Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for How to Listen to and Understand Great Music

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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Music History Monday: Joaquin and Lester

Today we recognize the birth and the death of two musical masters from entirely different times and places who nevertheless, by the most extraordinary of coincidences, share the same nickname: the jazz tenor saxophonist Lester “Prez” Young and the Franco-Flemish composer Josquin “des Prez” Lebloitte. Lester “Prez” Young Lester Willis Young was born on August 27, 1909 – 109 years ago today – in Woodland, Mississippi. He was the consummate jazz hipster, who played “cool” long before “cool jazz” was recognized as a genre of jazz. Known in particular for his long association with Billie Holiday, Lester Young died on March 15, 1959, at the age of 49. Josquin des Prez Josquin des Prez (or “Desprez”; we will talk about the surname Lebloitte in a moment) was born circa 1450 and died on August 27, 1521: 497 years ago today. He was, simply, the greatest and most respected composer of his time. That he is not still a musical household name speaks to the fickleness of history and not to his music, which is superb. Josquin was the first composer to become a legend after his death, the first to have his music widely disseminated thanks to the newly invented […]

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Looking back on the first edition of “How To Listen to and Understand Great Music”

I have managed to dig up and digitize a television advertisement for the first edition of my Teaching Company/The Great Courses survey “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” from 1993. It’s a bit painful for me to watch: I weighed 30 pounds less than I do now; I had all my hair (including a very large moustache); and I wore contacts. I looked good, but most painful of all, I looked young. When I recorded that first course in May of 1993, The Teaching Company had four full-time employees, including its founder, Tom Rollins. At the time, the company had just moved to its first “dedicated studio” in Springfield, Virginia, just south of Washington D.C.’s outer loop. Yes, it was a “dedicated studio”, but the company was still in its infancy, and the production values were crude (to put it mildly). I worked in front of a blue screen and a blackboard, read from a sheaf of notes in my hand, and used a small upright piano located on stage. The method by which we mastered the musical examples was particularly primitive. For that first course, our licensing agent sent me music on cassettes. I then dubbed the […]

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Music History Monday: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Enlightened Opera

240 years ago today – on July 2, 1778 – the Swiss-born philosopher, novelist, educator, music theorist and critic, and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau died at age 66 in the township of Ermenonville, roughly 25 miles north-east of Paris. Rousseau was one of the greatest and most significant thinkers ever born to our species. According to Will and Ariel Durant, writing in their book Rousseau and Revolution, Rousseau: “transformed education, elevated the morals of France[!], inspired the Romantic movement and the French Revolution, influenced the philosophy of Kant and Schopenhauer, the plays of Schiller, the novels of Goethe, the poems of Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley, the socialism of Marx, the ethics of Tolstoy, and, altogether, had more effect upon posterity than any other writer or thinker of that eighteenth century in which writers were more influential than they had ever been before.” Rousseau also helped to redefine the role and substance of opera at a time when opera – like movies and television today – was not just a form of entertainment but both a reflection and a driver of the political and social values of its time. A little background Opera was invented in Florence Italy around 1600 as a […]

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How To Listen And Understand Great Music at 37,000 Feet!

I’ve done a good bit of travel by air over the course of the last 35 years, long enough to observe (and experience) an incredible degradation in air travel. To my mind, airports themselves have always been bad. I long ago decided that once I entered an airport – any airport – it was best to assume I had entered a maximum-security “rehabilitation facility”. With this in mind I could accept that the airport, as a manifestation of fate, controlled my destiny. My time no longer belonged to me; nor did my body, and if the “airport” chose to delay (or cancel) a flight, or hold me at passport control, or pull me out of a security line and subject me to a cavity search, my best recourse was – and remains – to keep my mouth shut and do my best to go with the flow. In sum: I don’t particularly like airports. (Especially now that the prices in duty-free are, like, twice what you’d pay in Costco. What’s that all about?) Once boarded and underway, the actual flights were, for me, infinitely less onerous. There was food to eat, empty seats to stretch out on, unlimited bags to […]

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Ordering The Great Courses Surveys

I receive all sorts of (usually lovely) mail and email from all sorts of folks asking all sorts of questions, mostly about music but not infrequently about other things as well. You will – I’m sure – be relieved to hear that for now I will focus on the former, reserving my advice on dating, brands of gin, and whether the martini should be shaken or stirred for another time. For now, it’s on to one of my most frequently-asked-questions, and that is: if my Great Courses surveys were a curricula, in what order would I suggest they be consumed? It’s a good question (at least I think so). Courses numbers one, two and three as identified below might be considered the basic prerequisites to the remainder of my catalog. Course number one: “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music”, 3rd edition (2006). I know, this is pretty much a no-brainer; it’s The Great Courses’ equivalent to Music 101, “tunes for goons”. Please, please, please, the 3rd edition only. The second edition (from 1998) is flawed, and the first edition (1993) was made during the Stone Age. Course numbers two and three: “How to Listen to and Understand Opera” […]

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