Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Music History Monday: The Creation

On April 29, 1798 – 221 years ago today – Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation was first performed before a star-studded, invitation-only audience at the Schwarzenberg Palace in Vienna.  Getting older, or “when I’m 65.” An ugly confession. Eleven days ago, on April 18, 2019, I turned 65 years old. Don’t get me wrong; I am aware that growing older is generally preferable – generally – to the alternative. But it is, nevertheless, an ongoing shock to the system. Like many of us, I fully intended to be Peter Pan (Bob Panberg?): the eternal boy. And while one may not inaccurately assert that that is a fair appraisal of my emotional age, it cannot be said of my physical age. My eyes continue to weaken. My joints – crapped up by years in the gym – remind me of their ever-greater unhappiness by making ever more noise. My ability to dredge up names has become increasingly more difficult (although, curiously, dates and numbers come to me instantly). As my hairline beats an increasingly hasty retreat, thick, disgusting fly hairs on my shoulders and back continue to grow in ever greater profusion (this is so gross I don’t know where to… 

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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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Music History Monday: Appassionata

On February 18, 1807 – 212 years ago today – Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, nicknamed by the publisher the “Appassionata”, was published in Vienna. The “Appassionata” is one of Beethoven’s most spectacular works, a piano sonata that over the years has evoked some pretty spectacular comparisons: the German-born, American musicologist Hugo Leichtentritt compared it to Dante’s Inferno; the German-born musicologist Arnold Schering likened it to Shakespeare’s Macbeth; Romain Rolland, the French dramatist, novelist, essayist, art historian and mystic (who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915) compared the Appassionata to Corneille’s tragedies; and the English musicologist and music theorist Donald Francis Tovey set it side-by-side with nothing less than Shakespeare’s King Lear. That’s Sir Donald Francis Tovey, and yes, even Sir Donald – that paragon of English restraint, dignity, and self-control (stiff upper lip and all that rot) – becomes a breathless, idolatrous, Beethoven fan-boy when attempting to describe the expressive content of the Appassionata Sonata: “This sonata is a great hymn of passion, which is born of the never-fulfilled longing for full and perfect bliss. Not blind fury, not the raging of sensual fevers, but the violent eruption of the afflicted soul, thirsting… 

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Music History Monday: Who Says There’s No Such Thing as a “Bad Review”?

On January 28, 1936 – 83 years ago today – an article entitled “Muddle Instead of Music” appeared on page 3 of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The article – dictated by Joseph Stalin himself to one of hit principal literary hit men, a writer named David Zaslavsky – condemned in the most brutal terms Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. In one swell foop, the 29 year-old Shostakovich went from being the brightest artistic star in the Soviet firmament to a cultural enemy of the people, in desperate fear for his life. The condemnation and the terror the article inspired irreparably damaged Shostakovich’s psyche; though he lived for another 39 years, it’s something from which he never recovered. Shostakovich completed his second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, in 1932. It’s based on a nasty/gnarly story written by the Russian novelist and playwright Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895) in 1864. Katerina Izmailova is the young, bored, illiterate, and sexually frustrated wife of a provincial merchant. She goes gaga over a handsome, macho workman named Sergei. Katerina and Sergei become lovers, and in order to keep things going with Sergei Katerina… 

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Music History Monday: Tosca

On January 14, 1900 – 119 years ago today – Giacomo Puccini’s three-act opera Tosca received its first performance at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome.  Based on a play by the French playwright Victorien Sardou (1831-1908) and adapted for opera by the librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Gioacosa, Tosca has been an audience favorite since the day of its premiere. According to Operabase, an online database of opera performances, Tosca is the fifth most popular opera in the repertoire today.  Of course, we will want to know which operas are numbers one through four! They are, starting with number one: La Traviata (1853), by Giuseppe Verdi; The Magic Flute (1791), by Wolfgang Mozart; Carmen (1875), by Georges Bizet; and La bohème (1895), by Giacomo Puccini.  We would observe that Puccini is the only composer with two operas in Operabase’s top five. Based on number of performances worldwide, the five most popular opera composers today are, in order one through five: Verdi; Puccini; Mozart; Wagner; and Rossini.  Unfortunately, unlike Verdi, Mozart, Wagner and Rossini, Puccini’s popularity with audiences has not been matched with equal acclaim from the critics. No doubt, some critics have said nice things about Puccini’s operas, but they remain… 

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Music History Monday: They Should Have Taken a Bus

Today we begin by marking a birth and a death, two anniversaries related to one another in tragedy. You rightly ask: what can be “tragic” about a birth? Nothing in itself. So let us begin by celebrating the birth on December 31, 1943 – 75 years ago today – of the singer-songwriter, record producer, actor, activist, and humanitarian Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. (I would tell you that Deutschendorf, Jr. got involved in the folk music scene in Los Angeles in his early twenties. It was there in L.A. that he met and befriended Randy Sparks (born 1933), the founder of the New Christy Minstrels. Sparks told the young man that the name “Deutschendorf” would never fit on a marquee, and suggested a name change. According to Deutschendorf, “I chose Denver because my heart longed to live in the mountains”.)  John Denver (as we will now refer to him) was born in Roswell, New Mexico, of Area 51 fame. As an Air Force brat, he grew up a nomad, rarely living more than a few years in one place before moving on once again. He took up the guitar at the age of 11; studied architecture at Texas Tech in Lubbock,… 

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Music History Monday: The Best of Intentions or With Friends Like These…

On December 10, 1896 (or November 28 in the old-style Russian Julian calendar) – 122 years ago today – Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s rewritten and re-orchestrated version of Modest Mussorgsky’s greatest masterwork, the opera Boris Godunov, received its premiere in St. Petersburg Russia at the Great Hall of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Rimsky-Korsakov’s version of Boris – which presumably corrected all sorts of technical errors and flaws real or imagined in Mussorgsky’s original – held the stage until the last decades of the twentieth century, at which point Mussorgsky’s original version was finally embraced for the masterwork that it always was.  Rimsky-Korsakov’s reworking of Boris Godunov was both an act of love made with the best of intentions and a terrific disservice to a masterwork. Let’s talk! Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) Mussorgsky was born into a wealthy, land-owning family in the Russian district of Karevo, roughly 250 miles south of St. Petersburg. He began piano lessons at six, and his progress was such that at the age of 9 he performed a piano concerto by the then-fashionable composer John Field. When Modest was 10, his family relocated to St. Petersburg so that Modest and his brother Filaret could enter the military as… 

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Music History Monday: A Concerto, by George!

On December 3, 1925 – 93 years ago today – George Gershwin’s Concerto in F for piano and orchestra received its world premiere at Carnegie Hall, with Gershwin at the piano and the New York Symphony Society Orchestra under the baton of Walter Damrosch.  Statement: George Gershwin is among the handful of greatest composers the United States has ever produced, and his death at the age of 38 (of a brain tumor) should be considered an artistic tragedy equal to the premature deaths of Schubert (at 31), Mozart (at 35), and Chopin (at 39).  He was born Jacob Gershovitz (though his birth certificate reads “Jacob Gershwine”), the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, on September 26 1898 at 242 Snediker Avenue in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (For our information: in 1963, a bronze plaque commemorating Gershwin’s birth was affixed to the building. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had fallen on very hard times: the plaque was stolen – it is still MIA – and the building vandalized. It burned down in 1987, and all that remains of the neighborhood today is a blighted area of warehouses and junkyards.) Rarely has a major composer begun his life in an… 

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Robert Greenberg Joins Cole Cuchna on the Break It Down Show

Robert Greenberg joins Cole Cuchna of the Dissect Podcast on the Break It Down Show. Part One Part Two Related Courses

Music History Monday: Leopold Mozart

On this day in 1787 – 231 years ago – Leopold Mozart, the father of Wolfgang Mozart, died in Salzburg at the age of 67. For all of his talents as a violinist, violin teacher, conductor and composer, history would have forgotten Johann Georg Leopold Mozart almost entirely had he not fathered and trained one of the greatest members of our species ever to have lived, his son Wolfgang. Leopold Mozart gave his son what was – very possibly – the greatest music education ever given anyone, for which posterity must be grateful. But more than just his son’s teacher, Leopold became his Dr. Frankenstein, his creator: Wolfgang’s ghost-writer, concert producer, travel agent, booking agent, public relations huckster, investment councilor, valet, and, in the end, oppressive tyrant. In the process, Leopold crafted one of the most troubling parent-child relationships since Oedipus and his mother Jocasta. In the long history of excessive parenting, of tiger mamas and tennis fathers, Leopold Mozart must be considered among the very greatest of the type. The History He was born on November 19, 1719 into a family of artisans that had for generations lived in the city of Augsburg, in southern Germany. Young Leopold was… 

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