Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Stravinsky

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky composed The Rite of Spring for the Ballets Russes in 1912, when he was thirty years old. Even if he had never written another piece of music, Stravinsky would still be famous, because excepting perhaps Yummy, Yummy, Yummy I Got Love in My Tummy, The Rite of Spring is the single most influential piece of music composed during the twentieth century. The Rite changed the way composers thought about rhythm, melody, counterpoint and orchestration, and it continues to exert a seminal influence on composers to this day. For all of its debt to Stravinsky’s Russian roots and the music of Claude Debussy, the Rite appeared to be devoid of any reference to the long and glorious Western musical tradition as it existed at the time. Rather, it created what appeared to be an entirely new musical language and expressive world: a world devoid of such bourgeois niceties as elegance, prettiness, and grace; a primal, sexual, violent, thrumming, pre-moral musical world in which pure rhythmic energy for its own sake became the principal musical element.  Stravinsky created this violent, “pre-moral musical world” because that was the gig, that’s what the scenario of the ballet of The Rite of Spring… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: Pierre Monteux: One of the Great Ones

We acknowledge the death – on July 1, 1964, 55 years ago today – of the French-American conductor and teacher Pierre Monteux, who passed away at his home in Hancock, Maine at the age of 89. Conductors: love them or hate them, we can’t live without them. Composers and instrumental musicians have mixed feelings about conductors, and rightly so. (I’m leaving singers out of the mix here because it’s been my experience that singers, bless them, will generally do what they damn please, conductor or no conductor.)  As a composer, I can tell you that it is disquieting to hand over a “child of my imagination” – a score – to a conductor. I know that 99% of the time that conductor will do her level best to perform the piece to my specifications, whether she herself “likes” the piece or not. But you never really know what’s going to happen in a performance, and every composer I know has at least a couple of horror stories to tell when it comes to their experience with conductors. (I had a Concerto for Vibraphone and Chamber Orchestra premiered on a Monday Evening Concert at the Los Angeles County Museum some 25… 

Continue Reading…

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Igor Stravinsky – Pulcinella Suite

We will return to the music of mid-century American symphonists next week. For now, we celebrate Igor Stravinsky’s spectacular and spectacularly influential Pulcinella in anticipation of his 139th birthday, which we will mark on June 17th in next week’s Music History Monday post. Bad Times The First World War (which ran from July 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918) was an unfathomable catastrophe. It laid waste to huge swatches of Western, Central, and Eastern Europe. It destroyed four multi-ethnic Empires: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, and German empires. It created the preconditions for the civil war and the triumph of Bolshevism (soon to be known as Communism) in Russia and for civil war and the triumph of National Socialism (best known as Nazism) in Germany. In 1918 and 1919, a planetary population weakened by food shortages and wartime hardship succumbed to the Spanish influenza pandemic, which infected roughly 500 million people (about one-third of the world’s population at the time) and killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people worldwide (a number comparable to those killed by the Black Death in the fourteenth century).  The War and the flu pandemic together killed nearly an entire generation of young Western men. The… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: You’re the Top!

Today we mark the death of the songwriter and bon vivant par excellence Cole Albert Porter. He was born on June 9, 1891, and died at the age of 73 on October 15, 1964: 54 years ago today. We begin with what is, I think, is a great story. In September of 1939, Igor Stravinsky travelled from his home in Paris to Cambridge Massachusetts, there to be the Norton professor at Harvard for the school year. By the time his residency ended in June of 1940, France was being overrun by the Nazis. Stravinsky and his wife Vera had a choice to make: go back to Europe and take their chances or stay in the United States where the Hollywood studios were begging Stravinsky to head west. Not a tough choice. Stravinsky instantly became a Hollywood celebrity and his music a sought-after commodity. Disney used The Rite of Spring for the dinosaur sequence in Fantasia. Barnum and Bailey’s circus commissioned Stravinsky to write a work for its dancing elephants. The producer-huckster Billy Rose commissioned a work called Scènes de ballet. After the premiere of Scènes de ballet, Rose telegraphed Stravinsky: “YOUR MUSIC GREAT SUCCESS STOP COULD BE SENSATIONAL SUCCESS IF… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: The Firebird

On June 25, 1910 – 108 years ago today – Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird received its premiere at the Paris Opera House, in a ballet performance produced by Serge Diaghilev, staged by the Ballets Russes, and conducted by Gabriel Pierné. With choreography by Michel Fokine and the Firebird herself danced by the great Tamara Karsavina, The Firebird was a smash, a sensation, a runaway hit from the first. The not-quite 28-year-old Stravinsky was hailed as the successor to the Moguchaya Kuchka, the Russian Five, the group of nineteenth-century composers who put Russian nationalist music on the international musical map: Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Modest Musorgsky, Alexander Borodin, and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Writing in the Nouvelle Revue française, the critic Henri Ghéon called The Firebird: “the most exquisite marvel of equilibrium that we have ever imagined between sounds, movements, and forms: [a] danced symphony.” There’s no need to quote additional reviews, because one after the other, they echo the one just quoted. Thanks to The Firebird’s triumph, the young Stravinsky instantly became the star composer of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, in which capacity he would turn out the magnificent Petrushka in 1911 and the seminal The Rite of Spring in 1913. The Firebird is… 

Continue Reading…

Music History Monday: One of a Kind!

On April 23, 1891 – 127 years ago today – the composer and pianist Sergei Prokofiev was born in the village of Sontsovka, in Ukraine. He was, very simply, one of a kind: a brilliant, tungsten-steel-fingered pianist; a great composer; and one of the most irksome and narcissistic artists ever to ply his trade (no small statement given the character flaws of so many professional artists). He grew up an isolated, only child on an estate managed by his father. He was homeschooled and rarely played with the local kids, who were considered to be “social inferiors” by his parents, a parental attitude that no doubt helped to foster the overweening arrogance and snobbery that characterized Prokofiev’s personality from the beginning. A prodigy as both a pianist and composer, in 1904 – at the age of 13 – he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Prokofiev was not a popular student. He was, by pretty much all surviving accounts, a total jerk. For example, he laughed out loud when his fellow piano students made mistakes and went so far as to actually keep a roster of the mistakes committed by his classmates. (This would have earned him a dislocated jaw where… 

Continue Reading…