Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Music History Monday Podcast

Music History Monday: I Left My Heart in Doylestown, Pennsylvania

On June 29, 1941 – 79 years ago today – the Polish pianist, composer, philanthropist, vintner, and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski died in New York City. He was 80 years old. Before moving on to the story of that truly remarkable man’s life, we would grudgingly allot 230 words to a story so wonderfully ridiculous that I’d wager not a one of us could have made it up. On this day in 2000, Marshall Bruce Mathers III (born 1972) – better known by his stage name of “Eminem” – was sued for $10 million for slander and defamation of character by his mother Debbie Mathers-Nelson (born 1955). She had taken offense from a line in Eminem’s breakthrough single “My Name Is” (from his 1999 debut album The Slim Shady LP). The offending line? “My mom smokes more dope than I do”.  For his part, the rapper maintained that his lyric about his mother was totally true: that she did smoke more dope than he did. By her conduct during the suit, Ms. Mathers-Nelson provided all the evidence necessary to support her son’s assertion. According to her attorney Fred Gibson “she was the most high-maintenance client I’ve had in my legal career.” […]

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Music History Monday: The Damrosch Dynasty: Where Would We Be Without Them?

We mark the birth on June 22, 1859 – 161 years ago today – of the German-born American conductor and educator Frank Heino Damrosch.   Permit me, please, a personal reminiscence before moving on to establish why Frank Damrosch, his father Leopold, his brother Walter and his sister Clara were nothing less than the first family of American music from the 1870s through the 1920s.   It was one of those days I will never forget.  We all have them – a wedding; a graduation; the birth of a child; heaven help us, the death of someone dear – days during which events occur that by their sheer magnitude become indelibly printed in our memories.  Many thousands of us had just such a day on Sunday, October 19, 1991.  It was a hot, martini-dry, cloudless and very windy day in the San Francisco Bay Area; fire weather, as it is colloquially known.  We were at the end of our so-called “dry season”; it hadn’t rained since March.  We were also in the midst of a multi-year drought, and dead trees, dried out eucalyptus bark (eucalyptus trees molt/shed like Siberian Huskies in July); dried leaves and brush and pine needles had […]

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Music History Monday: If a Building Could Speak, this One Would Sing: The Vienna State Opera House

We mark the opening on May 25, 1869 – 151 years ago today – of the Vienna Court Opera (or Wiener Hofoper), which has been known since 1921 as the Vienna State Opera (or Wiener Staatsoper). The opening was a gala event: a performance of Wolfgang Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni attended by, among many others, Emperor Franz Josef I and his bride, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (know to her intimates as Sisi).  Last week’s Music History Monday post noted the deaths of both the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz and the Bohemian-born composer Gustav Mahler. In the course of that post, we observed that between 1897 and 1907 Mahler was Director and Principal Conductor of what was, and arguably still is, the most prestigious opera house in the world: the Vienna Court/State Opera.  (Along with Mahler, the Vienna Court/State Opera has had some pretty impressive Directors over the years, including Felix Weingartner [who served for 4 years], Richard Strauss [5 years], Bruno Walter [2 years], Karl Böhm [4 years], Herbert von Karajan [8 years], Lorin Maazel [2 years], Claudio Abbado [5 years], and Seiji Ozawa [8 years].  If a building can be said to tell the story of modern Vienna, […]

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Music History Monday: Mahler’s Last Words

We mark the passing, on May 18, 1911 – 109 years ago today – of the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler. Mahler, who was born on July 7, 1860 in the Bohemian village of Kalischt, died all-too-young in Vienna, two months shy of his 51st birthday. But before moving on to the painful circumstances of Mahler’s death and his “last words”, we would mark the painful circumstances of the death of his exact contemporary, the Spanish-born composer and pianist Isaac Manuel Francisco Albéniz Y Pascual, or simply Isaac Albéniz. Albéniz was born on May 20, 1860 – 39 days before Gustav Mahler – in Camprodon, a town in northern Catalonia not far from the French Border. A spectacularly gifted child, he made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of four and began his concert career at the age of nine. As a composer, he embraced the music of his native Spain in 1883 at the age of 23, when he began composing avowedly “Spanish-styled” works. His great masterwork is Iberia a set of twelve virtuosic piano works composed between 1905 and 1909, completed just three months before his death. (For those interested in an examination of […]

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Music History Monday: The Melody Lingers On: Irving Berlin

We mark the birth on May 11, 1888 – 132 years ago today – of the Russian-born American songwriter Irving Berlin (1888-1989). Berlin wrote the words and music to over 1500 songs across a 60-plus year career. He is an American institution, whose life was, according to his obituary in the New York Times, “a classic rags-to-riches story that he never forgot could have happened only in America.” Having emigrated from his native Russian Empire at the age of five, Berlin grew up dirt poor in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Nevertheless, he was a legend by the age of 23. All told, he wrote the scores for 20 Broadway musicals and 15 Hollywood movie musicals. His songs were nominated for eight Academy Awards. (His one Oscar win came in 1943, for the song White Christmas. Bing Crosby’s recording has sold upwards of 100 million copies, and remains the best-selling single of all time).  A word. I have been writing these Music History Monday posts since Monday, September 5, 2016. Over the years, these posts have run between 1500 and 2000 words; a few shorter and a very few longer. (I figure if you can’t tell a good story in 2000 […]

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Music History Monday: This is What Heroism Looks Like

We mark the birth – on April 27, 1920, 100 years ago today – of the conductor Guido Cantelli, in Novara, Italy, some 30 miles west of Milan.  Perhaps the most overused words in our top-ten culture of superlatives are “genius” and “hero”. We’ll contemplate the word “genius” (and the folly of its current usage) at another time. For now, I’d ask that we consider the word “hero”. Heaven knows, given the state of our world just now, we need heroes more than ever: people we can look up to and be inspired by; people whose accomplishments and decency remind us all of how good we can be. But I also think that, perhaps, we require heroes too much and as a result we elevate many individuals of questionable heroic worth to that lofty status just, well, because we can. The word itself derives from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs), which means, literally “protector” or “defender”. Both “protector” and “defender” imply someone who would stand in harm’s way for some greater good. And that is indeed the operable definition of a hero or heroine: “someone who, in the face of danger, combats adversity; who performs great deeds or selfless acts for […]

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Music History Monday: The Beloved Son Returns

We mark the solo piano recital on April 20, 1986 – 34 years ago today – that saw Vladimir Horowitz perform at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Horowitz, who was 82 years old at the time, had not visited or performed in his native Russia for 61 years. Not since Franz Liszt (1811-1886) had a pianist routinely electrified audiences as did Horowitz (1903-1989). It wasn’t just his flawless technique: the amazing colors he could draw from the piano; the preternatural accuracy and clarity of his playing; the ungodly speed of his octaves and the overwhelming volume of sound he could produce without ever banging. It was also the prodigious electricity – the sheer excitement – he generated on stage, what the senior music critic of The New York Times Harold Schonberg called: “a kind of high-voltage charisma that, in his time, could be matched only by Toscanini, Callas, and Pavarotti.”  The American pianist Emanuel Ax said:  “I knew people who worshiped Horowitz, as I did, and I knew people who hated him. But no one was indifferent. He brought the idea of excitement in piano playing to a higher pitch than anyone I’ve ever heard. For me the […]

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Music History Monday: Hallelujah!

We mark the first performance on April 13, 1742 – 278 years ago today – of George Frederick Handel’s Messiah in Dublin, Ireland. Messiah is not just Handel’s most famous work, but one of a handful of “most famous works” in the entire Western musical repertoire. According to the American musicologist Joseph Kerman, Messiah is: “the only composition from the Baroque Era that has been performed continuously – and frequently – since its first appearance.” (I typically take comments like that one – even from someone as unimpeachable as Joseph Kerman – as a challenge. But having thought about it, I’ve concluded that Kerman is correct; Messiah is a singular work, one with an unbroken track record of frequent performances since its premiere, something we cannot say about any other musical work from the Baroque era. For example, the major works of Johann Sebastian Bach went unperformed for more than 75 years after his death. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, composed in 1716 and 1717 and published in 1725, fell into almost complete obscurity from the late eighteenth century until the 1940s, when it was recorded for the first time. Handel’s own anthem for chorus and orchestra – Zadok (pronounced “ZAY-dock”) […]

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Music History Monday: Be Nice to the People You Meet On the Way Up, ‘Cause You’re Going to Meet Them Again on the Way Back Down

March 30 is a good day for birthdays in the world of pop and rock. Let’s acknowledge three of them before moving on to the fourth of our birthday babies, someone whose fascinating life and even more fascinating financial foibles will make up the bulk of today’s post. We gratefully mark the birth on March 30, 1945 – 75 years ago today – of the guitarist, singer, and songwriter Eric Patrick Clapton CBE (that’s “Order of Chivalry of the British Empire”) in the village of Ripley, in Surry, England, roughly 20 miles south-west of London. Clapton is one of the most gifted and influential musicians to grace his time. He is the only person to ever have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame three times: as a solo performer and separately, as a member of the Yardbirds (in which he played from 1963 to 1965) and Cream (from 1966 to 1968). For what it’s worth – as such rankings are entirely subjective – Rolling Stone Magazine ranks Clapton as the second of its “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”. (Utter arrogance on the part of Rolling Stone, which should call its list “100 Greatest Rock ‘n’ […]

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Music History Monday: A Bevy of Firsts and Number Ones!

Before moving on to our “firsts” and “number ones”, we would acknowledge an event that picks up on the Music History Monday post of March 2, 2020. That postmarked the death in 1830 of the violinist and conductor Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Schuppanzigh was a loyal friend and supporter of Beethoven and his music, despite Beethoven’s often abusive fat-shaming of the admittedly zaftig violinist. Schuppanzigh participated in more premieres of Beethoven’s music than any other musician other than Beethoven himself, and his unwavering devotion to Beethoven and his music continued after Beethoven’s death. On March 23, 1828 – 192 years ago today – the Schuppanzigh String Quartet posthumously premiered Beethoven’s final string quartet: the F major, Op. 135 of 1826 in Vienna. At the time of the premiere Beethoven had been dead for just under a year: for 362 days. With this posthumous premiere, Schuppanzigh’s life-long service to Beethoven as a first performer came to an end. On March 23, 1956 – 64 years ago today – RCA Victor records released Elvis Presley’s debut LP (long-playing) record, catalog number LPM-1254. There are 12 songs on the album, six on each side, recorded between July 5, 1954 and January 30, 1956, totaling 28 […]

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