Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Galina Ustvolskaya

I have been appointed the “dramaturge” (or “dramaturg”) of The Phoenix Symphony (TPS). As far as Scrabble words go, “dramaturge” isn’t worth a whole lot: just 14 points barring any Premium Squares (which double or triple the value of letters or words). It is, however, a rather more useful crossword puzzle word, with or without its final “e”; I have encountered it in puzzles a number of times over the years. The term was created in the eighteenth century for a German writer, philosopher, critic, dramatic, and public relations guru named Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). In 1767, Herr Lessing was hired by the Hamburg National Theater (later the Seyler Theater Company) as the theater’s in-house critic of plays and actors. In time, he became known as the theater’s “dramaturge.” Today, there is no single job description for a dramaturge; it depends on the type of performing arts organization (theater company, opera house, orchestra) and the particular needs of that organization. Having said that, at very minimum a dramaturge is “a literary editor on the staff of a theatre, opera house, or symphony who liaises with authors, composers, and performers and edits texts.” My duties for TPS are as follows. One:… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Otello

We begin by picking up where we left off last week, with the triumphant premiere of Verdi’s Requiem for Manzoni in 1874. Verdi proceeded to tour Europe conducting the Requiem to ecstatic audience responses everywhere. He was truly at the very top of his game, in his absolute prime. Consequently, it came as a thunderbolt when, in late 1875 (or so), the 62-year-old Verdi did the unthinkable: he informed his nearest and dearest – his wife, his friends, and his publisher – that as a composer he was through, finito. After 24 operas and one Requiem, after a lifetime of 16 to 18-hour days, impossible deadlines, harried constantly by librettists, producers, singers, critics and conductors, Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was done. When his great friend Clarina Maffei told him that he had a moral obligation to compose, Verdi wrote: “Are you serious about my moral obligation to compose? No, you’re joking, since you know as well as I that the account is settled.” He had been thinking about retiring for decades. In 1845 – at the age of just 32 – he was retirement was already on his mind. He wrote to a friend: “Thanks for remembering poor me, condemned… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Giuseppe Verdi, Requiem for Manzoni

In June of 1870, the 57-year-old Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) agreed to compose an opera for the brand-new Cairo Opera Theater. The Khedive Ismail Pasha of Egypt handled the negotiations personally; the opera was to celebrate nothing less than the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. No expense was spared, either on the opera or on Verdi, who received the unheard-of commissioning fee of 150,000 gold francs: roughly $1,935,000 today! Aida received its premiere in Cairo on December 24, 1871. The real premiere, as far as Verdi and the opera world were concerned, took place six weeks later, at La Scala in Milan on February 8, 1872. It was a triumph, the greatest of Verdi’s career to date; he received 32 curtain calls. The only artist in Italy as popular and beloved as Verdi at the time was the novelist and poet Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1883). Manzoni’s most famous work is a novel entitled I promessi sposi (“The Betrothed”), which was written initially between 1821 and 1827; Manzoni completed the final, “definitive” version in 1842. Manzoni wrote this final version in what was (and still is) considered the stylistically superior Italian dialect of Tuscany. This final, “Tuscan” version of “The Betrothed”… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Alberto Ginastera

Trust. Without trust we can’t believe, and speaking personally, if I don’t believe in something, I’m not going to invest my time in it. Apropos of music. I cannot tell you how many painful, dreary, mind-numbing, time-wasting concerts of “new music” I have had to sit through in my 65 years. I’m not just talking about music by student composers, but by presumably professional composers as well. When we as a community tossed out traditional tonality at the turn of the twentieth century, we unfortunately tossed out the baby with the bathwater as well, meaning a consistent standard with which to judge a composer’s work. Composers can write any sort of crap they like today and claim that “that’s what I hear” when in fact it’s all they can write because they never bothered to master the craft and learn the repertoire. For example. Without naming names, I would tell you that I know a youngish composer (mid-thirties) who is having tremendous success with his particular brand of ugliness, which he claims to be a combination of heavy-metal and concert music. The guy couldn’t put together two lines of counterpoint to save his life, which means his music is ugly… 

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky composed The Rite of Spring for the Ballets Russes in 1912, when he was thirty years old. Even if he had never written another piece of music, Stravinsky would still be famous, because excepting perhaps Yummy, Yummy, Yummy I Got Love in My Tummy, The Rite of Spring is the single most influential piece of music composed during the twentieth century. The Rite changed the way composers thought about rhythm, melody, counterpoint and orchestration, and it continues to exert a seminal influence on composers to this day. For all of its debt to Stravinsky’s Russian roots and the music of Claude Debussy, the Rite appeared to be devoid of any reference to the long and glorious Western musical tradition as it existed at the time. Rather, it created what appeared to be an entirely new musical language and expressive world: a world devoid of such bourgeois niceties as elegance, prettiness, and grace; a primal, sexual, violent, thrumming, pre-moral musical world in which pure rhythmic energy for its own sake became the principal musical element.  Stravinsky created this violent, “pre-moral musical world” because that was the gig, that’s what the scenario of the ballet of The Rite of Spring… 

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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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