Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Music History Podcast

Music History Monday: All Hail The King!

We mark an online auction that concluded on August 7, 2008 – 15 years ago today – at which Elvis Presley’s white, sweat-stained, high-collared, plunging V-necked jumpsuit, decorated with a dazzling, hand-embroidered blue and gold peacock – sold for $300,000.  (Because I know you want to know, the jumpsuit is cinched at the waist by a wide belt decorated in gold medallions in a design meant to resemble the eye of a peacock feather, all of it an ongoing reflection of Elvis’ fascination with peacocks as being his personal good luck symbol.) The outfit cost Elvis a cool $10,000.  It was designed by the Los Angeles couturier Bill Belew (1931-2008), who designed all of The King’s stage wardrobe between 1968 and 1977. Talk about provenance (something we’ll define and discuss in just a bit)!  Aside from Elvis’ personal sweat stains (do they still . . . give off an odor?), he performed wearing the jumpsuit for the better part of a year.  Elvis first wore the “peacock” at a concert at the Forum in Los Angeles on May 11, 1974.  He then performed wearing it in Las Vegas and wore it as well on the cover of his album “Promised […]

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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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Music History Monday: Tchaikovsky in America

We mark the arrival in New York City on April 26, 1891 – 130 years ago today – of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He had come to America to conduct his own music and to help inaugurate Carnegie Hall (on May 5, 1891) by conducting his own Coronation Festival Overture.  Tchaikovsky at Fifty Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in the Russian town Votkinsk, roughly 630 miles east of Moscow. He might have started his life in the sticks, but he didn’t stay there, and by the age of fifty – in 1890 – he was one of the most beloved composers in the world and a Russian national hero. Photographs taken at the time depict a balding, grey haired and bearded man seemingly well advanced of fifty years, though in this, appearances can be deceiving. At the age of fifty Tchaikovsky was at the very top of his musical game and at the apogee of his fame. A single anecdote will suffice for his stature among contemporary Russian artists. During the winter of 1889, Tchaikovsky met a young medical-student-turned-writer at his brother Modest’s house named Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). At the time of their meeting Tchaikovsky expressed admiration […]

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Music History Monday: Dr. Burney

We mark the death on April 12, 1814 – 207 years ago today – of the English music historian and composer Charles Burney, in London. One rarely achieves much fame or fortune as a music historian; you can trust me on this; it’s something I know about firsthand. Nevertheless, Dr. Burney (he was awarded an honorary Doctor of music degree from Oxford) achieved a bit of both fame and fortune in his lifetime and immortality since. That’s because he didn’t just write blogs or record podcasts about music history; it’s because he lived it. Lots more on this once we (quickly) get through his biographical preliminaries.  He was born on April 7, 1726 in the market town of Shrewsbury, some 150 miles northwest of London. (For our information, Shrewsbury was, as well, the hometown of Charles Darwin.) The artistic gene was in the family: Burney’s father James was a musician, dancer, and portrait painter. Young Charles was trained on the organ, harpsichord, violin and in composition. For three years he was apprenticed in London with Thomas Arne (1710-1778), the most important English-born composer of theater music in the eighteenth century. (Many of us might not have heard of Arne, but […]

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Music History Monday: A Very Bad Ending

We mark the death on July 29, 1856 – 163 years ago today – of the German composer, pianist, and music critic Robert Schumann at the age of 46. The actress Valerie Harper was back in the news this week. Now nearly 80 years old (her birthday is on August 22nd), she is best remembered for her role as Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and then its spin-off, Rhoda, in the 1970s. Ms. Harper was diagnosed with lung cancer back in 2009, and she has fought like the proverbial tiger since. Her time is almost up; this week’s news was about her husband’s refusal to ship her off to a hospice. During the course of her illness, she has pointed out – correctly, if painfully for us all – that we are all “terminal.” I know, I know, I know: it’s not something anyone wants to think about, especially not on a Monday, which by itself is depressing enough. Yes, our time will come when it comes, but I, for one, want to spend as little energy as possible thinking about it. But having buried three beloved family members long before their time should have been up, […]

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Music History Monday: Can We Blame the Weather?

On July 22, 1969 – 50 years ago today – Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) was arrested for disorderly conduct in Highland Park, Michigan, a community within the metropolitan area of her native Detroit. She had been involved in a minor traffic accident in a parking lot. Two Detroit policemen had responded; Ms. Franklin took offense at something or other, swore at the officers and then tried to slap them. Never, ever a good idea. She was placed under arrest and hauled off to the local police station, where she posted $50.00 bail and was released. On driving away from the station, she ran down a road sign; not a good idea, either. Franklin was, admittedly, going through a rough patch in her life at the time. Her meteoric rise to stardom in 1967 had changed her life almost entirely, and not necessarily for the better. In 1968 she separated from her physically abusive husband (and manager) Ted White; they were divorced in 1969. Following the separation, she was reportedly drinking heavily (although alcohol was not cited in her parking lot fracas with the police).  That Aretha Franklin was a passionate and potentially temperamental woman is obvious to anyone who has ever […]

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Music History Monday: The Futurist Terrible

We mark the birth on July 8, 1900 – 119 years ago today – of the composer, pianist, author, inventor and self-described “bad boy of music”, George Antheil (pronounced Ann-tile).  Antheil lived a fascinating life. He composed a lot of music, including six operas, twenty works for orchestra (including six numbered symphonies); 15 major works of chamber music (including three string quartets and four violin sonatas); scores for over 30 movies and lots of music for TV. He wrote magazine and newspaper articles, and wrote three books, including a crime novel edited and published in 1930 by his friend T. S. Eliot entitled Death in the Dark. And he invented stuff.  For all of this, he is remembered – when he is remembered at all – for his firstmajor composition, a work entitled Ballet Mécanique and for having invented and patented, along with a woman known best by her stage name as Hedy Lamarr, a system for the radio control of airborne torpedoes that made them impervious to jamming. (Yes, I will tell that story!) Antheil was born and grew up in Trenton New Jersey and died in New York City (a heart attack) on February 12, 1959.  He started […]

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Music History Monday: The Empress

Today we celebrate the birth – on April 15, 1894, 125 years ago today, in Chattanooga, Tennessee – of the American contralto Bessie Smith. We Reflect on “GOAT” When I was growing up, the word “goat” had two distinct meanings. First, there was the animal: a quadruped mammal, a member of the family Bovidae and subfamily Caprinae. There are presently over 300 distinct breeds of goat, both wild and domesticated. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in 2011 there were more than 924 million goats alive across the planet. (One can only wonder why there hasn’t been a more recent census.) When I was growing up, the second meaning of the word “goat” was a loser: a derisive term for an athlete who, as a result of some monumentally boneheaded mistake, was responsible for his or her team’s loss. For example: Mike Torres, the Boston Red Sox pitcher who gave up a three-run homer to light-hitting, New York Yankee second baseman Bucky Dent in a one-game playoff following the 1978 regular season; or Bill Buckner, the Boston Red Sox first baseman who booted an easy grounder to lose game six of the 1986 World Series against the […]

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