Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

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Music History Monday: John Cage, we miss you

On August 12, 1992 – 27 years ago today – the American composer, inventor, philosopher, facilitator, agent provocateur, shaman, clown, and guru, John Cage died in New York City at the age of 79.

Music History Monday: What Would We Do Without Him?

We mark the death on July 15, 1857 – 162 years ago today – of the Austrian composer, pianist and teacher Carl Czerny.  What would we do without him? Indeed. Excepting Ferdinand Ries (who was, like Czerny, a student of Beethoven’s), no one has left us more numerous and more accurate first-hand accounts of Beethoven than Czerny. He was a great pianist and perhaps the greatest pianist who never played in public. (I would qualify that statement, because as a young man Czerny did indeed play in public a handful of times; for example, Beethoven entrusted the 21-year-old Czerny with the first public performance in Vienna of his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, the “Emperor”, on February 12, 1812. But in fact, Czerny hated the pressure of performing in public, hated travelling, and felt that “my playing lacked the type of brilliant, calculated charlantry that is usually part of a travelling virtuoso’s essential equipment.” So he stayed home in Vienna, where he performed in private, composed, and taught.) He was, very likely, the single most important piano teacher of the nineteenth century. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians he was “a central figure in… 

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Music History Monday: Boogie Fever

On June 24, 1374 – 645 years ago today – the men, women, and children of the Rhineland city of Aachen began to dash out of their houses and into the streets, where – inexplicably, compulsively and uncontrollably – they began to twist and twirl, jump and shake, writhe and twitch until they dropped from exhaustion or simply dropped dead. Real disco inferno, boogie-fever stuff. It was the first major occurrence of what would come to be known as “dancing plague” or “choreomania”, which over the next years was to spread across Europe. There had been small outbreaks before, going back to the seventh century. An outbreak in 1237 saw a group of children jump and dance all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in what today is central Germany, a distance of some 13 miles. It was an event that might very well have given rise to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. But the outbreak in Aachen 645 years ago today was big: before it was over thousands upon thousands of men, women and children had taken to the streets as the “dancing plague” spread from Aachen to the cities of Cologne, Metz, Strasbourg, Hainaut, Utrecht,… 

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Music History Monday: Igor Stravinsky

We offer up our very best birthday wishes to Igor Stravinsky, who was born 137 years ago today, on June 17, 1882. A word of warning: saying Happy Birthday! to a Russian born before February 14, 1918 — as Stravinsky was — is an exercise in asterisks and parentheses. This is because it wasn’t until February 14, 1918 that Russia stopped using the Julian Calendar (which was named for Julius Caesar and went into effect on January 1, 45 B.C.E.) and joined pretty much the rest of world in using the Gregorian Calendar (which was introduced in October 1582 and named for Pope Gregory XIII). According to the old-style Julian Calendar, Stravinsky was born on June 5, 1882. For reasons entirely his own, Stravinsky made everything that much more complicated by celebrating his birthday on June 18. Whatever; June 17th is Stravinsky’s Gregorian Calendar birthday and a happy birthday we wish him. Stravinsky was the defining composer of the twentieth century. He began his compositional life as a Russian musical nationalist, writing in the style of his teacher, the great Russian nationalist composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. But even as he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, the young Stravinsky fell under the spell of Claude Debussy, and so… 

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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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