Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for The Great Courses

Music History Monday: Viktor Ullman, the Musical Bard of Terezín

We mark the death on October 18, 1944 – 77 years ago today – of the composer and pianist Viktor Ullmann, in a gas chamber at the concentration and death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Nazi-occupied Poland. Last week’s Music History Monday focused on a soft-rock song entitled Je t’aime… Moi non plus by the French singer-songwriter, author, filmmaker, and actor Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991), and recorded in 1969 by Gainsbourg and the English singer, songwriter, and actress Jane Birkin (born 1946). Musically, the song is, pardon, beaucoup de merde. Nevertheless, it climbed to number one on charts across the globe. That’s because over the course of the song, Ms. Birkin’s heavy breathing leads to a simulated orgasm at the “climax” of the song. As we observed last week, “sex sells.” We also observed that those arbiters of morality – of which there is never a dearth – declared the song “obscene” and it was banned from radio play by hundreds (if not thousands) of radio stations. I pointed out then as I would again now: that at an “obscenity level” from one to ten, Je t’aime… rates – maybe – a 00.5, while the tragic fate of the Czechoslovakian composer Viktor […]

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Music History Monday: Lending a Hand

Before moving on to the main topic for today’s post, I would like to announce a new feature here on Music History Monday, something called “This Day in Musical Stupid.” I explain. As regular readers of this post know, I will, occasionally, dedicate a post to the shenanigans and sometimes plain old idiocy of musicians as they go about their daily lives and business. More often (far more often!) than not, such antics are perpetrated by pop, rock, rap, and hip-hop “artists”, but frankly, not always. In the past, if there is a topic of genuine import on a given Monday, I would ignore such events. In the past, I have only reported them when there was nothing else to write about. My thinking on this has changed. Why should I deny you the special pleasure that observing other people’s stupidity can give? Exactly. So whenever I can, I will initiate a Music History Monday post with just such a date appropriate event. Here’s today’s “This Day in Musical Stupid.” Just so, musicians, who are, in their own right athletes, must know their physical limits. Yes: we read about Franz Liszt (1811-1886) holing up in 1831 at the age of […]

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Music History Monday: Dvořák in America

We mark the arrival on September 27, 1892 – 129 years ago today – of the Bohemian-born Czech composer Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) to the United States, here to take up the Directorship of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. He retained the directorship for 2½ years – until March of 1895 – at which time he and his family returned to Prague. Antonin Dvořák in 1891 By 1891 – at the age of fifty – Dvořák was that rarest of living composers: successful, appreciated by a worldwide public, and relatively wealthy. Regarded by many as the second-greatest living composer after Brahms, the nationalist Czech-accent with which Dvořák’s music spoke made it, in reality, much more “popular” than Brahms’ music. It was Dvořák’s fame as a “nationalist” composer that brought him to the attention of a rich American woman by the name of Jeanette Meyers Thurber (1850-1946). Mrs. Thurber was the wife of a wholesale grocer and was, herself, a musician of talent, having been educated at the Paris Conservatoire.  Jeanette Thurber was one of the greatest patrons of music the United States has ever known. I would suggest that had she given her name to any of […]

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Music History Monday: Finland, Jean Sibelius, and the Case of the Missing Symphony

We mark the death on September 20, 1957 – 64 years ago today – of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, in Järvenpää (yes, that’s a lot of umlauts), Finland. Born on December 8, 1865, in Hameenlinna, Finland, Sibelius was 91 years old when he died. Scandanavia Scandinavia is the Canada of Europe: a huge, climatically challenged area of extraordinary beauty that has produced an artistic community the breadth and depth of which is way out of proportion with its relatively small population. Of course, the cynic might suggest that in such northern climes, where it’s so dark and so cold and you have to stay indoors for so much of the year, there are just so many things you can do after you’ve eaten, slept, drank, and reproduced, and playing a round of golf in February is not one of them, thus encouraging – perhaps – the production of art. Certainly, Scandinavia is a vast environment of physical extremes that challenges both the body and the soul, an environment that encourages reflection and contemplation. … Continue reading, only on Patreon! Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

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Music History Monday: Mozart in Prague

We mark the premiere on September 6, 1791 – 230 years ago today – of Wolfgang Mozart’s final opera La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency [or Mercy] of Titus), K. 621. Commissioned by the Prague-based opera producer and impresario Domenico Guardasoni (circa 1731-1806), the opera received its premiere at Prague’s Estates Theater, where Mozart’s Don Giovanni had been premiered as well in October 1787. (Put a visit to Prague’s Estates Theater on your bucket list; it’s the last surviving theater in which Mozart himself performed.)  We will get into the particulars of La Clemenza di Tito in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post. For the remainder of today’s Music History Monday, we’re going to explore the special relationship Mozart had with the audience in Prague, and why he might have lived a long and fruitful life had he chosen to leave Vienna and relocate to Prague. The city of Prague is the historic capital of the region of Bohemia and today the capitol of the Czech Republic. It’s beauty, history, and sheer magic (I know of no better word) are stunning. It is my experience that like Paris and Venice, Prague never fails to exceed expectations. Relatively untouched by World War Two (physically, at […]

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Music History Monday: Oh, Behave!

Every now and again, circumstances force us to plum the tawdry here in Music History Monday. Usually, those “circumstances” are a dearth of good topics to write about; today is such a day. (In fact, there is an excellent, August 30th-associated topic we could have focused on: the completion of Shostakovich’s extremely controversial Symphony No. 9 of 1945. But, alas, I wrote about Shostakovich’s death just three weeks ago, on August 9, and as this feature is called Music History Monday and not Music History Shostakovich, we’ll have to take a pass on the Shosty 9 for now.) My typical fallback on such otherwise event-challenged dates is to find some date related craziness in the world of popular music and then extrapolate outwards, discussing other like examples that are not date related. However, we needn’t do that for August 30, because enough crazy, pop-world merde happened on this date to easily fill a post. So here we go! (Actually, for just a moment, here we not go.  You might rightly ask, why are we celebrating – and by doing so, perhaps even in some way encouraging – the antics of pop stars here on the august pages of Patreon? For […]

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Music History Monday: Moritz Moszkowski

We mark the birth on August 23, 1854 – 167 years ago today – of the German-Polish composer, pianist, and teacher Moritz Moszkowski in the Prussian/Silesian city of Breslau, today the Polish city of Wrocław. He died in Paris on March 4, 1925, at the age of 70. Moszkowski was one of the most famous pianist-composers of his time, someone who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894), Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), and Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) Paderewski paid his friend and fellow Pole Moszkowski the ultimate compliment when he said that:  “After Chopin [who was, and remains, the great Polish national hero] Moszkowski best understands how to write for the piano, and his writing embraces the whole gamut of piano technique.” In the end – painfully, tragically, inevitably (or so it so often seems) – talent, success, and fame were no match for time, aging, and illness, and died in obscurity and poverty, a broken man. Sadly and unjustly, he and his music languish in near-total obscurity today.… Continue reading, only on Patreon! Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

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Music History Monday: William John Evans

We mark the birth on August 16, 1929 – 92 years ago today – of the jazz pianist and composer William John “Bill” Evans, in Plainfield, New Jersey. He died, tragically and all-too-young on September 15, 1980 in New York City at the age of 51. Just a week before his death, Evans had completed a nine-day run (from August 31 to September 8, 1980) at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. That run was recorded and issued on an 8-cd set entitled The Last Waltz, which will be among therecommended recordings in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post. Apropos of that appearance at the Keystone Korner, Jesse Hamlin, music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle writes: “Evans played with such fervor during that nine-day stint that his enraptured audiences would’ve found it hard to believe that his body was wasting away and that he’d be dead a week later.” All early, unnecessary deaths are tragic. Bill Evans’ death holds a special poignancy in that it was not only self-inflicted, but he had, in the end, lost his will to live. In the end, he was only able to ignore his disintegrating body while he was playing the piano. But not […]

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Music History Monday: Shostakovich’s Death

We mark the death on August 9, 1975 – 46 years ago today – of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich at the age of 68, in Moscow. He was born on September 25, 1906, in St. Petersburg. Does Stress Kill? If stress kills, Dmitri Shostakovich should never have lived past the age of 30. In his early teens, as a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory (or what was then called, the “Petrograd” Conservatory), he and his classmates suffered severe malnutrition due to the Russian Civil War (which ran from 1917-1922). But he survived. In 1936, some eight months before his 30th birthday, he was officially purged on the orders of Joseph Stalin himself during the Great Terror. Few people expected Shostakovich to survive, least of all himself. Later admitting to having been suicidal, he lay awake at night, too terrified to sleep, waiting for the van (the feared “Black Maria”), to take him away. But he survived. In 1941, he survived the early stages of the Siege of Leningrad and in 1948, he was once again purged for writing music considered to be too modern and too personally self-expressive, music that did not subscribe to Soviet ideologic dicta. Again he […]

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Music History Monday: Carlos Chávez

We mark the death on August 2, 1978 – 43 years ago today – of the Mexican composer, pianist, conductor, music educator, and journalist Carlos Chávez at the age of 79, in Mexico City. What’s the Problem Here? Allow me, por favor, to express a pet peeve framed as a question: why has the concert music of twentieth century and early twenty-first century Central and South American composers been so rarely performed and discussed in North America?  Note, please, that I qualified my pet-peeve-framed-as-a-question with the phrase “so rarely performed.” That’s because such performances are admittedly ticking up, particularly in those states bordering on Mexico: California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. However, had I broached that question before moving to California in 1978, I would have asked – based on my own admittedly spotty experience – “why is the concert music of twentieth century Central and South American composers never performed in North America?” That’s because, speaking personally, in all my years attending concerts in the great American northeast while growing up, I never, not once, ever, heard a piece of authentic Central or South American music performed. Of course there were performances here and there, but not frequently enough […]

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