Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Oscar Peterson

It’s a story I told before, in a blog dated July 28, 2013. Since it’s been almost six years I will be forgiven for telling it again. It was sometime in the spring of 1980. I was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, living in a studio apartment in a dilapidated brown shingle house south of campus, across from a package store. I made my dollars as a teaching assistant in the music department and by giving private lessons. When folks called the music department looking for a theory or composition teacher, I was the person to whom they were referred. As a result, I received a lot of calls from prospective students, only a few of whom actually took a lesson. So I didn’t pay all that much attention when in the spring of 1980 I received such a call from a guy who identified himself as “Anthony”. Anthony told me that he wanted nothing less than the equivalent of an undergraduate music education, from start to finish. I no doubt rolled my eyes while telling him that that would take years. He told me that he was prepared to do whatever it took, including taking… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Paul Creston

When I and my compositional colleagues were ignorant graduate students (yes, ignorant and arrogant: I thought I was so freakin’ smart in my mid-twenties, only to realize, as real life unfolded, how colossally naïve I really was), when we were ignorant graduate students, among the nastiest things me or my colleagues could say about a piece of music was that “it sounded like movie music.” Putting aside for a moment the fact that there’s some really fine movie music out there, this statement was meant to address music of melodramatic expressive content characterized by super-extreme degrees of contrast and seemingly pedestrian thematic content. Music about which one could blithely say “oh, that sounds like a chase scene”; or “that sounds like lonely, dark streets noire music”; or “that sounds like a fight scene” or a “love scene”, or a “knifing in the shower scene”, etc.: music of seemingly obvious, usually over-the-top expressive content.  I’ve grown up, and speaking generally and entirely for myself, I no longer consider movie music to be intrinsically inferior to stand-alone, self-contained concert music. It’s just different, because it serves a different purpose than concert music. The overweening importance in movie music is to create a… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Igor Stravinsky – Pulcinella Suite

We will return to the music of mid-century American symphonists next week. For now, we celebrate Igor Stravinsky’s spectacular and spectacularly influential Pulcinella in anticipation of his 139th birthday, which we will mark on June 17th in next week’s Music History Monday post. Bad Times The First World War (which ran from July 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918) was an unfathomable catastrophe. It laid waste to huge swatches of Western, Central, and Eastern Europe. It destroyed four multi-ethnic Empires: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, and German empires. It created the preconditions for the civil war and the triumph of Bolshevism (soon to be known as Communism) in Russia and for civil war and the triumph of National Socialism (best known as Nazism) in Germany. In 1918 and 1919, a planetary population weakened by food shortages and wartime hardship succumbed to the Spanish influenza pandemic, which infected roughly 500 million people (about one-third of the world’s population at the time) and killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people worldwide (a number comparable to those killed by the Black Death in the fourteenth century).  The War and the flu pandemic together killed nearly an entire generation of young Western men. The… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Henry Cowell

Henry Cowell was an American iconoclast: a maverick composer who created his own most original musical language in response to a particular, uniquely “American” experience. A list of such radical American composers begins with Cowell’s personal hero and role model, Charles Ives and continues with Cowell’s own students John Cage and Lou Harrison; such a list would include such compositional renegades as Roy Harris, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and Morton Subotnik. The list goes on; I shall not. With the exception of Charlie Ives, what all of these composers have in common is that they are either natives of California (Cowell, Cage, Partch, Riley, Subotnik) or spent a formative period of their musical lives in California (Harrison, Harris, and Oliveros).  Henry Cowell (1897-1965) Cowell was born on March 11, 1897 in Menlo Park, California: as the bird flies about 25 miles south of San Francisco. His Irish immigrant father and Iowa-born mother were both writers, and authentic proto-hippies in their attitudes towards life and childrearing.  Cowell began playing the violin at age 5, began composing at 10, and bought himself his first piano when he was 13. According to the composer and Cowell biographer Bruce Saylor, writing in… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Schubert, String Quartet No. 14

I am taking a one-week hiatus from my celebration of mid-century American orchestral composers because of something I wrote yesterday in Music History Monday for May 6, 2019. That post was about the inception of the song (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by Keith Richards.  Here’s the “something” I wrote in yesterday’s post: “Satisfaction went on to become one of the most important rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time; in 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine went so far as to rate it number two on its list of ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.’”  Permit me to say that again: in 2004 (and then again in 2010), Rolling Stone Magazine rated Satisfaction number two on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. The second greatest song of all time? Really? How very . . . absurd. I know Rolling Stone Magazine focuses on popular culture, but still, number two on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”? Given the actual songs on the list, it should have been entitled “The 500 Greatest Songs of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Era.” But no, the good people at Rolling Stonedecided to shoot for the moon and… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Walter Piston

There was a time not long ago when you could not turn over a musical rock without finding a copy of Walter Piston’s book Harmony underneath. First published in 1941, Piston’s Harmony was ubiquitous; my first copy was a yellow-jacketed third edition, published in 1969. (It is now in its fifth edition; the fourth and fifth editions have been “revised and expanded” by Mark Devoto, a music professor emeritus of Tufts University). When I was in high school, I did my level best to teach myself harmony out of that third edition of Piston’s Harmony. At the time, I thought I had sort of succeeded, though looking back I realize that I failed miserably. In kindness to myself, though, my failure was not entirely my fault; it was just as much the fault of the nonsensical (if traditional) assumption that the study “harmony” (the simultaneous sounding of different pitches) was somehow separable from melody, counterpoint, phrase structure, and form, which as I’ve come to realize in my maturity it is most certainly NOT. The composer and music theorist Walter Piston (1894-1976) was a professor of music at Harvard University from 1926 until his retirement in 1960. Despite some dabbling with… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Erroll Garner

Erroll Garner performs Col Porter’s I Get a Kick Out of You, circa 1960: Erroll Louis Garner (1923-1977) was a 5’2” miracle: a virtuoso jazz pianist whose performances had the nuanced textures of big band charts; whose sheer, overpowering and contagious joy could not help but overwhelm listeners; who created a style of playing that was and remains his and his alone. The official Erroll Garner website contains the following, rather breathless though entirely accurate paragraph: “Garner released music on over 40 labels, received multiple Grammy nominations, and recorded one of the greatest selling jazz albums of all time, Concert By The Sea. His published catalog contains nearly 200 compositions including Misty, which was named #15 on ASCAP’s list of the top songs of the 20th century. He scored for ballet, film, television, and orchestra. One of the most televised Jazz artists of his era, Garner appeared on TV shows all over the world: Ed Sullivan, Dick Cavett, Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, and many others [including the Jackie Gleason show, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, the Garry Moore show, London Palladium show, the Andy Williams show, the Joey Bishop show, the Flip Wilson show, the Pearl Bailey show, the Mike… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Piano Duets

Transcriptions Today, we take for granted our ability to hear any music at any time. We live in the golden age of the couch potato; we have merely to flick our fingers (or thumbs!) and almost anything is available to us, much of it for free. Ah. But in 1840, there was only one way to hear on demand orchestral, operatic, and chamber works, and that was to either play them in four-handed arrangements or listen to someone else play them four hands.  It was thanks to transcriptions that four-handed piano music truly went viral. By the mid-nineteenth century, the demand for new four-handed piano music was, like my 10-year-old son Daniel’s lust Legos, insatiable. Even as pianos were mass-produced and mass-marketed to an ever-wider demographic base, so the business of making and marketing piano transcriptions took on industrial proportions. For example, between just 1852 and 1859, seven different and competing four-handed transcriptions of Mozart’s symphonies were published.  Things got to the point that the public demand for four-handed transcriptions came to be considered by some as unhealthy: as an obsession, as even an addiction! The Erotic Message For those disposed to see the popularity of four-handed playing in terms… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Chick Corea and Béla Fleck

My Dr. Bob Prescribes post of December 25, 2018 was dedicated to one of my very favorite jazz pianists, the late, great, Dave McKenna. During the course of that post, I offered up a short list of those jazz pianists who have most powerfully influenced my own playing. (I am a designated Steinway Artist based on my abilities as a composer and as a jazz pianist, and certainly not based on my abilities – what that they are – as a concert pianist.) That short list featured, in no particular order, Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Armando “Chick” Corea, Phineas Newborn Jr., Roger Kellaway, Lennie Tristano, Sal Mosca, and Dave McKenna. For our information: sooner or later, I will write posts on all of these wonderful pianists. As I pointed out on December 25, two things distinguished the jazz pianists on my list. The first is that they are all two-handed pianists who use the entire keyboard when they play. The second distinguishing factor is that these pianists are, in my opinion, at their very best when playing solo. Now don’t get me wrong: playing with a good bassist and drummer is great fun, but – pianistically… 

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Doctor Bob Prescribes: Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35

As I know I’ve mentioned all-too-many-times, my paternal grandmother, Bessie Hurwitz Greenberg, graduated in 1916 with a degree in piano from the New York Institute of Musical Art (renamed the Juilliard School in 1926). For the next fifty-plus years, she tortured generations of piano students from her studio in Queens, New York, including my father and myself. She had been born in Brooklyn New York in 1894, about 12 years after her family immigrated to the United States from the Russian Empire (Minsk, in modern Belarus), as a result of the pogroms that erupted after the assassination of Tsar Alexander in 1881. While my paternal grandfather, Sidney Greenberg – Bessie’s husband – was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey (Exit 13) in 1891, he also grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Like my grandmother’s family, Sidney’s family fled Belarus in the 1880s. Unlike my grandmother the musician, my grandfather was a jock: a fairly high-end track-and-field athlete and semi-pro baseball player who, according to family legend (myth?) turned down an invitation to the 1912 Olympic Trials because he couldn’t get the time off from work. My grandfather went on to a successful career as an executive for a fabric company called… 

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