Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Tchaikovsky

Music History Monday: Unplayable

We mark the premiere on December 4, 1881 – 142 years ago today – of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s one-and-only violin concerto, his Violin Concerto in D major.  It received its premiere in Vienna, where it was performed by the violinist Adolf Brodsky and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Hans Richter. The concerto is, in my humble opinion, Tchaikovsky’s single greatest work and one of a handful of greatest concerti ever composed.   Yet its premiere in Vienna elicited one of the most vicious reviews of all time. Unfortunately for him, Tchaikovsky was indeed one of the most over-criticized composers in the history of Western music. (Just asking: do any of us like being criticized?  I think not, and please, let’s not dignify that oxymoronic phrase, “constructive criticism” by considering it seriously. I don’t mean to sound over-sensitive, but after a certain age – say, 25 – criticism of any sort, even if it is deserved [we’re talking to you, George Santos] is simply infuriating.) Tchaikovsky was also one of the most over-sensitive people ever to become a major composer, which meant that the sometimes brutal criticism he received drove him to near madness.  (Regarding Tchaikovsky’s sensitivity, as a youngster, […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Works Conducted in America

Pronunciation! Before we can get to the extraordinary man whose beneficence built America’s premiere concert hall and brought Tchaikovsky to New York in order to break it in, we must deal with a sticky issue of pronunciation. Andrew Carnegie’s surname is pronounced Car-NEH-gie, with an accent on the second syllable. Likewise, the Car-NEH-gie Corporation of New York; the Car-NEH-gie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; the Car-NEH-gie Foundation for International Peace, and so forth. Car-NEH-gie. Except when it comes to the music hall. So many generations of well-meaning folks have mispronounced Car-NEH-gie’s name when referring to CAR-ne-gie Hall that the mispronunciation must be defacto accepted, just as we have come to accept – grudgingly, I admit – jew-lery (instead of “jew-wel-ry”) and re-la-tor (instead of “real-tor”). So, his name: Car-NEH-gie. The music hall: CAR-ne-gie. Carnegie’s rags-to-untold-riches story is the stuff of legend, the “American Dream” writ in CAPITAL LETTERS. Born on November 25, 1935 in a one-room weaver’s cottage in Dunfermline, Scotland, the Carnegie family emigrated to Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1848 in search of a better life. Through intelligence, hard work, perseverance, vision, zero risk aversion, and no small bit of luck, Carnegie became one of the richest men in […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4

By way of review: Pyotr (Peter) Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was a homosexual with a predilection for cross-dressing and teenaged boys. In May of 1877, around the time of his 37th birthday on May 7, he received a letter from one Antonina Milyukova – a former student at the Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky taught – professing her undying love for him. Tchaikovsky hadn’t a clue of who she was, and he blew her off. But Ms. Milyukova would not be blown off (what at first seemed a schoolgirl crush turned out to be full-blown mental illness), and within a few short weeks, Tchaikovsky, in a moment of epic self-delusion (and hoping to deflect rumors of his homosexuality), actually agreed to marry her! As all of this was happening in the late spring and early summer of 1877, Tchaikovsky was initiating a regular correspondence with a fabulously wealthy widow nine years his senior named Nadezhda von Meck. Unlike Antonina, who didn’t know a note of Tchaikovsky’s music, Madame von Meck worshipped Tchaikovsky for his music. Tchaikovsky and Antonina Milyukova were married on July 18, 1877, some nine weeks after Tchaikovsky received that first letter from Antonia. The marriage was a disaster from […]

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Music History Monday: Tchaikovsky: Two Women and a Symphony

We mark the premiere on February 22, 1878 – 143 years ago today – of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor in a concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow, under the baton of Nicolai Rubinstein. The story of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and the two women that inspired it is a fascinating one, a story that desperately wants to be told in some detail. Therefore, I am stretching it across two posts: today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes. Tchaikovsky at 37 Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) celebrated his 37th birthday on May 7, 1877. He was a man with many secrets and many fears: a cross-dressing homosexual with a penchant for teenaged boys living and working in one of the most homophobic societies ever: Tsarist Russia. Not surprisingly given his sexuality and the dangers it created for him, Tchaikovsky was over-sensitive to a fault, given to anxiety attacks, extended bouts of weeping, deep self-loathing and dependence on alcohol and tobacco. At the time of his 37th birthday Tchaikovsky was living in Moscow (where he taught at the Moscow Conservatory) and had begun sketching his fourth symphony. It was at this moment in time that – […]

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Music History Monday: His Own Requiem?

We celebrate, on October 28, 1893 – 126 years ago today – the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the “Pathétique” in St. Petersburg, with Tchaikovsky conducting.

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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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