Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for San Francisco Performances

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: Igor Stravinsky

We offer up our very best birthday wishes to Igor Stravinsky, who was born 137 years ago today, on June 17, 1882. A word of warning: saying Happy Birthday! to a Russian born before February 14, 1918 — as Stravinsky was — is an exercise in asterisks and parentheses. This is because it wasn’t until February 14, 1918 that Russia stopped using the Julian Calendar (which was named for Julius Caesar and went into effect on January 1, 45 B.C.E.) and joined pretty much the rest of world in using the Gregorian Calendar (which was introduced in October 1582 and named for Pope Gregory XIII). According to the old-style Julian Calendar, Stravinsky was born on June 5, 1882. For reasons entirely his own, Stravinsky made everything that much more complicated by celebrating his birthday on June 18. Whatever; June 17th is Stravinsky’s Gregorian Calendar birthday and a happy birthday we wish him. Stravinsky was the defining composer of the twentieth century. He began his compositional life as a Russian musical nationalist, writing in the style of his teacher, the great Russian nationalist composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. But even as he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, the young Stravinsky fell under the spell of Claude Debussy, and so… 

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Music History Monday: Tristan und Isolde

On June 10, 1865 – 154 years ago today – Richard Wagner’s magnificent music drama Tristan und Isolde received its premiere in Munich under the baton of Hans von Bülow (with whose wife, Cosima, Wagner was carrying on an affair).  (The parts of Tristan and Isolde were sung by the real-life husband and wife team of Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Having sung the role of Tristan four times, Ludwig dropped dead on July 21, 1865, prompting the rumor than the role of Tristan – one of the most difficult in the repertoire – had flat-out killed him. Malvina was so distraught that though she lived for another 38 years, she never sang again.)   Tristan und Isolde is a three-act music drama, or what Wagner himself called “eine Handlung” (which means “a drama” or“an action”; by mid-career Wagner refused to use the word “opera”, claiming that it represented the debased pseudo-art of anyone not named “Wagner”.) Tristan und Isolde’s libretto (or “poem”, as Wagner would have us call it) was written and its music composed by Wagner between 1855 and 1859. Wagner based his “poem” on a twelfth-century romance entitled Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg, who died circa 1210.… 

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Music History Monday: Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hope

We mark the death of the French composer Georges Bizet, who passed from this vale of tears on June 3, 1875, 144 years ago today. He was but 36 years, 7 months, and 9 days young when he passed. The title for today’s post is the epitaph that appeared on Franz Schubert’s original tombstone, written by Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872): “Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hope.” Ain’t that the truth. Schubert’s life-span was even shorter than Bizet’s: 31 years, 9 months, and 20 days.  (Grillparzer was a Vienna-born dramatist who, despite his contemporary fame as a playwright, is best remembered today for having written Beethoven’s funeral oration and Schubert’s epitaph!) We contemplate “regret”. I am a collector of certain antique/vintage items, and I have learned the hard way the truism that “you only regret that which you do not buy.” For example, I will go to my grave regretting the fact that I walked away from a complete, pristine Sterling Silver Erik Magnussen “Skyscraper Cocktail Set” in 2003.  I had my reasons (financial) for not buying the set at the time, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, never to be had again; should a like set come… 

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Music History Monday: The Little Pagan

We mark the death of the violinistic wizard, composer, and showman extraordinaire Niccolò Paganini, who died 179 years ago today in the Mediterranean resort city of Nice on May 27, 1840. Marfan Syndrome (or “MFS”) is a genetic disorder of the connective tissue. The syndrome is named after the French pediatrician Antoine Marfan, who first identified it in 1891. For those – like me – who must know, the gene linked to the condition was identified in 1991 by Francesco Ramirez at New York City’s Mount Sinai Medical Center. Folks with Marfan Syndrome are characteristically tall and slim; with long arms, legs, fingers and toes. Their joints are typically flexible; sometime crazy flexible, the sort of crazy flexible that makes the rest of us squirm with discomfort when we see such a person casually twist him or herself up like a human pretzel. Marfan Syndrome can affect the heart as well, and thus the American Heart Association, ever the Helpy Helperton, has made recommendations regarding the sorts of activities folks with Marfan can and should not engage in.  The American Heart Association lists as “high risk” activities for Marfan sufferers bodybuilding, weightlifting (non-free and free weights), ice hockey, rock climbing,… 

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Music History Monday: Battered but Unbroken

With our heads bowed and our hands on our hearts, we mark the death – 123 years ago today – of the pianist and composer Clara Wieck Schumann, who died of a stroke at the age of 76 on May 20, 1896. She was among the most outstanding pianists of her time, a child prodigy whose performances were described with awe by her contemporaries. She was a composer of outstanding promise, who – for reasons having to do with the world in which she lived and her own self-doubts – never had the opportunity to fulfill that promise. She was the compositional muse for her fiancé and husband, the great Robert Schumann, and the spiritual muse of her best friend, the even greater Johannes Brahms. And she was a survivor: someone whose life reads like some endlessly tragic Victorian novel, only without the “happy ending” tacked on at the end. Honestly: whenever any of us get into one of those self-pitying funks (of which I am an especial virtuoso), during which we stand convinced that our personal lives represent the very nadir of human existence, I would recommend that we think of Ms. Wieck-Schumann and her life as an example… 

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Music History Monday: A Child (and a Man!) of the Theater

On this day in 1767 – 252 years ago today – Wolfgang Mozart’s first opera, entitled Apollo and Hyacinthus received its premiere in Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg. The composer was 11 years old. In a letter written to his father in October of 1777, the 21-year-old Mozart expressed his passion for opera and the opera theater in no uncertain terms: “I have only to hear an opera discussed, I have only to sit in a theater, hear the orchestra tuning their instruments – oh, I am quite beside myself at once.”  I would suggest that it is difficult for us, today, to fathom the full meaning of Mozart’s comment because, in our electronic, mass media-dominated videocracy, we have no single cultural equivalent to the opera house of Mozart’s time. For people living in late eighteenth century Europe, the opera house was a combination theater; Super Bowl half-time show; major league ballpark; rock concert; carnival mid-way; high-end fashion show; IMAX-style movie palace; theme park; special effects extravaganza: in sum, a total-sensory-immersion facility. The opera theater was for Mozart a virtual “virtual reality,” where things could happen, be seen, and be heard that very simply could not happen, could not be seen… 

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Music History Monday: How We Love Our Toys!

It was most likely sometime during the evening of May 6, 1965 – 54 years ago today – that Keith Richards, the lead guitar player for the Rolling Stones, worked out the opening riff for the song (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. Satisfaction went on to become one of the most important rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time; in 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine went so far as to rate it number two on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” (Number “two” on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time?” Duh. Perhaps, maybe, “The 500 Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Songs of All Time,” although I’m not sure I’d even go that far. I will rant about this rather extensively in tomorrow’s “Dr. Bob Prescribes” post, which can be accessed on my Patreon site.) But back to Satisfaction and what makes it truly memorable. I would assert that more than Richard’s rising/falling eight-note riff that generates the song’s melody; and much more than Mick Jagger’s cynical, rebellious, but nevertheless (we must be honest, here) borderline-insipid lyrics, it is the “sound” of Keith Richard’s guitar that gives Satisfaction its dramatic edge and its… 

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Music History Monday: The Creation

On April 29, 1798 – 221 years ago today – Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation was first performed before a star-studded, invitation-only audience at the Schwarzenberg Palace in Vienna.  Getting older, or “when I’m 65.” An ugly confession. Eleven days ago, on April 18, 2019, I turned 65 years old. Don’t get me wrong; I am aware that growing older is generally preferable – generally – to the alternative. But it is, nevertheless, an ongoing shock to the system. Like many of us, I fully intended to be Peter Pan (Bob Panberg?): the eternal boy. And while one may not inaccurately assert that that is a fair appraisal of my emotional age, it cannot be said of my physical age. My eyes continue to weaken. My joints – crapped up by years in the gym – remind me of their ever-greater unhappiness by making ever more noise. My ability to dredge up names has become increasingly more difficult (although, curiously, dates and numbers come to me instantly). As my hairline beats an increasingly hasty retreat, thick, disgusting fly hairs on my shoulders and back continue to grow in ever greater profusion (this is so gross I don’t know where to… 

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Music History Monday: A Marriage of Convenience

On April 22, 1723 – 296 years ago today – the 38-year-old Johann Sebastian Bach was elected music director and cantor of St. Thomas church in Leipzig. Despite the fact that it was a prestigious position, Bach felt scant enthusiasm for the job and considered it a step down from his previous position. Bach’s reticence was shared by the Leipzig authorities’ reticence towards Bach, who was – in fact – their fourth choice for the job. Bach and Leipzig were “a marriage of convenience” and therein lies the story for this week’s Music History Monday. Sebastian Bach (as he was known to his friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances) was born on March 21, 1685 in Eisenach, Thuringia, in what today is central Germany. He was the eighth and last child (of five surviving children) born to Elisabeth and Johann Ambrosius Bach.  To say that Sebastian Bach had a genetic predisposition towards music is like saying that giraffes are genetically predisposed to necking. For generations, music had been the Bach family trade. In 1735, the 50-year-old Sebastian Bach compiled a list of forty-two family members who had been professional musicians during the previous 150 years. It was a “short list”, as… 

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