Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Music History Monday

Music History Monday: An Indispensable Person

Indispensability The title of this blog – “An Indispensable Person” – might be considered controversial. That’s because any number of very smart people would argue that there is, in fact, so such thing as an “indispensable person.”   According to both Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt: “There is no indispensable man.” Said President John F. Kennedy: “Nobody’s indispensable.” Observed the redoubtable Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970): “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.” And there we have it: there is a school of thought that states without equivocation that “No one, absolutely no one, no matter how anyone has painted someone’s existence or value, is indispensable.” It’s a school of thought that I do not attend.  That’s because based on my reading of history, there are indeed certain individuals without whom certain positive historical ends could not have been achieved.  Here are four obvious examples. James Thomas Flexner entitled his superb biography of George Washington The Indispensable Man (Plume, 1974; currently published by Back Bay Books).  Flexner was correct in so titling his book,  because George Washington (1732-1799) was, in fact, an indispensable person.  Without his leadership and indomitable will, the American Revolution would have quickly unraveled and been lost.  […]

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Music History Monday: What’s in a Name?

We mark the birth on July 8, 1935 – 89 years ago today – of the American Grammy and Emmy Award-winning singer, actor, and comedian Steve Lawrence, in Brooklyn, New York.  He died just four months ago, on March 7, 2024, in Los Angeles. Steve Lawrence, one might ask?  Have potential topics for Music History Monday become so depleted that after nearly eight years (my first such blog was posted on September 9, 2016) I’ve been reduced to profiling baritone-voiced male pop singers of the second half of the twentieth century?  Who’s next: Dean Martin? Perry Como?  Andy Williams? Tom Jones? Jack Jones? Vic Damone? Al Martino? Robert Goulet? And what of it, I would rather AGGRESSIVELY ASK IN RESPONSE?  Over the years, I’ve profiled the likes of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Tony Bennett, Otis Redding, and Chubby Checker, among others.  SO WHY NOT STEVE LAWRENCE? Okay, I will admit that there is an ulterior motive here, and we’ll get to that ulterior motive behind this profile of Maestro Lawrence in due time.  But first, permit me, please, to reminisce. “Fitting In” As I have mentioned more than once, I was born and spent my first years in […]

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Music History Monday: The Sony Walkman: A Triumph and a Tragedy!

We mark the introduction on July 1, 1979 – 45 years ago today – of the Sony Walkman.  The Walkman was the first entirely portable, high-fidelity (or at least fairly high-fidelity) audio cassette player, a revolutionary device that allowed a user to listen to entire albums anywhere, anytime.  Introduced initially in Japan, the higher-ups at Sony expected to sell 5000 units a month for the first six months after its release.  Instead, they sold 30,000 units in the first month alone and then – then – sales exploded.  All told, Sony has sold over 400 million Walkmen (“Walkmans”?) in cassette, CD, mini-disc, and digital file versions, and Sony remained the market leader among portable music players until the introduction of Apple’s iPod on October 23, 2001. For Sony the Walkman was a commercial triumph.  For consumers, it was a technological game-changer.  But for humanity, taken as widely as we please, it can (and will!) be argued that the “portable music player” – or PMP – has been an unmitigated disaster, a tragedy that has served to increasingly isolate human beings from one another in a manner unique in our history. Headphones and Earbuds Growing up, my maternal grandparents lived in a pre-War apartment […]

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Music History Monday: Boogie Fever

On June 24, 1374 – 650 years ago today – the men, women, and children of the Rhineland city of Aachen began to dash out of their houses and into the streets, where – inexplicably, compulsively, and uncontrollably – they began to twist and twirl, jump and shake, writhe and twitch until they dropped from exhaustion or, in some cases, just plain dropped dead.  It was a real-life disco inferno, true boogie-fever stuff: the first (but not the last) major occurrence of what would come to be known as the “dancing plague (or mania)” or “choreomania,” which soon enough spread across Europe. There had been small outbreaks of the “dancing plague” before, going back as far as the seventh century.  An outbreak in the thirteenth century – in 1237 – saw a group of children jump and dance all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in what today is central Germany, a distance of some 13 miles. It was an event that is believed to have inspired the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. But the outbreak in Aachen 650 years ago today was big.  Before it was over, thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children had taken […]

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Music History Monday: Unsung Heroes

We mark the death on June 17, 2014 – an even 10 years ago today – of the Grammy Award winning American record producer and Director of Columbia Masterworks Recordings John Taylor McClure.  McClure was born in Rahway, New Jersey on June 28, 1929, and died in Belmont Vermont at the age of 84, 11 days short of his 85th birthday. Record Producers The title of this post says it all: “Unsung Heroes.” It is my experience that unless someone has personally been involved in creating a recording, it’s pretty much impossible to appreciate the amount of work a producer puts into the process and the degree to which the producers’ own musical taste, musical proclivities, and musicality influence the final product.  The front of a record jacket or CD case might bear the image of a composer or performer, and the producer’s name might appear in the tiniest of print on the lower left-hand corner of the back of the jacket, but in fact – in terms of their singular impact on a recording – the producer should, by all rights, be pictured on the front of the album side-by-side with whomever else the producer deems worthy of joining […]

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Music History Monday: Let Us Quaff from the Cup: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

On June 10, 1865 – 159 years ago today – Richard Wagner’s magnificent and groundbreaking music drama Tristan und Isolde received its premiere in Munich under the baton of Hans von Bülow (whose wife, Cosima Liszt von Bülow, Wagner was enthusiastically shtupping at the same time).  Oh Goodness; Did I Just Write That? I did.  I know, right?  Here I am, introducing Tristan und Isolde – one of the most awesome, incredible works of art ever created – and I still couldn’t resist a cheap dig at Wagner the person.  As we have discussed in the past and will do so again, the same personality flaws that made Richard Wagner an often despicable narcissist allowed him the conceit to reject the operatic clichés and conventions of his time and to create a body of dramatic musical art unfathomable in its originality, beauty, dramatic power, and imagination. Of course, had he not been the towering genius he was, and had he not risked everything – including his sanity, over and over again – to create his unparalleled body of work, well, he would just have been another loathsome crank, writing nasty letters to newspaper editors and shouting at people in the […]

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Music History Monday: Ludwig von Köchel and the Seemingly Impossible Task

We mark the death on June 3, 1877 – 147 years ago today – of the Austrian lawyer, botanist, geologist, teacher, writer, publisher, composer, and “musicologist” Ludwig Alois Friedrich Ritter (“Ritter” meaning “Knight”) von Köchel, of cancer, in Vienna.  Born on January 14, 1800, he was 77 years old at the time of his death. Ludwig Köchel and the Archduke Herr Köchel wasn’t born a “Ritter” – a “knight” – a “von” – with all the privileges and perks that such a title brought.  Rather, he was born to the middle class in the Lower Austrian town of Krems an der Donau (meaning “At the junction of the Kremas and Danube Rivers”) some 43 miles west of Vienna. Smart and ambitious, he studied law in Vienna and went on to earn a Ph.D. in 1827, at the age of 27. Köchel was a polymath, someone who knew a lot about a lot of things.  As such, despite having a law degree, he chose a career as a teacher.  But he was not just any teacher, and he didn’t teach just any students.  For 15 years, Köchel was the tutor to the four sons of Archduke Charles of Austria. This requires […]

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Music History Monday: “Inappropriate”

There Must Be Something in the Air Have any of you done – or anticipate doing – anything particularly foolish today, anything particularly inappropriate? If you do, know that you will be in good company.  Perhaps it’s the angle of the sun; perhaps it’s something in the air or water, because as dates go, May 27 is ripe with musical stories and actions that we shall deem as being “inappropriate.” For example. On May 27, 1964 – 60 years ago today – four of the eleven 16-year-old boys suspended from Woodlands Comprehensive School in Coventry, UK, for having Mick Jagger haircuts complied with their headmaster’s demand that they cut their hair, and returned to school.  The other seven lads put their hair (or at least the allegiance to Mick Jagger!) before their schooling and remained suspended.  According to an article in the Coventry Evening Telegraph: “their headmaster Mr. Donald Thompson has said that he would not object if they returned to school with a ‘neat Beatle cut.’            Mr. Thompson told the Coventry Evening Telegraph today that he was not against boys having modern hair styles, but he did object to the ‘scruffy, long hair style of the Rolling Stones with hair curling into […]

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Music History Monday: A Difficult Life

Before we get to the principal topic of today’s post, we must note an operatic disaster that had nothing to do with singers or the opera being performed on stage.  Rather, it was a disaster that inspired Gaston Leroux to write the novel The Phantom of the Opera, which was published in 1909. On May 20, 1896 – 128 years ago today – a counterweight helping to hold up the six-ton chandelier at Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera House fell into the audience during a performance of Étienne-Joseph Floquet’s opera Hellé (composed in 1779).  We don’t know how the opera performance was going, but the counterweight was a big hit: one woman in the audience was killed and a number of other audience members were badly injured. The disaster was covered by a reporter for the Parisian daily Le Matin named Gaston Leroux (1868-1927).  The accident – to say nothing for the Paris Opera House itself and the lake beneath it – made quite an impression on Monsieur Leroux. About that underground “lake.” Writing in The New York Times on January 24, 2023, Sam Lubell tells us that: “When digging the foundations [for the Paris Opera House], workers hit a hidden arm of the Seine, […]

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Music History Monday: What Day is Today?

We recognize May 13th as being, among other “days” here in the United States, National Frog Jumping Day, Leprechaun Day, International Hummus Day, National Crouton Day, and – wait for it – World Cocktail Day! National Days, Weeks, and Months! Who creates these damned things? We’ll get to that in a moment.  But first, let’s distinguish between a national holiday and a national day (or week or month). In the United States, national (or “federal”) holidays are designated by Congress and/or the President.  There are presently a total of ten national/federal holidays, meaning that federal employees get to take the day off.  However, anyone can declare a national day (or week or month).  The trick is getting enough people to buy into the “day” that it actually gains some traction and has some meaning.  Such national days are created by advocacy groups; lobbying groups; industry groups; government bodies; even individuals. According to the “National Day Calendar,” today, May 13, 2024, is – along with those “days” listed at the top of this post – National Women’s Checkup Day; National Fruit Cocktail Day; and National Apple Pie Day.  May 13 of this year is also the first day of Bike to Work Week; of […]

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