Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Tchaikovsky

Doctor Bob Prescribes: Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35

As I know I’ve mentioned all-too-many-times, my paternal grandmother, Bessie Hurwitz Greenberg, graduated in 1916 with a degree in piano from the New York Institute of Musical Art (renamed the Juilliard School in 1926). For the next fifty-plus years, she tortured generations of piano students from her studio in Queens, New York, including my father and myself. She had been born in Brooklyn New York in 1894, about 12 years after her family immigrated to the United States from the Russian Empire (Minsk, in modern Belarus), as a result of the pogroms that erupted after the assassination of Tsar Alexander in 1881. While my paternal grandfather, Sidney Greenberg – Bessie’s husband – was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey (Exit 13) in 1891, he also grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Like my grandmother’s family, Sidney’s family fled Belarus in the 1880s. Unlike my grandmother the musician, my grandfather was a jock: a fairly high-end track-and-field athlete and semi-pro baseball player who, according to family legend (myth?) turned down an invitation to the 1912 Olympic Trials because he couldn’t get the time off from work. My grandfather went on to a successful career as an executive for a fabric company called… 

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Music History Monday: Tchaikovsky: A Composer and Conductor in America!

Both the dates April 24 and 25 are bereft of significant musical events. As a result, this week’s “Music History Monday” is, in fact, “Music History Wednesday”, as we turn to April 26 for the event that powers todays post. The event: on April 26, 1891 – 126 years ago this coming Wednesday – the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) arrived in New York City, there to begin his one-and-only stay in the United States. The trip was intended as business, not pleasure: Tchaikovsky had ventured forth to America to conduct concerts of his own works. I would suggest that the two most important musical skills a composer should have – aside from competence at composing – are being able to play the piano and being able to conduct. Being able to at least “get around” a piano keyboard allows a composer to actually hear her music as she writes; being a good pianist allows a composer to actually play her music to others. Being able to conduct allows a composer to perform her works written for larger ensembles. Tchaikovsky was a competent pianist, but no more. He was a better conductor, or at least he turned himself into… 

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Music History Monday: Go Figure

On this day in 1928, Maurice Ravel’s one-movement orchestra work Boléro received its premiere at the Opera Comique in Paris with Ravel conducting. (Various sources variously describe the premiere as having taken place on November 20, November 21, and November 22! We are splitting the difference and going with the 21st.) Boléro was commissioned by the Russian ballerina Ida Rubinstein, whose choreography that opening night followed this scenario: “Inside a tavern in Spain, people dance beneath the brass lamp hung from the ceiling. In response to the cheers to join in, the female dancer has leapt onto the long table and her steps become more and more animated.” That’s not much of a scenario, and Ravel responded with not much of a musical composition. Boléro begins with a rhythm presented by a side or snare drum. (While it’s usually the other instrumental soloists who take the bows after a performance, it should be the hapless drummer who gets the huzzahs, for having to play the same freaking two-measure rhythm for 17 minutes!) Stacked atop the drum rhythm are two vaguely “Spanish” sounding melodies – each 18 measures long – that alternate with one another. And that’s it. Over time, more… 

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Scandalous Overtures: Tchaikovsky: Fear And Loathing In St. Petersburg

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and William Bruce Jenner: really, can we imagine a more unlikely pair? Tchaikovsky was a nineteenth century Russian composer of exquisitely lyric music; a shy and sensitive man, fastidious in his habits and Victorian in his manners and bearing. Bruce Jenner is a dyslexic jock from Westchester County in New York. When his football career was cut short by a knee injury he went on to track and field and won a gold medal at the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal. He has been squarely in the public eye since, as an athlete, actor, racecar driver, businessman and, since 2007, a reality TV star. Their differences aside, both Tchaikovsky and Jenner led secret lives of remarkable similarity. That Tchaikovsky’s secret killed him while Jenner’s has inspired fascination and no small degree of public support has much to tell us about the environments in which they lived. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a deeply neurotic man. His neurosis sprang from a personality so over-sensitive that his governess called him a “porcelain child”; from his inferiority complex as a composer; and from his sexuality. Tchaikovsky was a died-in-the-wool homosexual living and working in one of the most homophobic cultures of… 

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