not that north American-born hybrid called rock ‘n’ roll. (For our information: on November 16, 2010, UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – declared Flamenco to be one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.”) Damn straight. For reasons geographic and cultural, Flamenco could only have evolved in Spain. A Country Apart With the Pyrenees (topping out at 11,168 feet high) to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the West and the Mediterranean Sea to the south and east, Spain (and its Iberian sibling Portugal) stands physically apart from the remainder of Western Europe. In terms of the abundance, variety, and […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Robert Helps

I will be forgiven, please, the overtly autobiographical nature of todays post. In a number of ways I was something of a late-bloomer as a musician. Sure, I started piano at a fairly young age and played the “classics” that come with piano lessons; yes, my grandmothers – one a professional pianist and the other a professional actress – exposed me to a wide range of piano music and orchestral music when I was growing up; and indeed, my father’s record collection was an unending delight. But what passed for my “music education” as a child was a slapdash affair, and in fact, I knew very little. When I got into jazz at the age of 14 (or so) I abandoned practicing my dead Germans entirely. So when I went away to college and suddenly encountered kids who went to high school at Juilliard Prep; or had just returned from participating in the music camps/festivals at Aspen, Tanglewood, Graz, and Spoleto; and met classmates like Stefan Kozinski (1953-2014), who already had a thriving career as a professional organist and piano soloist, and Eric Moe (born 1954), who had memorized all of Beethoven’s music and could give you a proper opus […]

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Dr Bob Prescribes John Santos

A couple of weeks ago, I did a Facebook Live show with Julie Stoltz of The Great Courses. When we first discussed doing the show, Julie asked me if I’d give a lecture of some sort after which I would field some questions. I wasn’t terribly interested in doing a lecture; heaven knows, there’s enough of my blathering out there already, and besides, I wanted Julie to be able to take an active part in the show and to give the viewers an opportunity to comment at any time and not just at the end. So I came up with the idea of offering up a stack of recordings that would, as I put it at the time, be “guaranteed to raise our spirits, make us forget our woes, and render us susceptible to boogie fever.” It was Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (1800-1891), the Chief of Staff of the Prussian General Staff and then the Great [German] General Staff who famously said that “no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” On those same lines, I have myself discovered that “no interview plan survives the first question from the interviewer”, and as such, my […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Stravinsky – Requiem Canticles

On December 28, 1945, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and his wife Vera (1889-1982) became American citizens. They were sponsored by the actor Edward G. Robinson with whom Stravinsky had been close friends since the 1930s.  The years that followed were among the best of Stravinsky’s life. Despite he and Vera’s shared dislike for the provincialism of Southern California – where they lived – the financial woes that had plagued him his entire adult life became a thing of the past. And while he missed the Russia of his childhood, he found the United States most congenial to his needs, personal and professional. And despite the illnesses that constantly dogged him (as described in yesterday’s Music History Monday post), his life was ordered and peaceful and, for perhaps the first time ever, under his control.  Comfortably ensconced in the U. S. of A., Stravinsky might very well have continued composing neo-classic/neo-tonal-styled music for the rest of his days if not for a young man named Robert Craft (1923-2015).  Craft met Stravinsky in 1948. He was a native New Yorker, a recent graduate of Juilliard, and a total Stravinsky fan-boy. Stravinsky offered him a job as his assistant, and almost overnight Craft became […]

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