Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Music History Monday – Page 2

Music History Monday: George Rochberg and the Great Dilemma

We mark the birth on July 5, 1918 – 103 years ago today – of the American composer George Rochberg (pronounced ROCK-berg). He died at the age of 86 on May 29, 2005. Rochberg was of that generation of composers who, having served in the military during World War Two, found himself a radically changed person and artist by the war’s end in 1945. Like other composers of his generation – Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and György Ligeti – to name but a few – Rochberg’s aesthetic and world view were altered forever. Like the composers named above, he sought a modernist musical language relevant to what appeared to be an entirely new world. We’ll talk about the nature of much post-war modernism in just a bit; suffice it for now that it is music of daunting compositional complexity and sadly, far more often than not, unremitting ugliness. But then personal tragedy forced Rochberg to re-examine the roots and premises of his musical modernism. In 1972, with the composition of his String Quartet No. 3, Rochberg, musically reborn, re-emerged as a composer of a different sort of music with an entirely new aesthetic behind it. George […]

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Music History Monday: Adolphe Sax

On June 28, 1846 – 175 years ago today – Adolphe Sax patented the saxophone family as a group of eight (not seven, as is often erroneously stated) instruments. Of these eight “saxophones”, four remain in common use today: the soprano and tenor saxophones, both pitched in B-flat, and the alto and baritone saxophones, both pitched in E-flat. The invention of the saxophone was a stunning achievement. Never before or since has a single individual created an entirely new family of instruments. That’s Not Funny! In the musical world there are all sorts of jokes (nasty jokes!) that are considered stereotypically appropriate for the sorts of people that play certain instruments. Most common are viola jokes. That’s not because there’s anything inherently funny about violas or the people who play them but because violists tend to be naturally supportive, genuinely nice people, people who will usually will not fight back when joshed but rather, will smile a melancholy smile, roll their eyes, and shake their heads. Question: what’s the difference between a viola and a coffin? Answer: with the coffin, the dead person is on the inside. No respect. But other instruments and their players have their own jokes as […]

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Music History Monday: The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

We mark the premiere performance on June 21, 1868 – 153 years ago today – of Richard Wagner’s music drama The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. The performance took place at the National Theater Munich, which today is the home of the Bavarian State Opera. Conducted by Franz Liszt’s student (and son-in-law) and Wagner’s protégé Hans von Bülow, the performance was sponsored and paid for by none-other-than the mad king himself, Ludwig II of Bavaria (1885-1886). Excepting Wagner’s second complete and first performed opera Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love” of 1836, a work that Wagner ultimately rejected) The Mastersingers of Nuremberg was Wagner’s one-and-only operatic comedy. Wagner and Verdi: A Brief (and Important!) Comparison For all their many and seemingly irreconcilable differences, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi had rather more in common than we might think. They were exact contemporaries, born 4 months and 19 days apart: Wagner on May 22, 1813 (he died on February 13, 1883) and Verdi on October 10, 1813 (he died on January 27, 1901). They were the leading nineteenth-century exponents of their respective operatic traditions: Verdi Italian opera and Wagner German. They were both considered ardent patriots by their countrymen, composers who, each in his own […]

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Music History Monday: Henry Mancini

We mark the death on June 14, 1994 – 27 years ago today – of the composer, songwriter, conductor, and arranger Enrico Nicola “Henry” Mancini in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of seventy. Known primarily for his film and television scores, Mancini received twenty Grammy Awards and four Oscars.  Today’s Music History Monday and Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes posts are conceived as a single large unit. Here’s how they will play out. Henry Mancini was the most influential American film composer of his generation. He was also the outstanding composer of what is now called the “modern Hollywood film score.” Today’s post will dwell on what constitutes the “modern Hollywood film score”, how it evolved, why it evolved, and why Mancini is considered its supreme representative. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will offer up Mancini’s biography along with the recommended discs, which feature his best-known works, including his Oscar-winning songs Moon River and Days of Wine and Roses, and his scores to Peter Gunn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Pink Panther, among many others.  My Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes posts for February 8 and 9 of this year, respectively, dealt with the life and music of […]

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Music History Monday: When Opera Singers Misbehave

On June 7, 1727 – 294 years ago today – a long-running feud between the sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni broke out into open warfare – a screaming, hair-pulling, dress-ripping physical altercation on stage, in London – during a performance of Giovanni Bonancini’s opera Astianatte (of 1725). After pulling the “ladies” apart and dragging them from the stage, not only was the remainder of the performance cancelled but the remainder of George Frederick Handel’s Royal Academy of Music opera season as well! (FYI: Sources are in disagreement as to whether this brouhaha took place on Tuesday, June 6 or Wednesday, June 7, 1727. Obviously, I’ve chosen to run with the latter date.) Here’s what happened. The Italian operatic soprano Francesca Cuzzoni was born in Parma on April 2, 1696, and died on June 19, 1778 in Bologna. In 1718, at the age of 22, she made her Venetian operatic debut: the equivalent today of making a La Scala or Metropolitan Opera debut.  By 1723 – the year she made her London debut – Cuzzoni was one of the most celebrated singers in all of Europe. Then as now, star singers ruled the operatic roost, and London’s greatest opera impresario […]

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Music History Monday: Haydn’s Death and His Final Road Trip

We mark the death, on May 31, 1809 – 212 years ago today – of the incomparable Joseph Haydn, at his home in Vienna at Kleine Steingasse 73 (today, the address is Haydngasse 19). At the time of his death, he was 77 years old and was, without any doubt, the most popular and beloved composer in the Western world. Franz Joseph Haydn was born on March 31, 1732 in the Austrian town of Rohrau. He was as self-made a person as any we’ll ever meet. A choirboy at St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna, he was booted out onto the mean streets of Vienna when his voice changed at the age of 16 and left entirely to his own devices. He subsisted in a Viennese garret, giving lessons and playing the violin in dance bands while he taught himself to compose. To indulge the cliché, the young dude attended the school of hard knocks and managed to graduate summa cum laude. He slowly climbed the Viennese musical ladder and in 1761 – at the age of 29 – took up a position with the Esterházy family, a fabulously wealthy family of Hungarian nobles. His position was that of Vice-Kapellmeister – […]

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Music History Monday: George Bridgetower, Louis van Beethoven, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and a Sonata for Violin!

We mark the premiere on May 24, 1803 – 218 years ago today – of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47. When published in 1805, it was dedicated to the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, and has been known as the “Kreutzer Sonata” ever since. However, it was originally dedicated to the famed violinist George Bridgetower, who, along with Beethoven, premiered the work 218 years ago today. How and why George Bridgetower originally received and then lost the dedication of the sonata makes for quite a story! General Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (1763-1844) was an extraordinary character, the only of Napoleon Bonaparte’s generals to achieve any post-Napoleonic success on his own: he reigned as King of Norway and Sweden from 1818-1844. (Not bad for the son of a tailor from the nowheresville city of Pau in southwestern France!)  In February of 1798, long before he became King of Sweden and Norway (where he was known as “Charles/Carl XIV John”), the young and Hollywood good-looking Bernadotte was appointed the French minister to the Habsburg Emperor in Vienna. He didn’t last long in the job; Napoleon himself referred to Bernadotte as being “somewhere between hotheaded and crazy”, but he […]

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Music History Monday: The Making of an Eccentric: Erik Satie

We mark the birth, on May 17, 1866 – 155 years ago today – of the French composer and provocateur Erik Alfred-Leslie Satie. He was born in the ancient port town of Honfleur, situated in Normandy at the mouth of the Seine River on the English Channel, roughly 100 miles northwest of Paris. According to a brief biographical snippet found on the internet, Satie was: “Known for his eccentricities and verbal virtuosity.” Oh my goodness, that’s not even a hundredth of it! This post is dedicated to Satie’s life and personality. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes will delve more deeply into his music, specifically his masterwork, Socrate, of 1918.  A preemptive apologia. There will be sections in this post that will drop names faster than a flock of gulls does guano. That’s okay; Satie lived and worked in Paris during a period called the Belle Époque, during which the city was home to a concentration of talent – artistic, literary, and musical – perhaps unparalleled in human history before or since.  On the Fringe Satie followed his own drummer from almost the beginning of his life. Her lost his mother to illness in 1872, when he was just six. He moved […]

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Music History Monday: The Riot at the Astor Place Opera House

We mark the deadly riot on May 10, 1849 – 172 years ago today – that took place at the Astor Place Opera House in New York City. Between 22 and 31 people were killed and many hundreds more injured, in a riot that pitted immigrants and members of the working class against the wealthy elite who controlled the city’s police and militia.  Gala Openings, Class War, and Opera (and Theater) in the United States We’ve all seen pictures of the things; I imagine some of us have even attended them: opera galas. In San Francisco (where the San Francisco Opera is second only to the Metropolitan Opera in terms of its budget and number of performances), the season opening opera gala is the major social event for those fine people who “do” major social events. Tickets for the gala cost a small fortune. For the men, black tie is de rigueur; for the women, off-the-shoulder gowns, freshly coiffed hair, and tons of jewelry are, but of course. As best as I can tell, the social point of the gala is to be perceived as a member of the exclusive club that is “high society”: to be seen and to […]

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Music History Monday: The Word’s the Thing: Betty Comden and Adolph Green

May 3 is a date rich in birthdays for American popular music. Let us acknowledge three of them before moving on to the particular birthday that has inspired this post. On May 3, 1919 – 102 years ago today – the American folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger was born in New York City. Seeger was the prototypical American folk-singing, left-wing social activist. A man and musician allied with the working class and workers’ rights, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era only to re-emerge as an important singer of protest music in the 1960s in the service of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement, international disarmament, the environment, and whatever might be considered the “counterculture” at any given time. As a prominent voice and songwriter on the radio in the 1940s and founding member of the Weavers (in 1948), Seeger created a body of music that remains the backbone of the folk repertoire, including such songs as Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song), Kisses Sweeter Than Wine and Turn! Turn! Turn! He died an American legend on January 27, 2014 at the age of 94.  On May 3, 1933 […]

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