Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Robert Greenberg

Dr. Bob Prescribes Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post marked the 77th anniversary of Bartók’s death in New York City, and the circumstances leading to what he himself called his “comfortable exile” in the United States between January 1940 and his death in September 1945. Among the works he composed while living in New York was his Concerto for Orchestra of 1943 which is, by any and every measure, among the very greatest orchestral works composed during the twentieth century. A monumental achievement in and of itself, the fact that the Concerto for Orchestra was written by a composer suffering from leukemia makes it something of a miracle as well. The story of its composition will be told soon enough. But first, indulge me some first-person reflection. Harlotry in Music Among my most frequently-asked-questions is: “who is your (my) favorite composer?” Who indeed! My typical response – flippant but true – is that I am a musical harlot, a strumpet, a slut: I love whomever/whatever I’m listening to at the moment. I mean, really: when listening to Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or the Goldberg Variations, how in heaven’s name would it be possible not to convinced that the sun, moon, and stars revolve […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: Robert M. Greenberg — Collected Yiddish Songs

As begun in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, we will continue to trace what I think of as my compositional apprenticeship up to my 30th birthday, and then on to some music! California and Graduate School I arrived in Berkeley, California on September 9, 1978, to attend graduate school in music composition at the University of California, Berkeley. I moved in with a friend and Princeton classmate, a fellow composer named Eric Moe, who had started graduate school immediately after we graduated in 1976. He found us an apartment in “north side” at 1822 Francisco Street. (For our information: Berkeley is divided into three large regions: “north side”, meaning the area north of the U.C. campus; “south side”, south of the campus; and “west Berkeley”, the large area of flatlands west of the campus going down to San Francisco Bay. There is no “east” of the campus as U.C. extends east all the way to the top of the hills.) September 10, 1978 – the day after I arrived – is a day I will always remember for the following revelatory event. I got up early and decided to walk to Morrison Hall, the music building on the Berkeley campus […]

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Music History Monday: Charity Begins at Home

On April 18th, 1954 – 68 freaking years ago today – the American composer, pianist, music historian, and bloviator-par-excellence Robert Michael Greenberg was born in Brooklyn, New York. The Teaching Company-slash-The Great Courses and My Favorite Things Since 1993, I have recorded 32 courses for The Teaching Company, rebranded as The Great Courses in 2006, and further rebranded in 2021 as “Wondrium.” (The less said about that latest rebrand, the better. To me, “Wondrium” sounds like an acne control or irritable bowel medication.) I am frequently asked “which is my favorite course.” That’s always an easy question to answer because the answer is whichever course I most recently recorded. As of today, that would be The Great Music of the 20th Century. (Sadly, it would appear that I am the only person who bears much affection for this course, as The Great Music of the 20th Century has proven to be among the least popular course I’ve recorded. A principal issue is the musical examples. The Teaching Company/The Great Courses could not afford to license the music I needed to play during the course, much of which was still under original copyright. So we hit upon the idea of providing […]

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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.

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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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