Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Music History Monday

Music History Monday Replay: “The Empress” – Bessie Smith

I am writing this post from my hotel room in what is presently (but sadly, not for long) warm and sunny Vienna.  As I mentioned last week, I will be here for eight days acting as “color commentator” for a musical tour of the city sponsored by Wondrium (a.k.a. The Teaching Company/The Great Courses).  I also indicated, one, that I would keep you up-to-date on the trip with near-daily posts, and two, that Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes will be rather truncated while I am here. We mark the birth on April 15, 1894 – 130 years ago today – of the American contralto and blues singers Bessie Smith.  Appropriately nicknamed “The Empress,” Bessie Smith remains one of the most significant and influential musicians ever born in the United States.  Well, it just so happens that we celebrated Maestra Smith birthday in my Music History Monday post of April 15, 2019, and I will thus be excused for directing your attention to that post through the button below:

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Music History Monday: The Guy Who Wrote the “Waltz”

We mark the death on April 8, 1858 – 166 years ago today – of the Austrian composer, editor, and music publisher Anton Diabelli in Vienna, at the age of 76.  Born on September 5, 1781, his enduring fame is based on a waltz of his composition that became the basis for Beethoven’s epic Diabelli Variations for piano. Quick Work We are, fairly or unfairly, going to make rather quick work of Herr Diabelli.  That’s because, with all due respect, what I really want to write about is Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.   There’s a powerful ulterior motive at work here as well.  In a field of great recordings, my numero uno favorite Diabelli Variations is the recording made by the Milan-born Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini in 1998 and released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2000.  Pollini passed away at the age of 82, on March 23, 2024: 16 days ago.  As such, we will honor Maestro Pollini in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes even as we celebrate his unequaled performance of Beethoven’s variations. Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) Despite his Italian surname, Anton Diabelli was Austrian born-and-bred.   He was born in Mattsee, a market town just outside of Salzburg.  He was a musical […]

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Music History Monday: Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate

On April 1, 2017 – 7 years ago today – Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman, 1941) was awarded his Nobel Prize in Literature in a private ceremony held at an undisclosed location in Stockholm, Sweden.  At the ceremony, Dylan received his gold Nobel Prize medal and his Nobel diploma. The cash prize of eight million Swedish kronor (837,000 euros, or $891,000) was not handed over to Dylan at the time, as he was required to give a lecture before receiving the cash. That lecture was recorded and then released some 9 weeks later, on June 5, 2017.  The private award ceremony was attended by twelve members of the Swedish Academy, that organization tasked with choosing the recipients of the Nobel Prize in literature.  According to Sara Danius, the academy’s permanent secretary, a good time was had by all: “Spirits were high. Champagne was had.” Ms. Danius went on to describe the occasion in a bit more detail: “Quite a bit of time was spent looking closely at the gold medal, in particular the beautifully crafted back, an image of a young man sitting under a laurel tree who listens to the Muse. Taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, the inscription reads: ‘Inventas […]

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Music History Monday: The Towering Inferno

We mark the birth on March 25, 1867 – 157 years ago today – of the cellist and conductor Arturo Toscanini, in the city of Parma, in what was then the Kingdom of Italy.  He died, at the age of 89, on January 16, 1957, at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, in New York City. (Properly embalmed and, we trust, adequately chilled, his no-doubt well-dressed corpse was shipped off to Milan, Italy, where he was entombed in the Cimitero Monumentale.  His epitaph features his own words, words he spoke in 1926 after conducting the posthumous premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot, which had been left unfinished at Puccini’s death: “Qui finisce l’opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto.” (“Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died.”) What Made Toscanini So Special Arturo Toscanini lived a long life, and he lived it to the hilt.  Firmly in the public eye from the age of 19 (in 1886) until his death in 1957, he travelled everywhere, seemed to have performed with everyone, and had more affairs than Hugh Heffner had bunnies.  This is my subtle way of saying that even the most cursory […]

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Music History Monday: Fake It ‘til You Make It

We mark the birth of the Russian composer Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov on March 18, 1844: 180 years ago today.  Born in the Russian town of Tikhvin – roughly 120 miles east of St. Petersburg – Rimsky-Korsakov died at the age of 64, on June 21, 1908, on his estate near the Russian town of Luga, about 85 miles south of St. Petersburg Fake It ‘til You Make It Like most kids growing up, I had various assumptions about grownups (i.e. “adults”).  As someone who has now – presumably – been an adult for very nearly a half of a century, I have learned that my assumptions – a few of which I’ve listed below – were all crazy wrong. Assumption one: at around 21, we cross the line into adulthood.   Wrong.  There are no such “lines”; we’re all changing, all the time. Assumption two: adults are emotionally mature. Wrong.  Physically, yes, I’m pushing seventy.  Emotionally? I’m roughly fifteen. On a good day. Assumption three: adults know what they’re doing. Really?  Adults only “know” what they’re doing (if they ever learn what their “doing” at all) after they’ve been doing it for decades.  Until then, they are apprentices, “learning on […]

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Music History Monday: An Opera Profane and Controversial: Verdi’s Rigoletto

We mark the first performance on March 11, 1851 – 173 years ago today – of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto at Venice’s storied Teatro la Fenice: The Phoenix Theater. We set the scene.   The year was 1849.  Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813-1901) was – at the age of 36 – the most famous and popular composer of opera living and working in Italy.   Living in his hometown of Busseto, in the Parma region of northern Italy, Verdi spent the last days of 1849 and the first weeks of 1850 considering future opera projects.  He sat down and drew up a list of stories that captured his interest, a list filled with literary masterworks old and new.  At the top of the list were Shakespeare’s King Lear, Hamlet, and The Tempest.  There was Kean, by Alexander Dumas pere and Victor Hugo’s Marion Delorme, Ruy Blas, and Le Roi s’amuse (“The King’s Jester”).  Among other works on the list were Lord George Gordon Byron’s Cain; Jean Baptiste Racine’s Phedre; Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s A Secret Grievance, a Secret Revenge; Vicomte Francois Rene de Chateaubriand’s Atala; and Count Vittorio Alfieri’s Filippo (which would eventually become the opera Don Carlo). Stifellio […]

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Music History Monday: Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Some Myths Debunked

We mark the first performance of the ballet Swan Lake on March 4, 1877: 147 years ago today.  Premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, with music by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), choreography by the Czech-born dance master Julius Reisinger (1828-1892), and its music performed by the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra, the first performance of Swan Lake landed with an epic THUD, meaning not good.   Pretty much every aspect of the ballet was critically blasted.  The vast majority of the critics present found Tchaikovsky’s score to be far too “complex” for a ballet; one critic called it:  “too noisy, too ‘Wagnerian,” and too symphonic.”  A visiting correspondent by the name of Tyler Grant called the ballet: “utter hogwash, unimaginative and altogether unmemorable.” Now, admittedly, there were some problems with that premiere performance.   For example.  The famed Russian prima ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya (1842-1918) was originally cast in the role of Odette – the “white swan” – the star and heroine of the ballet.  She may also have been slated to dance the role of the villainous Black Swan, Odile; today it is common practice for the same ballerina to perform the parts of both Odette and Odile.  However, it is […]

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Music History Monday: Too Late to Matter for Georges Bizet, though Better Late Than Never for the Rest of Us

We mark the premiere on February 26, 1935 – 89 years ago today – of Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C.  The premiere took place in Basel, Switzerland, in a performance conducted by Felix Weingartner (1863-1942).  Bizet (1838-1875) never heard the symphony performed; he had died in the Paris suburbs in 1875 at the age of 36, a full 60 years before Weingartner’s premiere of his symphony.  Bizet’s Symphony in C, considered today to be a masterwork, was only “discovered” in the archives of the Paris Conservatoire in 1933, 78 years after its composition in 1855!  What If We contemplate a short list of those great (or potentially great) composers who died before their fortieth birthday. Henry Purcell (dead at 36), Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (26), Wolfgang Mozart (35), Vincenzo Bellini (33), Frédéric Chopin (39), Felix Mendelssohn (38), Lili Boulanger (24), Juan Arriaga (19), and George Gershwin (who died at the age of 38).  We should all deeply regret their early passing, not just because of the inherent tragedy of dying so young but because it is impossible not to think about what these composers might have accomplished had they at least lived Beethoven’s life span (56 years), or Sebastian Bach’s (65 […]

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Music History Monday: Frankie and Johnny, and Helen and Lee

I am aware that Valentine’s Day is already 5 days past, but darned if the romantic warm ‘n’ fuzzies aren’t still lingering with me like a rash from poison oak. As such, I will be excused for offering up what I will admit is a belated, but nevertheless Valentine’s Day-related post. Gratitude We should all be grateful that the following Valentine’s Day-related post is not on the lines of those blogs I wrote in 2010 and 2011, blogs written for various websites in my attempt to drum up sales for my Great Courses/Teaching Company Courses. For example, I wrote a couple of Valentine’s Day-themed blogs in 2011, one for Huffpost and the other for J-Date, as in “Jewish-Dating.” For those posts – entitled “Romantic Music” – I was tasked with recommending appropriately “romantic” music for an intimate, tête-à-tête Valentine’s Day evening. This is how they began: “Fresh flowers, chilled champagne, and a candlelight dinner for two; the stereotypical trappings of a successful Valentine’s Day evening. But the sensual menu is still incomplete: smell, taste, touch, and sight are covered, but proper sound is still wanting. Yes indeed, music, the purported feast of the gods, the indispensable aural lubricant for romance, […]

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Music History Monday: Unauthorized Use

February 12 is one of those remarkable days in music history, remarkable for all the notable events that took place on this day. So: before getting to our featured topic, let us acknowledge some of those events and share some links to previous Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes posts that dealt with those events. On this day in 1812, Beethoven’s student (and friend), the Austrian composer, pianist, and teacher Carl Czerny (1791-1857) performed as the soloist in the premiere of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, the “Emperor.” Czerny was the subject of Music History Monday on July 15, 2019. We wish a heartfelt farewell to the German pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, who died on this date in Cairo, Egypt in 1894, at the age of 64. Von Bülow was the subject of both Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes just last month, on January 8 and 9,respectively. Birthday greetings to the American composer Roy Harris (1898-1979), who was born on this date in 1898 in Chandler, Oklahoma. Harris and his Symphony No. 3 were featured in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post on April 9, 2019. On February 12, 1924 – exactly 100 […]

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