Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Francis Poulenc: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1932)

The New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg offers this appraisal of the music of Francis Poulenc in third edition of his book, The Lives of the Great Composers (W. W. Norton, 1997): “It seems clear that Francis Poulenc has emerged as the strongest and most individual member of Les Six [that group of six Paris-based composers arbitrarily lumped together by a Parisian journalist in 1919: Georges Auric (1899–1983), Louis Durey (1888–1979), Arthur Honegger (1892–1955), Darius Milhaud (1892–1974), Francis Poulenc (1899–1963), and Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983)]. Nobody would have guessed it in the 1930s. The betting would have been on Milhaud or Honegger. Poulenc was considered a comic (he even had the marked facial and physical resemblance to the great French comic Fernandel).” Harold Schonberg facetiously continues: “[Poulenc was] the court jester, the sophisticate. So charming and amusing! So lightweight! So chic! As a corollary, so unimportant, au fond [basically]. To the world, Poulenc was the musical soft-shoe man, dancing away at his music-hall routines with not a care in the world, a grin perpetually plastered on his face.” Learning to Compose Lacking any formal training, in his early music Poulenc (1899-1963) fell back on what he did best, and that was write beautiful […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Criterion Collection – Paul Robeson, Portrait of the Artist

In 1965, the American writer James Baldwin wrote: “At a time when there seemed to be no hope at all, Paul Robeson [1898-1976] spoke out for all of us.” By “all of us,” Baldwin is, of course, referring to Black America. In 1998, the American scholar, historian, author, and social historian Lerone Bennett expanded on Baldwin’s comment, writing: “Before King dreamed, before Thurgood Marshall petitioned and Sidney Poitier emoted, before the big breakthrough in Hollywood and Washington, before the Jim Crow signs came down, and before the civil rights banners went up, before Spike Lee, before Denzel, before Sam Jackson and Jesse Jackson, there was Paul Robeson. One of the most phenomenally gifted men ever born in America, he lived one of the most extraordinary stories of the century. When he died, even his critics and detractors conceded that he was one of the immortals.” According to the American historian Dr. Clement Alexander Price, who was the Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of History at the Newark, NJ campus of Rutgers University: “Called by some ‘The Great Forerunner’ and others the ‘Tallest Tree in Our Forest,’ Paul Robeson is without peer in the annals of modern American civilization. His […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Wagner: The Flying Dutchman

Had I not taken a necessary holiday respite from both Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes, my January 2 and 3, 2023, posts would have featured Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, which received its premiere on January 2, 1843, in Dresden. The story of the opera, and the DVD I was going to feature in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post of January 3 are simply too good to pass up, and so here is the Dutchman, better late than never! In August of 1837, the 24-year-old Richard Wagner accepted the job of music director at the municipal theater in Riga, the present-day capital of Latvia.  For Wagner, who’d been moving around from one low-end musical job to the next for the previous three years, Riga was the bottom of the barrel, nowheresville, the end of the line: a predominately German-speaking burg that was, nevertheless, part of the Russian Empire and a gazillion miles from the centers of German culture he so longed for.  But Wagner, as he always did when he had to, persevered, and putting aside his despair, he made the Riga gig work, at least at first. To great local acclaim, he conducted fifteen different operas […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Aaron Copland, Music for the Theatre (1925)

Aaron Copland in France, 1921-1924 Aaron Copland (1900-1990) never went to college. It was a decision that he later claimed to regret, although it’s hard to imagine how he could have gotten a better education than the one he actually received. He had begun to study music composition with the well-know and highly respected composer and teacher Rubin Goldmark (1872-1936) in the fall of 1917, during his senior year of high school in Brooklyn, New York. Copland graduated from high school in the spring of 1918 and continued his lessons with Goldmark while living at home. At the same time, he had the vibrant New York music and theater scene at his disposal and the full support of his family to pursue his musical studies (as an indication of that support, his father bought him a Steinway grand in 1919). Goldmark was an alum of the Vienna Conservatory and at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, and he gave Copland exactly the sort of rigorous and vigorous grounding in harmony, counterpoint, and musical form that the young dude required. But even as Copland thrived under Goldmark’s regimen, he did what your people have always done and hopefully […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Joan Sutherland

Joan Sutherland (1926-2010) had a preternaturally big voice, one that spanned three octaves and had the size and punching power of Sonny Listen. Yet she had the vocal “hand speed” of Sugar Ray Leonard and was consequently able to specialize in repertoire ordinarily sung by women with voices lighter, smaller, and presumably more flexible than hers. That repertoire was the so-called “bel canto”, or “beautiful song/beautiful singing” style characteristic of much late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century Italian opera. Here is the textbook definition of “bel canto” from Nicolas Slonimsky, writing in Baker’s Dictionary of Music: “The art of lyrical and virtuosic performance as exemplified by the finest Italian singers of the 18th and 19th centuries, in contrast to the declamatory singing style brought into such prominence by Wagner. The term represents the once glorious tradition of vocal performance for beauty’s sake. The secret of bel canto was exclusively the property of Italian singing teachers. It was, above all, applied to lyric singing, particularly in opera. The operatic repertoire composed to highlight bel canto singers, notably early Romantic Italian opera, fell into disuse until after World War Two, when singers such as Callas, Sutherland, and Sills brought new life to the works […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Carl Ruggles: Sun-Treader

The backstory: in 1970, the 26-year-old Tilson-Thomas conducted Ruggles’ masterwork – Sun-Treader – in concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  (That performance was followed by Tilson-Thomas’ recording of Sun-Treader with the BSO recommended above.)  At the time, Carl Ruggles was 94 years old and living in a nursing home in Bennington, Vermont (he died the following year, in 1971).  We’ll let MTT tell the story from here: “Ruggles, enigmatic and granitic man – how his music and spirit have haunted me.  I first heard his music at age thirteen.  The piece was Men and Mountains and I remember how stunning it was.   Years later I began to perform Mr. Ruggles’ music and to discover more of his remarkable testimony in each new performance. The fascination continued over the years and turned to awe and appreciation as through repeated performances I began to understand the depth of the music and power of its testimony.  It was in this mood that following a performance of Sun-Treader with the Boston Symphony, I set out to meet Mr. Ruggles.  Syrl Silberman of WGBH-TV in Boston had worked on a film about him and had become friendly with the old man, who even then […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Selected Piano Music of Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) was, in his lifetime, considered Beethoven’s equal as a pianist and, if not his equal as a compositional innovator, then a rather more listenable alternative.  The former head music critic for The New York Times, Harold Schonberg, put it this way: “He [Hummel] was a highly regarded composer in his day – overrated then, underrated now.” A snooty but not inaccurate appraisal.  And it is true that as a composer – particularly as a composer of piano music – Hummel remains far underrated today.  When his music is discussed, on those fairly rare occasions when it is discussed at all, it is assigned to that strange, in-betweeny netherworld as being “transitional.” In the case of Hummel’s music, it is blithely classified as being “proto-Romantic” or “post-Classical,” as if it were a lesser hybrid (half-breed?) between two otherwise “pure” musical styles, a cross between old music and new music; between the Classical era ideal of the composer as craftsperson and the Romantic era vision of artist-as-hero.  Well, pooh on all of that, and double-pooh on these useless categories so casually bandied about by program annotators and presumed music historians.   As both a pianist and composer, Hummel […]

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Music History Monday: Day Gigs

“Don’t give up your day gig.” Along with “don’t eat yellow snow” and “fake it ‘til you make it”, “don’t give up your day gig” remains one of the oldest, hoariest, clichéd pieces of advice anyone can give or receive. But unless you were lucky/wise enough to heed the other greatest piece of advice any musician can receive, that being “marry rich”, “don’t give up your day gig” is still among the very best pieces of advice a musician can receive. Very few of us get our dream job right out of school; hell, very few of us ever get our dream job. All too rapidly, reality intrudes on youthful artistic idealism and no matter how much one wants to compose, or play violin, or sing, unless we can find someone willing to pay us to do so, we must all do something to make money. And then, as we get older and develop a taste for the finer things in life – like feeding, clothing, and housing our children – our day gigs become not just a matter of survival for ourselves but for those around us. Now, here and there and every now and then, someone gets very […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 2

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a prodigiously gifted pianist and composer.  All in all, he composed 5½ piano concerti.  (That was not a typo; an explanation will follow in a bit.) The first two of his piano concerti were composed while Prokofiev was still a student at the Petrograd/Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which he attended from 1904 until 1914; from the ages of 13 to 23.  On May 11, 1914, Prokofiev performed his Piano Concerto No. 1 (composed in 1912) at his Conservatory graduation ceremony. The ceremony was nothing less than a Prokofiev lovefest, as he graduated with high honors and was awarded the prestigious Anton Rubinstein Prize in piano, a prize that included a brand new Shreder grand piano. (“Shreder” was a Russian-made piano that was “based” on American Steinway pianos, a not unfamiliar example of Russian appropriation of American technology.) Prokofiev chose to play his Piano Concerto No. 1 at his graduation ceremony rather than his Piano Concerto No. 2 (of 1913) because the premiere of that second piano concerto – 8 months prior, on September 5, 1913 – had created a scandal.  Prokofiev, ordinarily as sensitive to such things as a lump of basalt, decided that the Second: “would […]

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Music History Monday: A Debussy Discovery!

Before getting into the date specific event/discovery that drives today’s post, permit me, please, to tell the story of the greatest manuscript discovery of all time.  The ancient city of Jerusalem sits at nearly 2,700 feet above sea level.  Less than 15 miles south of Jerusalem sits the Dead Sea, which at 1,300 feet below sea level is the lowest point on earth.   In November of 1946, three Bedouin shepherds – Muhammed edh-Dhib, his cousin Jum’a Muhammed, and his friend Khalil Musa – were looking for a stray goat (or sheep; the story shifts) around the cliffs at the northern end of the Dead Sea.  According to the story they told, Muhammed edh-Dhib threw a rock into a cave on the side of a cliff, thinking the stray animal was inside and that the rock would chase it out.  Instead of a hearing a frightened bleat, he heard pottery breaking.  Lowering himself into the cave, he found three ancient scrolls wrapped in linen.  Having climbed out of the cave and shown them to his companions, the guys went back into the cave and found four more scrolls, seven in all.  They put them in a bag and, on returning […]

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