Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes Francis Poulenc: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932)

The New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg offers this appraisal of the music of Francis Poulenc in third edition of his book, The Lives of the Great Composers (W. W. Norton, 1997): “It seems clear that Francis Poulenc has emerged as the strongest and most individual member of Les Six [that group of six Paris-based composers arbitrarily lumped together by a Parisian journalist in 1919: Georges Auric (1899–1983), Louis Durey (1888–1979), Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), Darius Milhaud (1892–1974), Francis Poulenc (1899–1963), and Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983)]. Nobody would have guessed it in the 1930s. The betting would have been on Milhaud or Honegger. Poulenc was considered a comic (he even had the marked facial and physical resemblance to the great French comic Fernandel).” Harold Schonberg facetiously continues: “[Poulenc was] the court jester, the sophisticate. So charming and amusing! So lightweight! So chic! As a corollary, so unimportant, au fond [basically]. To the world, Poulenc was the musical soft-shoe man, dancing away at his music-hall routines with not a care in the world, a grin perpetually plastered on his face.” Learning to Compose Lacking any formal training, in his early music Poulenc (1899-1963) fell back on what he did best, and that was write beautiful […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Criterion Collection – Paul Robeson, Portrait of the Artist

In 1965, the American writer James Baldwin wrote: “At a time when there seemed to be no hope at all, Paul Robeson [1898-1976] spoke out for all of us.” By “all of us,” Baldwin is, of course, referring to Black America. In 1998, the American scholar, historian, author, and social historian Lerone Bennett expanded on Baldwin’s comment, writing: “Before King dreamed, before Thurgood Marshall petitioned and Sidney Poitier emoted, before the big breakthrough in Hollywood and Washington, before the Jim Crow signs came down, and before the civil rights banners went up, before Spike Lee, before Denzel, before Sam Jackson and Jesse Jackson, there was Paul Robeson. One of the most phenomenally gifted men ever born in America, he lived one of the most extraordinary stories of the century. When he died, even his critics and detractors conceded that he was one of the immortals.” According to the American historian Dr. Clement Alexander Price, who was the Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of History at the Newark, NJ campus of Rutgers University: “Called by some ‘The Great Forerunner’ and others the ‘Tallest Tree in Our Forest,’ Paul Robeson is without peer in the annals of modern American civilization. His […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner: The Flying Dutchman

Had I not taken a necessary holiday respite from both Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes, my January 2 and 3, 2023, posts would have featured Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, which received its premiere on January 2, 1843, in Dresden. The story of the opera, and the DVD I was going to feature in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post of January 3 are simply too good to pass up, and so here is the Dutchman, better late than never! In August of 1837, the 24-year-old Richard Wagner accepted the job of music director at the municipal theater in Riga, the present-day capital of Latvia.  For Wagner, who’d been moving around from one low-end musical job to the next for the previous three years, Riga was the bottom of the barrel, nowheresville, the end of the line: a predominately German-speaking burg that was, nevertheless, part of the Russian Empire and a gazillion miles from the centers of German culture he so longed for.  But Wagner, as he always did when he had to, persevered, and putting aside his despair, he made the Riga gig work, at least at first. To great local acclaim, he conducted fifteen different operas […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Memoirs of Sir Rudolf Bing

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post celebrated the birth of the opera impresario Sir Rudolf Bing in 1902 and, using excerpts from his memoir 5000 Nights at the Opera, sketched his life and career up to 1950: the year he took over as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Bing was not the first, nor – sadly – the last senior manager to take on a job only to find out that the institution he was hired to run was in much worse condition than he ever thought possible. For Bing, the Met was a Mess, and to his eternal credit and everlasting fame, it was a mess he cleaned up. He didn’t do it alone, though, and one of the things I admire about Bing’s memoir is the extent to which he credits others – his staff, board members, volunteers, etc. – with helping to turn the Met around. But then, Bing was clever enough to hire and then lead the right people, and so his modesty aside, we must give credit where credit is due. Dealing With Artists Rudolf Bings observes: “Dealing with artists is not like dealing with people in any other profession. Bank officials and law clerks […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes La Vie en Rose

Some 30 years ago, I was given a novel by the English author Charles Palliser called The Quincunx. The good friend who gave me the book claimed that it was, hands down, her favorite novel of all time. Back then, when someone gave me a book – especially with such a glowing endorsement – I generally read it.  And I did indeed read The Quincunx. Mistake. Alas, for this insensitive lout, The Quincunx was a dreary, irksome, endless book written in the style of an early Victorian novel, in which an exceptionally unlucky protagonist lurches from one catastrophe to the next across its near 800-page length. In search of a codicil to a will that would presumably reverse his misfortunes, the dude takes more hard shots to the chin than Chuck Wepner (born 1939) did in his fight with Sonny Liston. (Wepner was not nicknamed “the Bayonne Bleeder” for nothing; after his fight with Liston, 72 stitches were required to put his face back together.) But, believe it or not, The Quincunx was not the most harrowing tale of seemingly nonstop calamities with which I was familiar, because even back then, I knew something of the life of Édith Piaf. […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Wolfgang Mozart: Requiem, K. 626 (1791)

The Commission During the summer of 1791 – some five months before his death – Mozart was anonymously commissioned to compose a Requiem Mass: a mass for the dead. More than any other single element, it was this anonymous commission that helped to later fuel the myth that Mozart had, in fact, been murdered. In 1829, 38 years after his death, Mozart’s widow Constanze was interviewed by an English music publisher named Vincent Novello and his wife, Mary. Constanze purportedly told the Novellos that: “Some six months before his death he was possessed with the idea of his being poisoned – ‘I know I must die’, he exclaimed, ‘someone has given me aqua toffana and has calculated the precise time of my death – for which they have ordered a Requiem. It is for myself that I am writing this.’” (For our information, “aqua toffana” is a colorless and tasteless mixture containing arsenic, antimony, and lead that was invented in Naples in the seventeenth century as a cosmetic. However, we are told that young women used it quite successfully as a poison, young women “who wished to hasten the arrival of widowhood.”) Back to Constanze Mozart’s assertion, made 38 years […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Aaron Copland, Music for the Theatre (1925)

Aaron Copland in France, 1921-1924 Aaron Copland (1900-1990) never went to college. It was a decision that he later claimed to regret, although it’s hard to imagine how he could have gotten a better education than the one he actually received. He had begun to study music composition with the well-know and highly respected composer and teacher Rubin Goldmark (1872-1936) in the fall of 1917, during his senior year of high school in Brooklyn, New York. Copland graduated from high school in the spring of 1918 and continued his lessons with Goldmark while living at home. At the same time, he had the vibrant New York music and theater scene at his disposal and the full support of his family to pursue his musical studies (as an indication of that support, his father bought him a Steinway grand in 1919). Goldmark was an alum of the Vienna Conservatory and at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, and he gave Copland exactly the sort of rigorous and vigorous grounding in harmony, counterpoint, and musical form that the young dude required. But even as Copland thrived under Goldmark’s regimen, he did what your people have always done and hopefully […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Henry Purcell

When we think of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), if we think of him at all, what comes to mind are two of his operas – The Fairy’s Kiss and Dido and Aeneas – and perhaps a few well-worn songs.  You’ll pardon me the comparison, but this is like knowing Beethoven only through his first and second symphonies and few of his folksong arrangements. The comparison to Beethoven is apt.  Purcell was not just the greatest English composer of his time but arguably the most important and innovative composer living and working during the second half of the seventeenth century. Purcell’s contemporary, the English musician and Professor of Music at Cambridge University Thomas Tudway (circa 1650-1726), spoke for pretty much his entire musical community when he called Purcell: “The greatest genius we ever had.” That appraisal stood for well over two hundred years; the next English-born composer of (perhaps) equal stature to Purcell was Benjamin Britten, who was born in 1913 and died in 1976.   In his time, Purcell was referred to by his contemporaries as being as “our musical Shakespeare.”  (Observes our contemporary, the English harpsichordist and music director Trevor Pinnock: “Wherever Shakespeare went, pulling the whole English cultural bandwagon […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel

As a child and then as an adolescent, Fanny Mendelssohn’s all-encompassing commitment to music as a pianist and as composer never wavered.  Fanny was not quite 15-years-old when her father Abraham dropped the bomb and forbade her to pursue music as a career.  She was, instead, to learn how to run a household and raise a family, both of which she did – joyfully and competently – until her terribly premature death from a stroke on May 14, 1847, at the age of 41.  She was “allowed” to choose her own husband, and she chose well: the Prussian Royal Court Painter and professor of painting Wilhelm Hensel (1794-1861).  Together they had one child, a son named Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel (1830-1898).   (“Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel.” I think we can all agree that it was Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel who named her son.  “Sebastian”, as in Bach; “Ludwig”, as in Beethoven; and “Felix” as in her brother, Felix Mendelssohn! Sebastian Mendelssohn was such a good boy.  Early on, he began compiling a history of the Mendelssohn family, based on Fanny’s diaries and the voluminous correspondence between his parents, Fanny and Felix.  Sebastian’s family history remains the bedrock on which rests all Mendelssohn […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Joan Sutherland

Joan Sutherland (1926-2010) had a preternaturally big voice, one that spanned three octaves and had the size and punching power of Sonny Listen. Yet she had the vocal “hand speed” of Sugar Ray Leonard and was consequently able to specialize in repertoire ordinarily sung by women with voices lighter, smaller, and presumably more flexible than hers. That repertoire was the so-called “bel canto”, or “beautiful song/beautiful singing” style characteristic of much late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century Italian opera. Here is the textbook definition of “bel canto” from Nicolas Slonimsky, writing in Baker’s Dictionary of Music: “The art of lyrical and virtuosic performance as exemplified by the finest Italian singers of the 18th and 19th centuries, in contrast to the declamatory singing style brought into such prominence by Wagner. The term represents the once glorious tradition of vocal performance for beauty’s sake. The secret of bel canto was exclusively the property of Italian singing teachers. It was, above all, applied to lyric singing, particularly in opera. The operatic repertoire composed to highlight bel canto singers, notably early Romantic Italian opera, fell into disuse until after World War Two, when singers such as Callas, Sutherland, and Sills brought new life to the works […]

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