Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Dr. Bob Prescribes

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 […]

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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. […]

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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 […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven Piano Concerto WoO 4

What a birthday rip-off.  Until roughly March 15 of this year, I had always assumed that the two worst birthday rip-offs were being born on December 25 (“we’re giving you a combined birthday/holiday gift this year . . .”) and February 29 (“we’ll celebrate again in four years!”). But no, there is a bigger rip, and that’s having what should have been a yearlong celebration of concerts and colloquia and lectures and special events in honor of Beethoven’s 250th cut down to three months because of you-freaking-know-what.  Dang. By the time we all start consistently crawling back to our concert halls – I’m thinking (hoping) winter-spring 2021, the Beethoven birthday year – which presumably runs from December 16, 2019 to December 16, 2020, will have come and gone. HERE’S WHAT I PROPOSE, and pardon me for yelling. I propose we take a Mulligan, do the whole thing over, and extend the festivities by a full year. The Beethoven Symphonies, Concerti, String Quartets, Piano Sonatas, etc. and etc. that were scheduled for performances, only to be cancelled due to COVID-19, should simply be rescheduled. The activities and events surrounding the B-man’s B-day should, again, all be rescheduled. It’s only fair, and […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Franz Liszt: ‘Transcendental Etudes’

I spent the first few months of this year composing a set of six etudes for piano (posted on Patreon on April 2 and 9). As per my usual MO, I spent a couple of days prior to starting work listening to and/or reading through a batch of etudes by the usual suspects – Chopin, Liszt (I was once given a small, rectangular pad of paper labeled “Chopin Liszt” – “shopping list”), Rachmaninoff, Debussy, and Ligeti – in order to get my head and my ears in the right place. Again, typical of my compositional process, once I started writing I put such listening aside. At that point, it could only get in my way and remind me of how utterly inadequate I am when compared to the heavyweights named above. “Etude” means “study”. A musical “etude” is a technical study, a work that isolates and emphasizes some particular aspect (or aspects) of technique. Etudes have and will continue to be composed for every instrument for pedagogic purposes. With all due respect to Beethoven’s student and friend (and the teacher of Liszt) Carl Czerny (1791-1857), who wrote virtually thousands of piano etudes (his last published work, Opus 861, is titled […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes The Songs of Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Beilin, 1888-1989) was the greatest songwriter ever to live and work in North America. His songs – for which he wrote both the words and music – capture the spirit and chronicle the events of the first half of twentieth century America in a manner far beyond that of any other single songwriter. Among Berlin’s great contemporaries there were lyricists who wrote cleverer, more sophisticated lyrics and composers who pushed the formal structure and harmonic complexity of the popular song more than Berlin. But Berlin’s songs united the personal and the topical in words and melodies that had an almost universal appeal. Writes Robert Kimball: “The ability to capture and represent the human experience in a simple, direct way is what great songwriting is all about. And that is where Irving Berlin had no peer.” (BTW, this doesn’t mean that Berlin couldn’t create a great rhyme; rather, when he does so, it is entirely in the service of the song and never to show us how very clever he is. For example, the lyric to Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee, written in 1932 during the darkest days of the Depression, in which he rhymes […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mozart Piano Sonatas

My Dr. Bob Prescribes post for October 23, 2018, was titled “Fine Dining”. The post featured Ronald Brautigan’s revelatory performances of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas recorded on modern copies of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century pianos built by Paul McNulty (born in Houston in 1953). (These early pianos are often referred to as “fortepianos”, which simply means “loud-soft.” By definition, a fortepiano is an early piano that employs thin, harpsichord-like strings; leather-covered – as opposed to felt – hammers; a wooden harp; and lacks any metal bracing. The term fortepiano, then, designates pianos built from the invention of the instrument by Bartolomeo Cristofori sometime before the year 1700 to approximately 1825, when larger metal harped and thicker stringed pianos – proto-modern pianos, as they were – began to become the norm.) The title of that post – “Fine Dining” – referred to the crow I was obligated to eat as a result of Brautigam’s recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. I wrote: “For lo these many years, I have always looked down on the fortepiano: those early pianos distinguished by their wood-framed (as opposed to metal-framed) harps, built between 1700 and 1825. In my ignorance, I have long considered wooden-harped pianos […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Mahler, Symphony No. 4

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was the greatest opera composer never to have composed an opera. Huh?  Once again: Gustav Mahler was the greatest opera composer never to have composed an opera. That statement is intended to be neither ironic nor provocative. Nor, well, stupid. I would explain. Compositionally, Mahler was, from the first, a dramatist: when composing, he thought in terms of dramatic scenarios. Whether a given work is instrumental or vocal, Mahler’s music, like Beethoven’s mature music before him, describes some sort of narrative, be it allegorical, metaphorical, or programmatic. Mahler came to his narrative impulse honestly. Along with the hyper-expressivity that was his late-nineteenth century German Romantic heritage, he was – like pretty much every German-speaking composer of his generation – a dyed-in-the-wool fan-person of Richard Wagner and the expressive ethos that drove Wagner’s music dramas. That Wagnerian ethos posited that music and literature must be combined to create archetypal stories/fables that resonated with the deepest of human impulses and experiences.  Mahler took this ethos for granted as a composer, and it was something he put into action on a daily basis as a conductor. Mahler conducted opera for a living, and starting in 1880 at the age of […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte

Covid-19 be damned, it’s still Beethoven’s 250th birth year and that celebration stops for nothing and no one, certainly not here on the pages of Dr. Bob Prescribes. Let us then continue to revel in some of Beethoven’s lesser-known works and lesser-known performances. Today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes is the third and final post to be dedicated to Beethoven’s songs, which together constitute the most under-appreciated segment of his entire output. (Instead of the word “output”, I was about to write oeuvre, which is French for “the collected works of a painter, composer, or author.” But I’ve decided that an English language post shouldn’t refer to a German’s compositional output using a French word. Which immediately brought to mind – as I sure it does for you as well – Henry Watson Fowler’s injunction against using French words in his wonderful A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford, 1926, which can actually be read for pleasure so entertaining are the entries. Here’s what Fowler [1858–1933, the so-called “Warden of the English Language”] writes: “FRENCH WORDS. Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth – greater, indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Wagner – The Ring of the Nibelung

Nothing is perfect, not even evolution. Speaking for myself, I wish evolution had done a better job with human knees and rotator cuffs, though given that evolution engineered the human body to last only some 35 or 40 years, I suppose the breakdown of my knees and shoulders – which are presently long past their natural expiration date/shelf life – is to be expected. One thing evolution got very right is “binaural” hearing. “Binaural” means “having or relating to two ears.” Why do we humans and virtually every other creature that “hears” on this planet have two ears? Because binaural hearing allows us to figure out the origin and direction of sounds. When it comes to negotiating our environment, one ear is not enough and three is simply too many. As such, there’s no practical reason why any animal would have evolved 3, 4, 5 or more ears; that would be a useless waste of precious energy and resources. And aside from having created the preconditions that led to the dance-pop/tech-house/pop-reggae singing/recording career of Paris Hilton, evolution typically does not waste its resources on the useless.  As discussed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, the 12-inch, 33 1/3-rpm (rotations-per-minute) long-playing […]

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