Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Dr. Bob Prescribes

Dr. Bob Prescribes Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Turangalîla’ Symphony

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post noted and celebrated the premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony in Boston, on December 2, 1949, by the Boston Symphony conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Composed between 1946 and 1948, the Turangalîla Symphony caps the first part of Messiaen’s compositional career.  There’s nothing else like it in the repertoire, for which we should probably be grateful; frankly, given its climax laden expressive content, I’m not sure any of us could survive listening to two works like the Turangalîla Symphony back-to-back.  The Turangalîla Symphony is 10-movement, 80 minute (that’s 1 hour, 20 minute) long Tantric orgasm, “rapturous overkill” in the words of one critic, “a sonic Mount Everest”, an almost non-stop exercise in rhapsodic bliss, amazing and a tad freaky. If the Turangalîla Symphony were itself a prolonged erection, the time to seek medical attention would have long since passed.  Messiaen (1908-1992) was fascinated by various Eastern cultures: their spirituality, rituals, and music, all of which are reflected in the Turangalîla Symphony. “Turangalîla” is a compound word in Sanskrit, meaning something on the lines of “a hymn of love to the play of joy, time, life and death.” A “hymn of ecstatic love” the piece most surely […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Virgil Thomson: Symphony on a Hymn Tune

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post recognized the 123rd anniversary of the birth of the American composer and critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1989). That Music History Monday post focused on the particular pitfalls when a practitioner (in Thomson’s case, a composer) deigns also to become a critic. Today, we turn to Thomason’s music. As a composer, Thomson has been variously described as a “modernist”, a “neoclassicist”, and a “neoromantic”, terms that when taken altogether are pretty much neo-useless. Like Charles Ives (1874-1954) before him, Thomson was profoundly affected by the music he heard and played while growing up: popular parlor songs and dance music, Protestant hymns, ragtime, children songs, and band music. But unlike Ives, who spent his compositional life subjecting the musical experiences of his childhood to an increasingly modernistic musical treatment, Thomson’s music retained a certain childlike innocence and wonder to the end, displaying a directness of expression and simplicity of utterance that together elevate “naiveté” to a stylistic aesthetic. Thomson’s ability to employ musical Americana in a manner both naive and yet powerfully affecting is clearly demonstrated in his Symphony on a Hymn Tune of 1926-1928, a work that anticipates many aspects of Aaron Copland’s so-called “populist style”, which […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Arnold Schoenberg, A Survivor from Warsaw

At its highest and ideal level, the purpose of art is to crystallize, summarize, epitomize and portray human experience in a manner universal and transcendent of its time and place of creation.  Some art is aesthetically beautiful and as such transports us to a “better” place, beyond this vale of tears that is our everyday existence. Some art resonates with our own experience, and thus helps us to understand ourselves and our lives more clearly even as it inspires us to go on and fight the good fight that is our lives. And some art delves into very dark places, places most “normal people” generally prefer not to go. We consume such art not because it entertains us; not because it is “attractive” in a traditional aesthetic sense but because it cuts to the bone of its subject matter and reveals truths – sometimes terrible truths – that are otherwise impossible to fathom or even describe.  Admittedly, such “dark art” forces us to feel and to comprehend – at a nonverbal, gut level – things that we might very well not want to have to feel or comprehend. But dreadfully trying though such art might be, we cannot turn away […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Gabriel Fauré: Piano Quartet No. 1

Every one of us is, to some extent, the product and the victim of our education. The product, obviously, because we are all shaped by what we were taught, and (presumably) we use some of what we were taught to help us navigate our lives. Perhaps less obviously, we are also the victims of our education because it’s almost impossible for any teacher to impart any information without somehow coloring it/skewing it with his/her own opinions, prejudices and worldviews. It seems to me that in most cases this is inadvertent, though in some cases it is quite overt.

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Mahler, Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection”

How much is enough? Everyone, please say hello to Gregg Valentino. (“Hello Gregg.”) For a time, Gregg held the record for having the world’s largest biceps: 28 inches around. Gregg grew those guns through a combination of exercise, steroids, and a really nasty topical oil called “Synthol.” However he managed to create those arms, we imagine Gregg has no trouble opening even the most reluctant of jars, although we also imagine that shopping for shirts can be something of a chore.  Gregg, dude, regarding those arms: how much is enough? Wrap your eyes around the marvel of technology and power that is Ferrari’s 6,496 cc (6.5 L) F140 V12 (12 cylinder) engine. At 8,500 rpm, this sweet puppy generates a power output of 789 hp (horsepower) and 530 lb⋅ft of torque at 7,000 rpm, making it – as of 2018 – the most powerful naturally aspirated production car engine ever manufactured. (A “naturally aspirated engine” is an internal combustion engine that relies solely on atmospheric pressure for its oxygen intake; as opposed to an engine with a supercharger or turbocharger, which forces oxygen into an engine.) The automobile into which that engine is its heart is a Ferrari 812 Superfast, which will set you back […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Emil Gilels

This post continues the celebration of Beethoven’s upcoming semiquincentennial (250th anniversary of his birth) by featuring what is, for me, my out-of-the-ballpark favorite performance of what is, for me, my favorite Beethoven Piano Concerto. We contemplate, for a moment, youth, innocence, and the inevitable loss of both. I am writing this post on October 14, 2019. Today is my daughter Lillian Patricia’s 13th birthday; for not the first time in my life I have a teenaged daughter under my roof. Lily is still – may it long last – as sweet as can be, as the picture to the right (taken last night in her Halloween outfit) attests. But. But as experience has taught me, I am (painfully) aware that some point in the next two years she will suddenly and inexplicably disappear, to be replaced by an irrational, cynical, hypersensitive, over-emotional, easily angered, appearance-obsessed clone, someone pathologically hostile towards my jokes and given to door-slamming exhibitions of pique. I am additionally aware that it could take up to five or even six years to find my real daughter, during which time the rest of us will have to tread as if walking on glass.  Lillian’s childhood is almost over, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Jessye Norman

Death comes for us all, even the goddesses among us.  Pardon me such a lachrymose opening line, but Jessye Norman died on September 30, 2019 at the age of 74 and how can that be.  I had planned to write today about Johannes Brahms’ glorious vocal quartets (for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices and piano), 12 in number and published as Opuses 31, 64, 92, and 112. Like so much (if not most) of Brahms’ music for multiple voices and chorus, the vocal quartets are buried treasures, hidden gems, superb works generally unknown by the listening public and as such, a perfect subject for Dr. Bob Prescribes.  But our exquisite Ms. Norman’s passing has prompted a necessary change of course. So instead, I ask that you join me on Patreon as we explore one of my favorite recordings of Ms. Norman’s. Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Robert Schumann

I have been asked to write a brief program note for the Library of Congress, and it just so happens that they have asked me to write about one of my favorite performing ensembles performing some of my absolutely favorite music. Talk about two birds with one stone! I will adapt this Dr. Bob Prescribes post for the LOC. But to our post first. By way of explanation. The National Recording Registry is a list of 25 recordings issued annually by the Library Congress. The Registry now totals some 525 recordings. According to the LOC: “Each of these recordings has been chosen by the Librarian of Congress, with input from the National Recording Preservation Board. Each of these recordings have been deemed so vital to the history of America — aesthetically, culturally or historically — that they demand permanent archiving in the nation’s library.” There are certain actors whose fan-bases are so deep that their mere presence in a film will, by itself, guarantee its success. Tom Hanks, Jennifer Lawrence, Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Scarlett Johansson, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Samuel Jackson, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise: put ’em on the screen and watch the moolah roll in. There are […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Felix Mendelssohn

It is cliché but true: the older we get, the more most of us realize how little we know and how much there is still to learn. Getting older has a way of humbling us if, indeed, we are lucky enough to get older. Now, I am aware that some “older” people – particularly older academes who, believing they have mastered that narrow range of information they call their “field” – swell with arrogance when dealing with the uninformed novices that are their students and the ignorant hoi-polloi, which qualifies as everybody else. But such irksome creatures are, in my experience, relatively few and far between, and we need pay them no mind (unless we work for one or, heaven forbid, are married to one!). I bring this up because 25 years ago even I, your humblest of intellectual servants, suffered from the sin of informational pride: I believed that I was familiar with the great bulk of the Western concert repertoire. How wrong I was. What I “knew” were the staples, the chestnuts, and a number of sleepers, and while no one can possibly “know” the entire repertoire – it is almost inconceivably vast – it turns out that […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Anne Rice

Given all of its terminological pitfalls, referencing music is notoriously difficult for non-musicians. I read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction, and far more often than not music references are bungled by both authors and their editors (who allow those bungles to slip through).   (It has only just now occurred to me that I should have been keeping a list of such musical miscues; we’d have some real boners to discuss about had I done so. Things like referring to a Beethoven symphony as a “song”; assertions that Mozart “waltzed through the night” at a time when the waltz was not yet danced in urban areas; references to Frank Sinatra’s “scintillating tenor voice”; he was a baritone, etc.) If the occasional music reference can be problematic for non-musicians, then actually writing about music can be a downright disaster. In correspondence with my Patreon patron, the professional writer (and musical patron) Howard Jay Smith (whose own historical novel – Beethoven in Love; Opus 139 – I, pathetically, have yet to read), we discussed how ripe for literary depiction was the Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms ménage a trois. In the course of our correspondence I mentioned two books that […]

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