Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for San Francisco Performances

Music History Monday: Béla Bartók’s American Exile

We mark the death on September 26, 1945 – 77 years ago today – of the pianist, composer, and Hungarian patriot Béla Bartók. Born in what was then the Hungarian town of Nagyszentmiklós(now Sînnicolau Mare in Romania) on March 25, 1881, Bartók died – during what he called his “comfortable exile” – in New York City. Before moving on to Bartók’s “American Exile”, let’s establish –as we can from our vantage point in 2022 – his creds as a great and influential twentieth century composer! In 1961, 16 years after Bartók’s death, Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) – composer, conductor, and, in the words of his teacher Olivier Messiaen, the great insufferable one – wrote this about Bartók’s music: “The pieces most applauded are the least good; his best products are loved in their weaker aspects. His work triumphs now through its ambiguity. Ambiguity that will surely bring him insults during future evaluation. His work has not the profound unity and novelty of Webern’s or the vigorous controlled dynamism of Stravinsky’s. His language lacks interior coherence. His name will live on in the limited ensemble of his chamber music.”  Boulez was not just wrong; he was snotty wrong.  But the degree of […]

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Music History Monday: Day Gigs

“Don’t give up your day gig.” Along with “don’t eat yellow snow” and “fake it ‘til you make it”, “don’t give up your day gig” remains one of the oldest, hoariest, clichéd pieces of advice anyone can give or receive. But unless you were lucky/wise enough to heed the other greatest piece of advice any musician can receive, that being “marry rich”, “don’t give up your day gig” is still among the very best pieces of advice a musician can receive. Very few of us get our dream job right out of school; hell, very few of us ever get our dream job. All too rapidly, reality intrudes on youthful artistic idealism and no matter how much one wants to compose, or play violin, or sing, unless we can find someone willing to pay us to do so, we must all do something to make money. And then, as we get older and develop a taste for the finer things in life – like feeding, clothing, and housing our children – our day gigs become not just a matter of survival for ourselves but for those around us. Now, here and there and every now and then, someone gets very […]

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Music History Monday: Fire

We mark the premiere on September 5, 1913 – 109 years ago today – of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  Prokofiev (1891-1953) composed the piece while still a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory; it was completed in April of 1913.  (For our information, Prokofiev still had another year to go at the Conservatory; he didn’t graduate until May of 1914.)   The concerto received its premiere – 109 years ago today – at the Vauxhall at Pavlovsk, Pavlovsk being a sprawling Imperial palace, park, garden, and summertime concert venue some 19 miles south of St. Petersburg.  The orchestra was conducted by Alexander Aslanov, who for many years led the summer concert series there at Pavlovsk. The piano solo – with its spectacularly difficult piano part – was performed by the then 22-year-old Prokofiev himself. That premiere performance provoked quite an uproar from the audience.  That uproar will be discussed at length in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, which will be built around Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2.   For now, we are going to talk about what happened to the actual score of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto.  But first, some historical background without which there would be no […]

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Music History Monday: Bird

We mark the birth on August 29, 1920 – 102 years ago today – of the alto saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker. The trumpet player (and one-time member of Charlie Parker’s quintet) Miles Davis (1926-1991) famously said: “You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.” Miles Davis never minced words, and he does not mince them here. Along with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker was (and remains) the most innovative, influential, and technically brilliant jazz musician to have yet lived. However, before moving on to Parker, we have one other piece of date-related musical business. I know, I know: I am most aware that having broached the subject of Charlie Parker, it behooves us – out of awe and respect – to get on with his story. But along with Parker’s birth, one other event occurred on this date that demands – demands! – our attention. So please, allow me this brief excursion. On this Day in Music History Stupid On August 29, 1977 – 45 years ago today – three people were arrested in Memphis after trying to steal Elvis Presley’s body. (The New York Post headline pictured above indicates that four people were […]

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Music History Monday: Debussy

We celebrate the birth on August 22, 1862 – 160 years ago today – of the French composer and pianist Claude Debussy.  Born in the Paris suburb of St. Germain-en-Laye, he died in Paris on March 25, 1918, at the age of 55.  Let’s tell it like it is: Monsieur Debussy was one of the great ones.  For all of its sensual beauty – and Debussy did indeed compose some of the most gorgeous music ever written – his music is among the most original, revolutionary, and influential ever composed.  At a time when young composers like Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) were casting about for new musical models, it was Debussy’s music that became their essential inspiration. Along with Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) Debussy was the most influential composer of the twentieth century. Among the radical triumvirate of Debussy, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky, it was Debussy who was the “breakout” composer, the first composer to cultivate a musical language that broke free of the melodic and harmonic traditions of tonality, traditions that had governed Western music since the fifteenth century.  That the musical revolution started in France is most significant, for reasons to be discussed in a […]

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Music History Monday: Woodstock: A Triumph of Locational Branding!

We mark the opening of the so-called “Woodstock Festival” on August 15, 1969 – 53 years ago today – “so-called” for the following reasons. “Woodstock.” Even without considering the original festival that bears its name, “Woodstock”, as a placename has a homey, countryside-like quality to it. And a beautiful, quaint town it is, with a population – in 1970 – of 5714 people (it’s just about the same today). Eighty-eight miles north of New York City, within the borders of the Catskill Mountains Park, Woodstock has been a hub for musicians, writers, artists, and actors going back to the 1940s. (Even a short list of just the musicians associated with Woodstock should make our saliva run down our chins. That short list includes The Band [the members of which shared a house and two of whom – Rick Danko and Levon Helm – are buried in Woodstock Cemetery], Carla Bley, David Bowie, Jimmy Cobb, Henry Cowell, Jack DeJohnette, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Pat Metheny, Charlie Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Van Morrison, Pauline Oliveros, Graham Parker, Bonnie Raitt, Sonny Rollins, Todd Rundgren, David Sandborn, Carlos Santana, and Peter Schickele [“P.D.Q. Bach” his very self!]) The festival was created by an operation called […]

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Music History Monday: Abbey Road, and This and That

August 8 is a great day, a signal day, an epic day for both good and bad reasons in the history of popular, rock, and jazz music.  We’d observe a few of today’s date-related events before moving on to our featured story. First, with heads respectfully bowed, we would note some of those who have passed away on this date.  On August 8, 1940 – 82 years ago today – the jazz clarinetist and alto saxophonist Johnny Dodds died of a heart attack in Chicago, all-too-young at the age of 48.  I have known Dodds’ wonderful, blues-inspired playing since I was a teenager, because that’s when I fell under the spell of two of the greatest jazz ensembles of all time: Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven, groups in which Dodds played and recorded. I wrote about Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven in Dr. Bob Prescribes on July 7, 2020. On this date in 1975 – 47 years ago today – the jazz alto saxophonist and bandleader Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley also died all-too-young at the age of 46 in Gary Indiana, from a stroke.  Talk about being a member of an all-time great band and making all-time […]

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Music History Monday: The Wayward Bach, His Wayward Daughter, and the Bachs of Oklahoma

We mark the death on August 1, 1784 – 238 years ago today – of the German composer and organist Wilhelm Friedemann Bach in Berlin at the age of 73.  Born in the central German city of Weimar on November 22, 1710, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, who from here on we will refer to as Friedemann Bach, was the second child and first son of Johann Sebastian Bach (who from this point forward we will refer to as Sebastian Bach). Friedemann Bach was a gifted musician, the equal (in my opinion) to his more famous brothers Carl Philip Emanual and Johann Christian Bach.  But unlike his brothers, Friedemann harbored personal demons that poisoned his relationships with others and led to his financial ruin later in his life.  We’ll discuss these issues in detail in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, as well as the singular disaster Friedemann’s poverty eventually wrought, when he chose to the sell off so many of his father’s precious musical manuscripts, which were then lost for all time. For the remainder of this post, we’re going to shift our focus to Friedemann Bach’s only surviving child, his daughter Friederica Sophia, who was born in the Saxon city of […]

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Music History Monday: Under the Covers

We mark the death on July 25, 1984 – 38 years ago today – of the American Rhythm and Blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton.  Born on December 11, 1926, she died in Los Angeles of both heart and liver disease brought on by alcohol abuse.  According to Gillian Gaar, writing in She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll (Seal Press, 1992), during the brief period of her final illness, Thornton went from 450 pounds (Big Momma!) to 95 pounds, a weight loss of some 355 pounds. Thornton scored her one-and-only hit when, on August 13, 1952, she recorded a brand-new, 12-bar blues song by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller entitled Hound Dog.   Released by Peacock Records in February 1953, Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog sold over 500,000 copies and spent fourteen weeks on the Rhythm and Blues charts, seven of those fourteen weeks at number one.  Thornton’s recording is linked below: (By the way: please ignore the photo of Josephine Baker at the top of the link; Big Momma’s left leg was bigger than all of Madame Baker.) Thornton’s recording of Hound Dog was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2013 […]

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Music History Monday: A Debussy Discovery!

Before getting into the date specific event/discovery that drives today’s post, permit me, please, to tell the story of the greatest manuscript discovery of all time.  The ancient city of Jerusalem sits at nearly 2,700 feet above sea level.  Less than 15 miles south of Jerusalem sits the Dead Sea, which at 1,300 feet below sea level is the lowest point on earth.   In November of 1946, three Bedouin shepherds – Muhammed edh-Dhib, his cousin Jum’a Muhammed, and his friend Khalil Musa – were looking for a stray goat (or sheep; the story shifts) around the cliffs at the northern end of the Dead Sea.  According to the story they told, Muhammed edh-Dhib threw a rock into a cave on the side of a cliff, thinking the stray animal was inside and that the rock would chase it out.  Instead of a hearing a frightened bleat, he heard pottery breaking.  Lowering himself into the cave, he found three ancient scrolls wrapped in linen.  Having climbed out of the cave and shown them to his companions, the guys went back into the cave and found four more scrolls, seven in all.  They put them in a bag and, on returning […]

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