Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for San Francisco Performances

Music History Monday: Beethoven and the Human Voice

We mark the premiere on May 23, 1814 – 208 years ago today – of Ludwig van Beethoven’s one-and-only opera, Fidelio, at the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna.  While Beethoven (1770-1827) had composed two preliminary versions of the opera, which had been performed in 1805 and 1806, it is this third and substantially different version that we will hear in the opera house today. It’s an odd but, in this case, an applicable idiom, “red herring.” Literally, a “red herring” is, believe it or not, a red herring (see image above): a dried and smoked herring that’s turned red due to being smoked.  However, for our purposes, a “red herring” is: “something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question. It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences toward a false conclusion.” The Beethovenian red herring to which we are referring started with the German author, legal scholar, composer, music critic, and artist Ernst Theodor Amadeus (or “E. T. A.”) Hoffman (1776-1822).  Hoffman wrote a lengthy and frankly worshipful appreciation of Beethoven’s instrumental music entitled “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music” in 1813, when Beethoven was in his 43rd year.  In the course of […]

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Music History Monday: The Phoenix Rises!

We mark the opening on May 16, 1792 – 230 years ago today – of Venice’s principal opera house, the Teatro la Fenice, meaning the “The Phoenix Theater.” Excepting, perhaps, the magnificent phallus that is the Washington Monument, dedicated as it is to “The Father of Our Country,” rarely – if ever – will a building be better named than La Fenice, which has risen from the ashes three times. Background The first public opera house – the Teatro San Cassiano – opened in Venice in 1637.  Public opera quickly proved to be tremendously popular and immensely profitable, and Venice – already the tourist capitol, the Las Vegas of the European world – had yet another recreational activity to offer its endless stream of visitors.  By 1700, there were some twenty opera theaters operating  in Venice, cranking out operas the way Hollywood cranked out movies in the pre-television glory days of the 1930s and 1940s.   As the popularity of public opera spread first across Italy and then all of Europe, so opera theaters were built across Europe.  No longer the singular purveyor of public opera, many of Venice’s opera houses closed, so that by 1770 only five remained.  Of […]

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Music History Monday: Little Richard: The King and Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll

We mark the death on May 9, 2020 – just two years ago today – of the American musician, singer, and songwriter Richard Wayne Penniman, known universally by his stage name of “Little Richard.” Born on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, he died at his home in Tullahoma, Tennessee two years ago today from bone cancer.  He was 87 years old. As a founding inductee to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, the following statement was read aloud: “He claims to be ‘the architect of rock and roll’, and history would seem to bear out Little Richard’s boast. More than any other performer—save, perhaps, Elvis Presley – Little Richard blew the lid off the Fifties, laying the foundation for rock and roll with his explosive music and charismatic persona. On record, he made spine-tingling rock and roll. His frantically charged piano playing and raspy, shouted vocals on such classics as Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, and Good Golly, Miss Molly defined the dynamic sound of rock and roll.” Along with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ike Turner, and Bo Diddley, Little Richard was one of that handful of Black American musicians who synthesized blues, rhythm and blues […]

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Music History Monday: Giacomo Meyerbeer and French PopOp

We mark the death on May 2, 1864 – 158 years ago today – of the German-born opera composer Jacob Liebmann Beer, also-known-as Giacomo Meyerbeer.  Born in Berlin on September 5, 1791, he died in Paris during the rehearsals for the premiere of his opera L’Africaine – “The African” – which turned out to be, no surprise then, his final opera.   Let us get to know Herr/Signore/Monsieur Meyerbeer a bit even as we explore the tremendous popularity of his operas, the reasons behind that popularity, and the reasons for their fall from popularity!   No Exaggeration: As Popular as Elvis Incredible though it may seem to us, here today, Meyerbeer was the Elvis Presley of nineteenth century opera.  Not that he was a pelvis gyrating,  groupie groping “rock star” as we understand a rock star to be today, no; but in the world of nineteenth century opera, he was the most popular musician of not just his time but of his century: the single most frequently performed opera composer of the nineteenth century.  In terms of his singular international fame and his income, Meyerbeer was – more than Gioachino Rossini, more than Giuseppe Verdi, more than Richard Wagner –the […]

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Music History Monday: Puccini’s Turandot: An Opera That Almost Wasn’t

We mark the premiere performance on April 25, 1926 – 96 years ago today – of Giacomo Puccini’s twelfth and final opera, Turandot.  The premiere took place at Milan’s storied La Scala opera house and was conducted by Puccini’s friend (and occasional nemesis!) Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957).  At the time of the premiere, Puccini himself had been dead for 17 months.  And therein lies our tale.  Because given the delays in creating the libretto for Turandot, Puccini’s failing health, his leaving the opera incomplete at his death, and the controversy surrounding Turandot’s subsequent completion by the composer Franco Alfano (1875-1954), itwas indeed an opera that almost didn’t happen. Giacomo Puccini was born in the Tuscan city of Lucca on December 22, 1858, and died in Brussels, Belgium on November 29, 1924, three weeks shy of his 66th birthday.  Puccini’s operas remain among the most popular in the repertoire, but among the most critically controversial as well.  It is a controversary we will not discuss in this post; rather, I’d direct you to Music History Monday for January 14, 2019.  That post – on Puccini’s opera Tosca – wades chin-deep into the critical issues that continue to dog his work. Sometime in […]

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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: St. Matthew Passion

We mark the first performance on April 11, 1727 – on what was Good Friday 295 years ago today – of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion at the St. Thomas Church (or Thomaskirche) in the Saxon city of Leipzig. The Passion was performed three more times in Bach’s lifetime, all under his direction in Leipzig: on April 15, 1729; March 30, 1736; and on March 23, 1742. Bach revised his St Matthew Passion between 1743 and 1746, and it is this revised version that we will hear in performances and recordings today. Our game plan for this post will be, one, to discuss what a “Passion” is and what the “gospels” are; two, to observe the structure and scope and make some blanket observations about the artistic quality of Bach’s St Matthew Passion; three, to discuss “the masterpiece syndrome” and some of the good and bad things that phrase implies; four, to once again venture into the unmapped minefield that is contemporary identity politics and attempt to create a meaningful context for the St Matthew Passion; and finally, five, to speculate on how the parishioners and church officials who, having filed in and taken their seats at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche […]

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Music History Monday: McKinley Morganfield, a.k.a. Muddy Waters

We mark the birth on April 4, 1913 – 109 years ago today – of the American blues singer, songwriter, and guitar and harmonica player McKinley Morganfield.  He was born in either Rolling Fork or Jug’s Corner, Mississippi. Known professionally as “Muddy Waters” (as opposed to, say “Crystal Springs”, or “Briny Deep”, or “Silty Delta”, or “Occluded H20”), Maestro Morganfield-slash-Waters died in Westmont, Illinois on April 30, 1983, at the age of 70.  We will get to Muddy Waters (as we will now refer to him) in a bit.  But April 4 is a busy day in music history and thus, I’d like to observe three other date-related events. We mark the birth – on April 4, 1922, exactly 100 years ago today – of the American composer Elmer Bernstein, in New York City.  He died in Ojai, California, on August 18, 2004, at the age of 82. Elmer Bernstein is among my very favorite film and television composers, and he would have been the lead story today if not for the fact that my Music History Monday post for April 3, 2017, already celebrated his birthday.  (I’ll own up to it: April 3 is a quiet day in music […]

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Music History Monday: Sergei Rachmaninoff in California

We mark the death on March 28, 1943 – 79 years ago today – of the composer, pianist, and conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff, at his home in Beverly Hills, California. He was born on April 1, 1873, and thus died just four days before his 70th birthday. This post, as well as tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes, will focus on the last year of Rachmaninoff’s life, during which he lived in Beverly Hills, California. Rachmaninoff – all 6’6” of him! – was one of the great pianists of his (or any) time; an outstanding composer; and a more than able conductor (he was, for example, the conductor of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow from 1904-1906). Lucrative though performing as a pianist and conductor were, what Rachmaninoff really wanted to be was a composer (the composition bug is, as I will attest, something of a disease). As is the case with so many “working” composers – meaning composers who make the bulk of their income doing something other than composing – Rachmaninoff composed primarily during the summer months.  Between 1890 and 1917 – from the ages of 17 to 44 – Rachmaninoff spent those summer months composing at his home in Ivanovka, a […]

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Music History Monday: Ludwig van Beethoven and the Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach

We mark the birth on March 21, 1685, of Johann Sebastian Bach in the Thuringian town of Eisenach, in what today is central Germany.  He died 65 years later, on July 28, 1750, in the Saxon city of Leipzig. I can hear the howling now, “Dr. B, hello, Bach was born on March 31, 1685, not March 21; March 31: it says so on Wikipedia!” Chill out and unknot those jockeys; let’s talk.   Wikipedia and various other sources do indeed indicate, not incorrectly, that Bach was born on March 31.  But according to the irrefutable and unassailable Bach scholar Christoff Wolff writing in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Sebastian Bach was born on March 21.  And in fact Bach celebrated his birthday on March 21.  So what gives? A Brief Contemplation of Dates (by which we do not refer to one’s social life but the calendar) Old style and new style; in style and out-of-style.  It is a question of almost Talmudic complexity.   We’re talking about calendars and the confusion wrought by changing calendars. In 46 BCE (two years before his conversion into a human pincushion), Julius Caesar proposed replacing what was the 10-month Roman […]

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