Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Richard Strauss

Dr. Bob Prescribes Richard Strauss: “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, Op. 30 (1896)

As discussed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, Richard Strauss’ orchestral tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra (in German, Also sprach Zarathustra, composed in 1896) is based on the “philosophical poem” of the same title by the German philologist (a type of linguist who studies the history of languages through their literature) and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). As we observed yesterday, the historical Zarathustra – also known as “Zoroaster” – was a Persian prophet who is believed to have been born in 628 B.C.E.  As is the case with so many ancient philosophers, it is impossible to distinguish the teachings of the actual “Zarathustra” from those of the many “Zoroastrian” sects that sprang up in the centuries after his death.  As best as we can tell, Zarathustra himself preached monotheism in what was an otherwise overwhelmingly polytheistic spiritual environment. In his so-called “philosophical poem,” written between 1883 and 1885, Nietzsche uses the historical Zarathustra as a mouthpiece to spout his own ideas about the purpose of human life and the fate of humankind. Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra consists of eighty fairly brief discourses (or “sermons”), in which his stooge Zarathustra holds forth on a wide variety of subjects: from virtue, criminality, […]

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Music History Monday: Richard Strauss, Stanley Kubrick, Friedrich Nietzsche, and “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”

On November 27, 1896 – 127 years ago today – Richard Strauss conducted the premiere performance of his sprawling orchestral tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the German city of Frankfurt.  Requests A momentary and applicable (if gratuitous) diversion.  Over the course of the first half of my musical life I played a lot of gigs, both in bands and as a solo piano player.  The bands ranged from fairly high end to not fairly high end.  The best band I ever played with was led by the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz; the worst was a disco band the name of which will remain my little secret.  The first band in which I played was a rock ‘n’ roll garage band called “Cold Sun” and the last was a Berkeley, California-based Klezmer group called “Hot Borscht.” (“Cold Sun” and “Hot Borscht”: temperature challenged tags in both cases.) As a solo player I’ve played pretty much every sort of gig, from cocktail parties, weddings, sing-a-longs, awards shows, and receptions to a long-running gig at a long defunct restaurant in Oakland, California, called The Pewter House. I played at The Pewter House, in 1978 and 1979, on Friday and Saturday evenings.  It […]

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Music History Monday: When Richard Strauss was “Modernity”: ‘Salome’ and ‘Elektra’

We mark the world premiere – on January 25, 1909 – 112 years ago today – of Ricard Strauss’ opera Elektra at the Semperoper, the opera house of the Sächsische Staatsoper – the Saxon State Opera – in Dresden. Today acknowledged as one of the masterworks of the operatic repertoire, the premiere of Elektra uncorked a degree of critical controversy equaled only by Strauss’ own opera Salome in 1905 and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913. If I were to ask you who was the most famous and controversial living composer in 1909, who would you name? Gustav Mahler, born in 1860? No: Mahler was then best known as a conductor and a composer of long and rarely performed symphonies. Igor Stravinsky, born in 1882? No: Stravinsky didn’t appear on Europe’s artistic radar until 1910, when his ballet The Firebird was premiered in Paris on June 25th of that year. Arnold Schoenberg, born 1874? In 1909, Schoenberg was hardly known outside of his native Vienna, and many (if not most) of those Viennese who did know his music considered him a crackpot; okay, a talented crackpot. You know where this is going. The most famous, controversial, and (not […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Richard Strauss – Four Last Songs

There are fighting words, and then there are FIGHTING WORDS. As for the former, small-case version of “fighting words” I would lump political discourse (which can, admittedly, get pretty hot these days; I trust none of you are put off by the fact that I keep politics out of this site, not because I am an apolitical wuss but because I want this to be a safe place for everybody); the question as to whether steroid-era baseball superstars like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Mark McGuire belong in the hall of fame; or whether Certs should be considered a breath mint or a candy mint. As someone writing on topics musical, I would list but one category of true, all caps FIGHTING WORDS, and that topic/category is singers. I have found that you can say pretty much anything about someone’s children, mother, pets, and car (okay; maybe not their car), but mess with that person’s favorite singer(s) and you will be in for a world of hurt. For example. In last week’s Music History Monday, I extolled the glories of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca. In the course of the post, I indicated that my favorite recording of the opera features […]

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Music History Monday: Richard Strauss

We celebrate the birth of the composer Richard Strauss, who was born on June 11, 1864, 154 years ago today. I will pull no punches here: in my humble (but happily expressed) opinion, Richard Strauss was one the greatest composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He was a melodist and musical dramatist on near par with Mozart, which is, I think, just about the highest compliment any composer can be paid. His brilliant (though, admittedly, sometimes sprawling) tone poems – From Italy, Don Juan, Macbeth, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Don Quixote, A Hero’s Life, Domestic Symphony, and An Alpine Symphony – constitute, virtually, a genre of experimental music of their own. His superb operas pick up from where Richard Wagner’s “music dramas” leave off, which inspired the wags of his time to call Strauss “Richard II”. He continued to turn out masterworks until the very end of his long life; his exquisite Oboe Concerto (1945) and Metamorphosen for strings (also 1945) were composed when he was 81; his Four Last Songs (1948) was composed when he was 84. In 1947, the 83 year-old Strauss declared with typical self-deprecation: “I may not be a […]

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