Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for podcast

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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Talking “Improvising” with the Break It Down Show

I recently joined the “Break It Down Show” podcast to talk about Scandalous Overtures, the Bay Area, technology and why certain artists’ work endures. Listen to the show at the Break It Down Show website! Listen Now!