Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Robert Greenberg

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.

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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: The First Rock Star

Party hats and noisemakers at the ready, today we celebrate the birth of Ferencz (that’s Hungarian; Franz in German) Liszt. (Woohoo! Let’s make some noise!) He was born on October 22, 1811 – 207 years ago today – in the market town of Doborján in the Kingdom of Hungary. (Today the town is known as Raiding and it is located in Austria.) Here’s something we read/hear with tiresome frequency: “Like, yah, Mozart was the first ROCK STAR!” No, he wasn’t. He was an intense, brilliantly schooled composer whose music was increasingly perceived by his Viennese audience as being too long and complex. Okay; how about: “Beethoven was the first ROCK STAR!” Oh please. One more try. “Liszt was the first ROCK STAR!” That he was. (Or perhaps the second, if we choose to consider Liszt’s inspiration, the violinist Niccolò Paganini to be the first true “rock star.”) But: Paganini or no, in terms of Liszt’s looks and his fame, the tens-of-thousands of miles he travelled on tour and the thousands of concerts he gave; in terms of the utterly whacked-out degree of adulation he received, the crazed atmosphere of his concerts, and the number of ladies (and perhaps men as […]

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Music History Monday: Domenico Scarlatti

We mark the death of the composer Domenico Scarlatti 261 years ago today, on July 23, 1757 in the Spanish capital of Madrid. The year 1685 was something of an annus mirabilis – a “miraculous year” – in the history of Western music as it saw the births of three of the greatest composers ever to grace our planet. On February 23, 1685, George Frederick Handel was born in the central German city of Halle. Thirty-six days later, on March 31, Johann Sebastian Bach was born some 60 miles away, in the central German city of Eisenach. Just under seven months after that, on October 26, Domenico Scarlatti was born in the Italian city of Naples. What a year! Some would take me to task for lumping Scarlatti together with Handel and Bach. (And in truth, we must be careful about lumping anyone together with Sebastian Bach, Handel included.) But having said that, we are not going to diminish one composer’s greatness by cudgeling him with that of another, because any way we spell it, Domenico Scarlatti was, bless him, a great composer. We would further observe that musically, Scarlatti did something that neither Bach nor Handel did: neither Bach […]

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Music History Monday: Greatness

On April 9, 1939 – 79 years ago today – the American contralto Marian Anderson performed before an audience of over 75,000 people on the National Mall in Washington D.C. It was one of the most important and inspirational concerts ever to take place on American soil; a concert that to this day has the power to bring us to tears when we consider the circumstances under which it took place. Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897, the granddaughter of slaves. Her prodigious talent as a singer revealed itself early, and at the age of six she joined the choir of the Union Baptist Church in South Philly. Even as she developed as a singer, poverty precluded her from attending high school; she didn’t graduate from South Philadelphia High School until 1921, at the age of 24. On graduating – and with financial backing from Philadelphia’s Black American community – she attempted to apply to the Philadelphia Music Academy (today the University of the Arts). But she was rejected out-of-hand because she was black, being told by an admissions officer that “we don’t take colored.” Undeterred, she continued to study privately thanks to the continued support […]

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Music History Monday: Not So Happily-Ever-After

On this day in 1721 – 296 years ago – Johann Sebastian Bach’s employer, the 27 year-old Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen married the 19 year-old Friederica Henrietta of Anhalt-Bernburg. It was, for Bach, the final nail in the coffin lid of what had once been his dream job: that of Kapellmeister (master-of-music) for the court of Cöthen, in the central German state of Saxony-Anhalt. It was a position he had held since 1717 and one he had fully expected to hold for the rest of his life. Alas; as the old Yiddish saying goes, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht”: man plans and God laughs. Sebastian Bach (as he was known to his family, friends and colleagues; “Johann” was but a Bach family patronymic that went back generations) was nobody’s fool. He knew his worth, and at a time when artisans like himself were expected to keep a low profile and “know their place”, Bach was an outspoken, often cantankerous employee, something that got him into trouble with his bosses on a regular basis. The November 6, 2017 Music History Monday post describes just such an event, when Bach got himself tossed into jail for a month for attempting to quit […]

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Music History Monday: An American Classic

On this day in 1944 – 73 years ago – Aaron Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring was first performed by the Martha Graham Dance Company in Washington, DC. From that moment, it has been embraced as being “as American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie!” Now there’s a familiar cliché: “as American as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.” Except that not a single one of those presumably “American” things is American in origin, any more than the vast majority of “Americans” is actually American in origin. We are told that “baseball and the other modern bat, ball and running games – such as cricket and rounders – were developed from folk games in early Britain and Continental Europe (such as France and Germany). Early forms of baseball had a number of names, including ‘base ball’, ‘goal ball’, ‘round ball’, ‘fetch-catch’, ‘stool ball’, and, simply, ‘base.’” As for hot dogs, the German city of Frankfurt is credited as being the birthplace of a sausage called a “frankfurter”. In Germany, the sausage was colloquially referred to as a “dachshund” or “little dog” because of its resemblance to a dachshund. It was around 1870 that an enterprising German immigrant named Charles Feltman began […]

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Music History Monday: A Rather Strange Fellow

Today we mark the 193rd anniversary of the birth of the Austrian composer and organist Anton Joseph Bruckner. When I was a graduate student back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of my classmates was a musicologist named Stephen Parkeny. He was a wonderful guy – sweet, smart, and very talented – whose life was cut all-too-short by multiple sclerosis. I remember him well and honor him still. Stephen was a Bruckner fanatic. He lived and breathed Bruckner’s music; he made his house of it; he dined on it with epicurean delight. When he discovered – early in our acquaintance – that I didn’t know much of Bruckner’s music and that what I knew I didn’t like, he took it upon himself to make of me a Brucknerite. He recommended recordings to me; he pressed books and articles on me; he regaled me with Bruckner stories and trivia and in doing so brought to bear his extraordinary enthusiasm for Bruckner. Alas, I came to like Stephen much more than Bruckner. But his efforts weren’t entirely in vain, as I developed an admiration for Bruckner’s Symphonies Nos. 4 and 8, and a grudging respect for a couple of others. […]

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Music History Monday: György Ligeti: An Appreciation

Eleven years ago today – on June 12, 2006 – the Hungarian-born composer György Sándor Ligeti died in Vienna. He was one of the greatest composers and teachers of the twentieth century; a man and composer who is not just a favorite of mine but something of a hero to me (and I am generally not one who suffers heroes). Ligeti (the first syllable gets the accent) was born into a Jewish Hungarian family on May 28, 1923 in Romanian Transylvania, in the village of Diciosânmărtin. When he was six the family moved to the northern Romanian city of Cluj, the second most populous city in Romania after the capitol of Bucharest. In 1940, northern Romania was annexed by Hungary and thus Cluj became part of Hungary. In 1941, at the age of 18, Ligeti entered the Cluj Conservatory. And that’s where he was when the Second World War caught up to him. Background. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was one of the big losers of World War I. The Empire was broken up in 1918, and that half of the Empire that was the Kingdom of Hungary was further broken up in 1920 by the Treaty of Trianon. This “new” Hungarian […]

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Music History Monday: The Wagner Conundrum

May 22 is a day so rich in music history that choosing a particular event to write about might seem to be a challenge. For example, May 22, 1790 saw the first performance of Mozart’s String Quartets in D, K. 575 and B-flat, K. 589 (the first two of the three so-called “Prussian Quartets”) at his flat in Vienna. May 22, 1874 saw the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s in-all-ways extraordinary Requiem, conducted by Verdi himself at the Church of San Marco in Milan. Four years ago today – on May 22, 2013 – the marvelous French composer Henri Dutilleux died in Paris at the age of 97. (All sentient creatures should at very least know and covet Dutilleux’s Cello Concerto, entitled Tout un monde lointain… [A whole distant world…], completed in 1970 for Mstislav Rostropovich.) But frankly, these events pale in comparison with the BIG event of May 22, and that was the birth in Leipzig on May 22, 1813 – 204 years ago today – of Richard Wagner. Wagner died at the age of 69 on February 13, 1883: 134 years ago. And yet he and his work continue to inspire a level of debate, adulation and rancor that […]

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