Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross

The vocal ensemble that is Lambert, Hendricks & Ross grew from a long and storied tradition of vocal ensembles, going back over 500 years. As a public service, I would offer up a quick survey of that tradition, starting with an important distinction. Distinctions! Let us draw a necessary and important distinction between a “choir” and a “vocal ensemble” (with the understanding that not everyone is going to employ this distinction with the rigor that I, for one, would like to see and hear!). Like an (instrumental) orchestra, a choir is a vocal group in which some (or all) of the parts are “doubled”, meaning that some (if not all) parts will have more than one player/singer per part. Like an (instrumental) chamber ensemble, a vocal ensemble is one in which there is only one player/singer per part. This distinction between choirs and vocal ensembles began to come into focus in the late fifteenth century, in secular music written for both skilled amateur and professional singers. Generally but accurately speaking, music composed specifically for a vocal ensemble can have more individual parts and more complex parts than a chorus, where numbers can easily gum up and blur the music being […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Frédéric Chopin: Nocturnes

Network television has traditionally served up certain types of programming at certain times of the day.  Non-stop cartoons for kids?  When I was growing up, that what Saturday mornings were all about.  Soap operas?  Traditionally broadcast on weekday afternoons before 3 pm, presumably for housewives who had finished their chores but before the kids came home from school.  Evening news programs? Broadcast daily between 5 pm and 7pm, for adults who’ve just come home from work. Let us dwell, in particular, on two more such network television designations: prime time, and late-night talk shows. Prime time refers to generally adult programming broadcast – depending upon your time zone – between either 8pm and 11pm or 7pm and 10pm.   Late night talk shows refer specifically to variety/interview shows broadcast between 11pm and 1am. Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) would not have understood the concept of Saturday morning cartoons any more than he’d know how to operate a remote control.  Be he would absolutely have understood the concepts of prime time and late-night entertainment because there were media equivalents in his day.  In Mozart’s day, a work designated as being a “serenade” or a “divertimento” was intended to be performed in “prime time”: […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: “A Frenchman in Rio”

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post celebrated – in part – George Gershwin’s An American in Paris, a work inspired by two visits to Paris (one in 1926 and the other in 1928). Taking our cue from An American in Paris, today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post might be called “A Frenchman in Rio”, as it celebrates a work by the French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) inspired by an extended stay in Rio de Janeiro. The Happiest of Composers There are few more enduring musical stereotypes than that of the unhappy, alienated, suffering composer whose inspiration must be torn from the deepest and darkest places of their soul. It was Richard Wagner (1813-1883) who formalized this impression by claiming that serious art – “true art” – can only spring from suffering, from pain, from loneliness and from frustration. In 1958, Darius Milhaud received a letter from young French composer who was deeply troubled by Wagner’s dicta and wanted to know what Milhaud thought about it all. Milhaud responded: “I am glad you decided to write me about your problem; here is my point of view if you want it. I had a marvelously happy childhood. My wife is my companion, my collaborator; […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Vincenzo Bellini: Norma

By the early nineteenth century, opera in Italy had become a universally popular art. In addition to large cities like Naples, Rome, Florence, Milan, and Venice, there were operatic performances in almost every town of moderate size on the Italian peninsula. Much of this popularity was attributable to the rise of opera buffa, which itself had evolved from the tradition of Italian street theater known as “commedia dell’arte”, opera that pretty much anyone could enjoy. Italian opera buffa made few intellectual demands on its audience and was perfectly suited to the Italian genius for wit, fast-paced dialogue, attractive tunes, and comic situations. Might we – with all due respect – suggest that early nineteenth-century Italian opera buffa is “opera lite” – sounds great but not terribly filling. Such opera buffa composers as Giovanni Paisiello (1714-1816) and Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) were masters of musical characterization, deft orchestration, and lilting melodies. Their operas were popular not only in Italy but throughout Europe. We’d further observe that opera seria continued to be cultivated in the larger cities, primarily under aristocratic patronage. What this all means is that by the early nineteenth century, Italian opera had become a major commercial enterprise: a highly profitable, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for Violin and Piano

By the Numbers Some important Beethoven numbers. Zero: the number of wastepaper baskets Beethoven owned. (The man kept everything.) Zero: the number of hair-styling implements found in Beethoven’s apartment at the Schwarzspanierhaus after his death on March 26, 1827. (Does this surprise any of us?) One: the number of beautiful, leggy, rich aristocratic women who returned Beethoven’s love in his lifetime. (That would be Antonie “Toni” Brentano, the woman Beethoven addressed as his “Immortal Beloved.”) Two: the number of middle fingers Beethoven was wont to raise to anyone who was even remotely critical of him. Three: number of composition students Beethoven taught. They were Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838), Carl Czerny (1791-1857), and Archduke Johann Joseph Ranier Rudolph (1788-1831). Four: the number of ear-trumpets made for Beethoven in 1813 by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel that reside in the Beethoven-Haus Museum in Bonn. (Ironically, the things look more like musical instruments than anything else.) Five: in 1825, the number of publishers to which Beethoven sold the “exclusive publication rights” of his Missa Solemnis – the “Solemn Mass”: the houses of Diabelli, Probst, Schlesinger, Schott and Peters. (How do we spell “dastardly, dishonorable dealings?” There, we just spelled it.) Sixty (60): the number of coffee […]

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Music History Monday: “Three’s the Charm”

We mark the premiere on April 5, 1803 – 218 years ago today – of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor at a public concert held at the Theater-an-der-Wien, in Vienna. Beethoven was the piano soloist and conducted the Theater-an-der-Wien Orchestra from the piano. The title of this post – “Three’s the Charm” – is meant in no way to diminish Beethoven’s piano concerti nos. 1 and 2. Rather, it would indicate that this third concerto, completed when Beethoven was 32 years old, is the first piano concerto of his compositional maturity and is thus packed with the sorts of modernity and expressive range that the phrase “Beethoven’s maturity” implies. Beethoven’s “Akademies” In the Vienna of Beethoven’s time, public concerts – to which anyone could “subscribe” (that is, buy a ticket in advance) – were called “Akademies”. When a composer staged an Akademie, the concert was additionally referred to as a “benefit” in that the profits went directly into the pocket of the composer.  Staging a benefit concert was a big deal, though not without risk. It was a “big deal” because such concerts were usually the only way for a composer to put his music before the […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Beethoven – Funeral Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II

Whether we choose to like her or dislike her (not that she would have cared a whit one way or the other), Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina, Habsburg Empress and German Queen was a remarkable person. She was the only woman to ever rule the Habsburg Empire (for 40 years; from 1740 until her death in 1780), the absolute sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Croatia, Transylvania; Lodomeria and Galicia (in present day Poland and Ukraine); the Austrian Netherlands; and the duchies of Milan, Mantua, and Parma (in present day Italy). She was born on May 13, 1717, the oldest surviving child of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. In January of 1737, the not-quite 20-year-old Maria Theresa was married to Francis Stephen, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Maria Theresa’s father, Charles VI died on October 20, 1740 at the age of 55, poisoned by a mushroom. Despite the fact that she was slated to succeed her father, very little had been done to prepare her to rule; rather, it was assumed that on her ascension she would be a royal figurehead and that the actual business of ruling the empire would fall to her father’s ministers and to her husband. […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady is a fifth-generation work: an adaption of adaption of an adaption of an adaption, a musical that many top-end talents believed – for reasons we will discuss – could never be successfully written. The original story of King Pygmalion comes from Greek myth and legend. It was the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (known in the English-speaking world as Ovid; March 23, 43 B.C.E. – 18/18 C.E.) who gave the story form and substance in his Metamorphoses, which he wrote around 8 C.E. (For our information: Metamorphoses is a Latin poem in 15 books. It’s a collection of myths and legends in which metamorphosis – transformation – plays some sort of role. The stories themselves are unrelated, though they are presented in chronological order, from the creation of the world (with the metamorphosis of chaos into order) to the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E. (and his subsequent metamorphosis from a mortal to a god). In Ovid’s version of the story at hand, Pygmalion is a sculptor. He carves a statue that represents what is, for him, the perfect woman. He names the statue Galatea and proceeds to fall in love with it/her. In answer to […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4

By way of review: Pyotr (Peter) Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was a homosexual with a predilection for cross-dressing and teenaged boys. In May of 1877, around the time of his 37th birthday on May 7, he received a letter from one Antonina Milyukova – a former student at the Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky taught – professing her undying love for him. Tchaikovsky hadn’t a clue of who she was, and he blew her off. But Ms. Milyukova would not be blown off (what at first seemed a schoolgirl crush turned out to be full-blown mental illness), and within a few short weeks, Tchaikovsky, in a moment of epic self-delusion (and hoping to deflect rumors of his homosexuality), actually agreed to marry her! As all of this was happening in the late spring and early summer of 1877, Tchaikovsky was initiating a regular correspondence with a fabulously wealthy widow nine years his senior named Nadezhda von Meck. Unlike Antonina, who didn’t know a note of Tchaikovsky’s music, Madame von Meck worshipped Tchaikovsky for his music. Tchaikovsky and Antonina Milyukova were married on July 18, 1877, some nine weeks after Tchaikovsky received that first letter from Antonia. The marriage was a disaster from […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Absurdity

“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” As hoary old aphorisms go, this one is right up there on the tiresome scale with “a penny saved is a penny earned”, “you miss 100% of the shots you do not take”, “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping:” and “insinuations are lavender, nearly.” Nevertheless, I have a particular fondness for “the grass is always greener on the other side” because its sentiment cuts so closely to my own life, psyche, and existential feelings of victimization: well, duh, of course everyone else’s life is better than mine, of course I’m missing out on something everyone else has, of course everything always happens to me, of course I’m a fraud and everyone else is not. “The grass is always greener on the other side” addresses, perfectly, that generative emotion held so dear by so many composers, authors, poets, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, singers, and actors (to say nothing for the rest of the population) and that is envy. What we might call “the grass-is-always-greener syndrome” is surely as old as humanity itself: “the cave is always bigger on the other side.” For our information, the first […]

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