Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Prescribes Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 is the first of his “mature” piano concerti. While he had sketched bits and pieces of it as far back as 1799, he didn’t get to the nuts and bolts/nitty-gritty/down ‘n’ dirty essentials of composing the thing until early 1803, by which time – in response to the suicidal depression over his hearing he experienced in October 1802 – he had reinvented himself as a hero battling fate through music. The concerto received its premiere on April 5, 1803, at an Akademie (public concert) held at Vienna’s Theater-an-der-Wien. Anxious to get as much of his new music before the public as possible, Beethoven, true to form, overloaded the concert with way too much music: a repeat performance of his Symphony No. 1 and the premieres of his Symphony No. 2, Piano Concerto No. 3, and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives. (According to Beethoven’s friend and student Ferdinand Ries, the concert was originally slated to be even longer: “The concert began at six o’clock, but it was so long that a couple of the pieces were not performed.” Try as I might, I have not been able to track […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven – Funeral Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II

Whether we choose to like her or dislike her (not that she would have cared a whit one way or the other), Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina, Habsburg Empress and German Queen was a remarkable person. She was the only woman to ever rule the Habsburg Empire (for 40 years; from 1740 until her death in 1780), the absolute sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Croatia, Transylvania; Lodomeria and Galicia (in present day Poland and Ukraine); the Austrian Netherlands; and the duchies of Milan, Mantua, and Parma (in present day Italy). She was born on May 13, 1717, the oldest surviving child of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. In January of 1737, the not-quite 20-year-old Maria Theresa was married to Francis Stephen, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Maria Theresa’s father, Charles VI died on October 20, 1740 at the age of 55, poisoned by a mushroom. Despite the fact that she was slated to succeed her father, very little had been done to prepare her to rule; rather, it was assumed that on her ascension she would be a royal figurehead and that the actual business of ruling the empire would fall to her father’s ministers and to her husband. […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Stephen Sondheim: The Making of a Theatrical Life, Part Two

We pick up where we left off in yesterday’s Music History Monday with part 2 of “Stephen Sondheim: The Making of a Theatrical Life.” In 1946, at the age of 16, Sondheim went away to Williams College, a small, very exclusive private liberal arts school in the western Massachusetts burg of Williamstown. He was attracted to Williams’ theater program, and was unconcerned about its tiny music program because, by his own admission, “I didn’t care about music.” Instead, he enrolled as an English major and took music courses as electives. The “English-major” thing didn’t last for long. All it took was a first-year harmony class with a professor named Robert Barrow: “Barrow made me realize that all my romantic views of art were nonsense. I had always thought an angel came down and sat on your shoulder and whispered in your ear ‘dah-dah-dah-DUM.’ [It] never occurred to me that art was something worked out. And suddenly it was skies opening up.” What “opened up” for Sondheim was the realization/revelation that music is not just an art but a language and a craft, one with its own syntax and structure. Inspired, Sondheim switched his major to music and began to compose […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Hector Berlioz: Requiem

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was not just a great composer, but a wonderful writer as well. He left behind a not-insignificant body of prose. In the 1830s he made much of his living writing reviews and essays (and continued to write reviews almost to the end of his life, even when he no longer needed the income). He wrote a famous book on orchestration which was first published in 1844; and in 1865 he completed his Memoirs at the age of 62. His writing is remarkable for its devastating wit, incision, clarity, and stylistic elegance. Berlioz begins his Memoirs with the following passage. His sense of irony, his ego and his self-deprecatory/facetious sense of humor are all on immediate display: “I was born on the 11th of December 1803 at La Cote Saint André, a very small town in France situated between Vienne, Grenoble, and Lyon. During the months that preceded my birth, my mother never dreamt, as Virgil’s did, that she was about to bring forth a branch of laurel. However painful to my beloved mother this confession may be, I ought to add that neither did she imagine, like Olympias, the mother of Alexander, that she bore within her […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4

By way of review: Pyotr (Peter) Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was a homosexual with a predilection for cross-dressing and teenaged boys. In May of 1877, around the time of his 37th birthday on May 7, he received a letter from one Antonina Milyukova – a former student at the Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky taught – professing her undying love for him. Tchaikovsky hadn’t a clue of who she was, and he blew her off. But Ms. Milyukova would not be blown off (what at first seemed a schoolgirl crush turned out to be full-blown mental illness), and within a few short weeks, Tchaikovsky, in a moment of epic self-delusion (and hoping to deflect rumors of his homosexuality), actually agreed to marry her! As all of this was happening in the late spring and early summer of 1877, Tchaikovsky was initiating a regular correspondence with a fabulously wealthy widow nine years his senior named Nadezhda von Meck. Unlike Antonina, who didn’t know a note of Tchaikovsky’s music, Madame von Meck worshipped Tchaikovsky for his music. Tchaikovsky and Antonina Milyukova were married on July 18, 1877, some nine weeks after Tchaikovsky received that first letter from Antonia. The marriage was a disaster from […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Christopher Rouse: Trombone Concerto

The great and eminently quotable English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham famously said: “I never look at the brass. It only encourages them.” Jeepers! Whatever would have prompted Sir Thomas to say such a thing? We consider the brass instruments, the most common of which are trumpets, French horns (as they are called in the United States; “horns” everywhere else), trombones, baritones, and tubas. All of these instruments evolved from instruments meant to be played out-of-doors: from hunting horns, signal devices, and military instruments. There is hardly a trumpet player, trombonist, or tuba player alive who didn’t start his/her musical life playing outside, in marching bands. By their very nature these instruments are loud and the people who play them want to play them loudly. Back then to Thomas Beecham’s comment, which is borne of decades of experience. I would tell you that for many (if not most) brass players, a dynamic of piano is beneath contempt, mezzo-piano is an insult, mezzo-forte is uncomfortably limiting, forte is permission, and fortissimo, well, fortissimo might very well be a mistake on the composer’s part. Why? Because, while the brass may be outnumbered 72 to 11 (or so) in a modern orchestra, they are […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes John Williams

We have some heavy preliminaries to discuss, starting with the differences between European film music and the classic Hollywood symphonic film score (of which Williams is its greatest contemporary exponent); the relationship between Williams’ scores and the music of Richard Wagner (1813-1883); the derivative nature inherent to the vast majority of film music (including Williams’); and the criticism levelled at film music and film composers by the “traditional” musical establishment. Generally but accurately speaking, European film music is discontinuous: there will be long swatches of time during which there is no music at all, particularly during dialogue. (On these lines, according to the great Italian film composer Ennio Morricone – 1928-2020 – who composed over 400 film and television scores, including those for Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns”: “Our hearing, and therefore our brains, cannot listen [to] and understand more sounds of a different nature simultaneously. We will never understand four people speaking at the same time. It is absolutely necessary, if the director wants to consider music in the right way, to isolate music and give the audience the time to listen to it in the best way.”) Generally but accurately speaking, then, European film music is not synchronized with […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Music to Calm Hearts and Souls

In yesterday’s Music History Monday post, we had the opportunity to talk about the questionable but on occasion necessary (if borderline masochistic) pleasures of hot peppers and punk rock. The post went on to mark the short, tragic, and depraved life of one Simon John Richie (best known by his stage name of “Sid Vicious”, May 10, 1957 – February 2, 1979). That discussion of Maestro Vicious, relatively brief though it was, likely left us all with a worse taste in our mouths than that provided by a fabled Carolina Reaper pepper. As the best cure for the pepper’s capsaicin burn is vanilla ice cream, I am today offering up a musical antidote for punk rock in general and Sid Vicious and the Sex Pistols in particular, and that is some glorious choral music. GASP! Am I comparing choral music to vanilla ice cream? And what if I were?!? Let’s everybody stay calm. “Vanilla”: let’s establish what that word does and doesn’t mean in this context. As an adjective, “vanilla” has come to be used to describe something plain: easily consumed and digested, something devoid of interest and empty of meaning. Excuse me, but only the most dedicated chocoholics could […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Blame it on the Bossa Nova

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post acknowledged the birth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil of the Brazilian singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Antônio Carlos Jobim. That’s all the excuse we require for today’s foray into the music of Brazil, samba, and bossa nova! The name “Brazil” comes from the Portuguese word pau–brasil, meaning “brazilwood”: an East Indian tree from which a bright red dye is extracted. Sixteenth century Portuguese explorers found the coastal areas of what today is Brazil filled with these commercially valuable trees, which gave the territory – and eventually the country – its name. If Brazil wasn’t locked into South America, it could be a continent on its own. In terms of sheer landmass, Brazil – at 3,287,956 square miles – is the fifth largest country in the world, behind Russia (the largest), Canada, the United States, and China. (For our information, the landmass of the 28 nations of the former European Union – yes, including the United Kingdom, Brexit be damned – totals 1,669,808 square miles: half the size of Brazil.) The relative size of today’s five largest countries – of which Brazil is the fifth – is, in fact, misleading. Unlike Russia, Canada, and the United States, all of which have […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Absurdity

“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” As hoary old aphorisms go, this one is right up there on the tiresome scale with “a penny saved is a penny earned”, “you miss 100% of the shots you do not take”, “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping:” and “insinuations are lavender, nearly.” Nevertheless, I have a particular fondness for “the grass is always greener on the other side” because its sentiment cuts so closely to my own life, psyche, and existential feelings of victimization: well, duh, of course everyone else’s life is better than mine, of course I’m missing out on something everyone else has, of course everything always happens to me, of course I’m a fraud and everyone else is not. “The grass is always greener on the other side” addresses, perfectly, that generative emotion held so dear by so many composers, authors, poets, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, singers, and actors (to say nothing for the rest of the population) and that is envy. What we might call “the grass-is-always-greener syndrome” is surely as old as humanity itself: “the cave is always bigger on the other side.” For our information, the first […]

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