Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes William Schumann

In last week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, I asserted that the composers Roy Harris (1898-1979) and his student William Schuman (1910-1992): “are generally considered to be the two greatest American composers of symphonies to have yet graced our planet.” I have received no evidence in the intervening week that that statement isn’t as true today as it was on April 9. Accordingly, I will (and not for the first time) repeat myself even as I flesh that statement out just a bit: “Roy Harris (1898-1979), who composed 13 numbered symphonies between 1933 and 1974 and his student William Schuman (1910-1992), who composed 10 numbered symphonies between 1935 and 1976, are generally considered to be the two greatest American composers of symphonies to have yet graced our planet.” Does anyone want to argue with that? Good. William Schumann William Howard Schuman, known to everyone as “Bill”, was born on the upper West Side of Manhattan Island, New York, New York (a.k.a. “the Big Apple”, “the city so big they had to name it twice”) on August 4, 1910. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish household; by his own account, a happy, regular kid.  He taught himself to play the violin… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Roy Harris

I continue on my self-avowed mini-mission to bring to you some of the most glorious music (and recorded performances) I know, music by mid-century, so-called American “populist” composers. This week and next will feature symphonies by two composers who are generally considered to be the two greatest American composers of symphonies to have yet graced our planet: Roy Harris (1898-1979) and William Schuman (1910-1992). Never heard of them? AAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!! (That was primal.)  During the salad days of the American symphony – the 1930s, 40s and 50s – Harris and Schuman were musical household names. Their music was played and replayed live by symphonies great and regional; recorded, reviewed and celebrated; and broadcast constantly on the concert music/classical radio stations that at that time so dominated the airwaves. Today we might have smart phones and tablets and readers and YouTube and Adele, but in comparison to the mid-twentieth century we here today in the U.S. of A. are culturally and nationally bereft. That we, as a listening public, have, for the most part, forgotten the names and music of Roy Harris and William Schuman is nothing short of a cultural tragedy. Harris’ life-story reads like a rags-to-riches novel, and Harris himself… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin died penniless and all but forgotten on April 1, 1917 in an asylum in New York City’s gigantic Manhattan State Hospital, his brain reduced to black-currant jelly by syphilis. He left behind him a “terminally unproduced opera” entitled Treemonisha and a body of piano rags that virtually defined the genre and are as important and representative a set of national piano works as are Chopin’s Mazurkas and Polonaises, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (which were indeed originally piano works, albeit for piano duet).  With his death began the big chill for Joplin’s wonderful music. In the half century-plus that followed, a tiny coterie of loyal disciples kept his name and music alive, including the pianist Max Morath (born 1926) and the scholars Rudi Blesh (1899-1985), Harriet Grossman Janis (1898-1963), and the pianist and musicologist Vera Brodsky Lawrence (1909-1996). (Rudi Blesh’s and Harriet Janis’ book, They All Played Ragtime, first published in 1950, was the first serious scholarly study of the subject; my revised fourth edition was published in 1971.) Enter the American musicologist, pianist, and conductor Joshua Rifkin, who was born on April 22, 1944 in New York City. A crazy-talented dude, he received degrees from… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Walter Piston

There was a time not long ago when you could not turn over a musical rock without finding a copy of Walter Piston’s book Harmony underneath. First published in 1941, Piston’s Harmony was ubiquitous; my first copy was a yellow-jacketed third edition, published in 1969. (It is now in its fifth edition; the fourth and fifth editions have been “revised and expanded” by Mark Devoto, a music professor emeritus of Tufts University). When I was in high school, I did my level best to teach myself harmony out of that third edition of Piston’s Harmony. At the time, I thought I had sort of succeeded, though looking back I realize that I failed miserably. In kindness to myself, though, my failure was not entirely my fault; it was just as much the fault of the nonsensical (if traditional) assumption that the study “harmony” (the simultaneous sounding of different pitches) was somehow separable from melody, counterpoint, phrase structure, and form, which as I’ve come to realize in my maturity it is most certainly NOT. The composer and music theorist Walter Piston (1894-1976) was a professor of music at Harvard University from 1926 until his retirement in 1960. Despite some dabbling with… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 2

I invoke Ridley Scott’s 1979 Sci-fi masterwork, the movie Alien. It was the first movie in that storied franchise, with the killer tag line, “in space no one can hear you scream” (40 years later, I still love that line!). I set final scene. Warrant Officer Ellen Louise Ripley (played by the indomitable Sigourney Weaver) is the last surviving member of the crew of the commercial space tug Nostromo. In the final scene we find Ripley on the Nostromo’s shuttle craft; she has just destroyed the Nostromo itself and – so she thinks – with it, the Alien on board (a.k.a. the Xenomorph or Internecivus raptus [meaning “murderous thief”], a endoparasitoid extraterrestrial lifeform, for those of you like me who must know). But the alien, of course, is not dead; it has managed to wedge itself into a small crevise on the shuttle. Having stripped down to her skivvies Ripley discovers the Alien, and in a manner most satisfying manages to finally destroy it. As she lowers herself (and her cat Jonesy, a.k.a. “Zunar-J-5/9 Doric-4-7”) into her suspended animation/stasis pod for her trip back to earth and the closing credits roll, we hear a three minute-long musical passage: gorgeous; mysterious; and as… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Erroll Garner

Erroll Garner performs Col Porter’s I Get a Kick Out of You, circa 1960: Erroll Louis Garner (1923-1977) was a 5’2” miracle: a virtuoso jazz pianist whose performances had the nuanced textures of big band charts; whose sheer, overpowering and contagious joy could not help but overwhelm listeners; who created a style of playing that was and remains his and his alone. The official Erroll Garner website contains the following, rather breathless though entirely accurate paragraph: “Garner released music on over 40 labels, received multiple Grammy nominations, and recorded one of the greatest selling jazz albums of all time, Concert By The Sea. His published catalog contains nearly 200 compositions including Misty, which was named #15 on ASCAP’s list of the top songs of the 20th century. He scored for ballet, film, television, and orchestra. One of the most televised Jazz artists of his era, Garner appeared on TV shows all over the world: Ed Sullivan, Dick Cavett, Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, and many others [including the Jackie Gleason show, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, the Garry Moore show, London Palladium show, the Andy Williams show, the Joey Bishop show, the Flip Wilson show, the Pearl Bailey show, the Mike… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Piano Duets

Transcriptions Today, we take for granted our ability to hear any music at any time. We live in the golden age of the couch potato; we have merely to flick our fingers (or thumbs!) and almost anything is available to us, much of it for free. Ah. But in 1840, there was only one way to hear on demand orchestral, operatic, and chamber works, and that was to either play them in four-handed arrangements or listen to someone else play them four hands.  It was thanks to transcriptions that four-handed piano music truly went viral. By the mid-nineteenth century, the demand for new four-handed piano music was, like my 10-year-old son Daniel’s lust Legos, insatiable. Even as pianos were mass-produced and mass-marketed to an ever-wider demographic base, so the business of making and marketing piano transcriptions took on industrial proportions. For example, between just 1852 and 1859, seven different and competing four-handed transcriptions of Mozart’s symphonies were published.  Things got to the point that the public demand for four-handed transcriptions came to be considered by some as unhealthy: as an obsession, as even an addiction! The Erotic Message For those disposed to see the popularity of four-handed playing in terms… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes – Rossini: The Barber of Seville

Oft’ have I moaned and groaned about the licensing contracts signed by The Teaching Company/Great Courses and various recording companies, contracts that precluded me from identifying the performers heard on the musical excerpts in my courses. Yes indeed, this is entirely counter-intuitive; one would think that the record companies would want me to name-names, the better to sell those albums being excerpted in the courses. But like quantum mechanics, the actions of these companies remain unfathomable; weird business.  Because I wasn’t allowed to name performers, I would estimate that roughly 50% of the mail I’ve received over the years in response to my courses has been about the recordings I’ve used: folks want to know who played this, who sang that. In many cases I don’t know at all, because in the early years I was often sent recordings for audition on cassettes with no indication as to the identity of the performers. For example, to this day, I haven’t a clue as to any of the performers on the recordings I chose for my Symphonies of Beethoven course, recorded in 1995. Every now and then – by begging, scraping, whining, banging on tables, and giving noogies – I managed… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Don Giovanni

This Thursday – on September 21st – I will be giving a public lecture at UCLA’s Royce Hall entitled “Will the Real Mozart Please Stand Up?” On Saturday the 23rd, I will lead a two-hour seminar on Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, which for logistical reasons will be held at UCLA’s law school.  I’ve said it before, and here I am, saying it again: Wolfgang Mozart was the greatest composer of operas who ever lived. You can argue the point if you like. That’s fine; just know that it is an argument that I will win. Mozart’s insight into the human condition and relationships, and his ability to portray and deepen those insights with music of unparalleled beauty and compositional virtuosity remains, to this day, second to none.  Mozart composed three different types of operas. The first was Italian language opera seria or “serious opera:” a pomp-filled and often over-blown style of opera based on myth, legend, and featuring heroic characters. The second was Italian opera buffa or “comic opera”, a genre of increasingly popular opera recently evolved from Neapolitan street theater that celebrated relatively ordinary people doing the stupid, mundane, and often very funny things real people do. Third was… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Chick Corea and Béla Fleck

My Dr. Bob Prescribes post of December 25, 2018 was dedicated to one of my very favorite jazz pianists, the late, great, Dave McKenna. During the course of that post, I offered up a short list of those jazz pianists who have most powerfully influenced my own playing. (I am a designated Steinway Artist based on my abilities as a composer and as a jazz pianist, and certainly not based on my abilities – what that they are – as a concert pianist.) That short list featured, in no particular order, Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Armando “Chick” Corea, Phineas Newborn Jr., Roger Kellaway, Lennie Tristano, Sal Mosca, and Dave McKenna. For our information: sooner or later, I will write posts on all of these wonderful pianists. As I pointed out on December 25, two things distinguished the jazz pianists on my list. The first is that they are all two-handed pianists who use the entire keyboard when they play. The second distinguishing factor is that these pianists are, in my opinion, at their very best when playing solo. Now don’t get me wrong: playing with a good bassist and drummer is great fun, but – pianistically… 

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