Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes Stravinsky’s “Les Noces”

When discussing the long compositional life of Igor Stravinsky (he completed his first masterwork, The Firebird, in 1910; his last, Requiem Canticles, in 1966 [see Dr. Bob Prescribes for a post on the latter April 7, 2020]), his output is often conveniently divided into three large compositional “periods”: his “Russian period” (1909-1919); his neo-Classic/neo-tonal period (1920-1956, which includes a wide variety of presumably Baroque and Classical-era inspired works); and his late or “serial” (modern) music, 1957-1966.  Alas, like most such convenient divisions, these are broad generalizations and exceptions abound. (Apparently no one bothered to tell Stravinsky that his “Russian” period had concluded in 1919. Consequently, he had no qualms about composing Mavra in 1921. Mavra is a charming one-act opera buffa based on Alexander Pushkin’s rhymed story, The Little House in Kolomna. It is a rarely performed work; Tchaikovsky-like in its rich, bel canto lyricism and most Stravinskyan in its concision and rhythmic asymmetry, the latter an outgrowth of the Russian language itself. Likewise, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements of 1945 might just as well be titled Son of The Rite of Spring – or perhaps Beneath the Rite of Spring – so closely related are these two works composed […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Siegfried Idyll

Yesterday’s Music History Monday marked the 144th anniversary of the premiere of Richard Wagner’s music drama Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods), the fourth and final installment of his epic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelungs. As we properly observed yesterday, Wagner’s Ring was and remains the greatest single undertaking in the long history of Western music. We read – here and there – that “Wagner wrote almost no instrumental music.” This is a most misleading statement, as he was a brilliant composer for orchestra and did indeed compose a significant body of orchestral music. However, it just so happens that the great bulk of that orchestral music was incorporated into his stage works as overtures, entr’actes, interludes, codas, etc. Let’s rephrase that just-quoted statement to read this way: “in his maturity, Wagner (1813-1883) wrote very few self-standing, exclusively instrumental compositions, the most famous of which is his Siegfried Idyll of 1870.” Siegfried Idyll is an exquisite work, with a fabulous back-story, and after all, how often do we get to hear and revel in a Wagnerian opus that runs but 20 minutes from beginning to end? So let’s do it! But first, let us contemplate good birth dates and […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Mozart, Symphony in C major, “Jupiter”, K. 551

Nicknames. We turn to that paragon of informational accuracy, Wikipedia, for the following definition of the word “nickname”: “A nickname is a substitute for the proper name of a familiar person, place or thing. Commonly used to express affection, it is a form of endearment and amusement. In rarer cases, it can also be used to express defamation of character, particularly by school bullies [or certain Presidents of the United States]. As a concept, it is distinct from both pseudonym and stage name, and also from a title (for example, ‘City of Fountains’), although there may be overlap in these concepts. A hypocoristic is a nickname of affection between those in love or with a close emotional bond. ‘Moniker’ is a synonym.” Most nicknames assigned to people are harmless (although whoever thought up “Dick” as a nickname for “Richard” clearly did not anticipate today’s colloquial usage). The majority of nicknames would seem to be first-syllable versions of a proper name: Dan, Lil, Steve, Liz, Sam, Dave, Joe, Ben, Di, Mike, Deb, Irv, Pete, Fred, Lou, Walt, and so forth. Some such nicknames are unisexual: Sal, Pat and Chris, for example. Other nicknames are rather more distantly related to the name they nick: […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Louise Farrenc

Soon after I opened up shop on Patreon, I was asked to comment on the music of Louise Farrenc (1804-1875). Not for the first time and certainly not for the last, I was brought up short . . . Louise who? I’m not sure I was brave enough to admit my ignorance, but as I recall I promised to look into her music. I have indeed “looked into” her music and have been properly gobsmacked by what I have heard: symphonies of great power and pathos, dazzling piano music and, in particular, chamber music on par – on par – with that of her contemporary Felix Mendelssohn. She was born Jeanne-Louise Dumont in Paris on May 31, 1804 and died there on September 15, 1875. The Dumont family was blessed with high-end artistic genetics, as Louise came from a long line well known sculptors and artists (which included several women painters); her older brother August-Alexandre Dumont (1801-1884) was a Prix de Rome-winning sculptor, whose work graces several important Parisian monuments to this day.  Like the aforementioned Felix Mendelssohn, Farrenc (her married name) was a child prodigy as both a visual artist and a musician. By her early teenage years, she was […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Ferruccio Busoni: Fantasia Contrappuntistica

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the death on July 27, 1924 of the musical polymath Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924). Today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post picks up where yesterday’s Music History Monday left off, with an examination of what is, perhaps, Busoni’s single most representative work: his massive, 30-plus minute-long Fantasia Contrappuntistica for piano. Hugo Leichtentritt – Ferruccio Busoni’s first biographer – wrote on the occasion of Busoni’s 50th birthday in 1916 that: “He is a campaigner, not a quiet, complacent inheritor. He is a pioneer [and yet] he is anchored in the past by many roots.”  A good choice of words, that: “anchored” in the past, not “stuck” in it. The core belief of Busoni’s artistic worldview was be yourself but be yourself responsibly. Like Beethoven, he believed in contextuality – use those rules, those elements of the past that speak directly to your creative heart when you can – and then ignore them when expressive context demands. Busoni believed that it was the essential responsibility of every composer to decide what was right, and to never dogmatically follow any tradition that went against his or her own grain.  (For example, Busoni was repelled by the Wagner fetish of his […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven Piano Concerto in D, Op. 61a

Compositionally, 1806 was a miraculous year for Herr Ludwig van Beethoven. Among the works he completed that year were the Piano Sonata in F minor, the Appassionata, Op. 57; the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58; the three so-called “Razumovsky” String Quartets, Op. 59, nos. 1, 2, and 3; the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60; the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61; the second Version of his opera Leonore (as well as the Leonore Overtures nos. 2 and 3) (Leonore was renamed Fidelio in 1814); 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO (without opus) 80; and Six Ecossaises for piano, WoO 83;  (For those who’s like to know much more about Beethoven in 1806, I can happily recommend Mark Ferraguto’s excellent Beethoven 1806, published by Oxford University Press in 2019.) Crazy. Some ten years into his hearing loss, in poor mental health, and plagued by gastric issues that would lay most of us low for weeks at a time, Beethoven’s creative juices and sheer ingenuity were running at a level inconceivable to any of us today.  His Violin Concerto received its premiere that same year – 1806 – on December […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Louis Armstrong

The often-told story of Louis Armstrong’s early life has passed into American legend, an early twentieth century Horatio Alger-styled tale of an impoverished black child who rises from the humblest of beginnings to fame and fortune through hard work, courage, and talent.  Armstrong spent his entire life believing that he was a “Yankee-Doodle Dandy”, born on the fourth of July in 1900. However, it was in the mid-1980s that the music historian Thaddeus Jones (1952-2007), in researching Louis Armstrong’s early life, discovered baptismal records that definitively established Armstrong’s date of birth as August 4, 1901.  There has never been any question about the location of Armstrong’s birth: New Orleans. He was born out of wedlock to Mary (“Mayann”) Albert (1885-1927) and William Armstrong (1880-1933). William abandoned the family soon after Louis’ birth, though he reappeared long enough to once again impregnate Mayann, who gave birth to a second child two years later. (Named Beatrice, she went by the fabulous nickname of “Mama Lucy”.) With his father’s departure, the infant Louis was initially raised by his paternal grandmother; his mother Maryann, who worked as a domestic and as a prostitute, came and went. When the young dude was about five he […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Paderewski: Piano Concerto in A minor, OP. 17 (1888)

Relatively late pianistic bloomer though he may have been, when Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) performed, audiences went wild. It’s no exaggeration to say that when Paderewski made his international debut in Vienna in 1887 at the age of 27 he became a legend almost overnight. Not since Franz Liszt (1811-1886) had concert-goers seen and heard such a complete, made-for-the-stage package: over-the-top pianistic flamboyance; tremendous stage charisma; striking, movie-star good looks; a head of hair that reminded his admirers of a golden halo; and a composer able to wow audiences with his own music as well as the “classics”. Among the concert-going public, the name “Paderewski” soon became synonymous for supreme pianism.  (Really, how many concert pianists are referenced in popular songs? In 1916, Irving Berlin [Music History Monday, May 11, 2020 and Dr. Bob Prescribes, May 12, 2020] wrote a song entitled I love a Piano which includes these words: “And with the pedal,  I love to meddle, When Paderewski comes this way. I’m so delighted,  when I’m invited, To hear that long-haired genius play!”) The uncritical adoration Paderewski received from the concert-going public was not shared by his fellow professionals. Certainly, some were envious of his success, but in […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Mahler, Symphony No. 3

Mahler composed the great bulk of his Symphony No. 3 during the summers of 1895 and 1896. (Mahler was a “summer break” composer, who had to work around his conducting schedule.) It is a huge, sprawling, 6-movement work, roughly 100 to 105 minutes in performance. (The recommended performance, conducted by Claudio Abbado, runs 102 minutes and 42 seconds: that’s 1 hour, 42 minutes, and 42 seconds.) Not only is the third Mahler’s longest work, it is also the longest symphony in the standard repertoire.  (For our information, Mahler originally intended the symphony to be longer: he planned to include a seventh movement, an orchestral setting of the song “The Heavenly Life.” In the end he chose not to include the song here in the Third Symphony; instead it became the fourth and final movement of his Symphony No. 4.) Among the many things Mahler told Natalie Bauer-Lechner about his Third Symphony-in-progress was its programmatic plan, a plan he later withdrew and wished to god he’d never mentioned at all. Nevertheless, it is the key to understanding his expressive intentions and the dramatic progression of movements as the symphony unfolds, and we press it joyfully to our collective bosoms in gratitude. […]

Continue Reading

Dr. Bob Prescribes Ella Fitzgerald

Here’s what happened: On November 21, 1934, the 17 year-old Ella Jane Fitzgerald participated in one of the first “Amateur Nights” held at the Apollo Theater, the famed music hall located at 253 West 125th Street in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood. Fitzgerald and a friend named Charles Gulliver had created a dance routine that they performed in local clubs, and it was as a dancer that she intended to perform at the Apollo.  Young Ella was preceded on stage by a local dance duo called the Edwards Sisters. The sisters must have been good, because the excessively shy and most definitely gawky Ella Fitzgerald was intimidated down to her cockles (don’t ask) and decided on the spot not to dance but instead, to sing a couple of songs. From such serendipitous events do the greatest of things often develop.  Fitzgerald’s decision to sing instead of dance didn’t come completely out of the blue; she’s been singing on the streets of Harlem for roughly a year for the loose coin or two. She sang in the style of her hero, Connee Boswell (1907-1976), later saying that: “My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I […]

Continue Reading