Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for The Great Courses

Music History Monday: Fine Dining

January 20 is indeed an interesting day in music history, particularly notable for anniversaries of births and deaths. Among those born on this day was the outstanding Polish/American pianist Józef Hofmann, born in 1876 (and died in 1967; my grandmother took some lessons with Hofmann at the New York Institute of Musical Art between 1914 and 1916, after which he went on to became the director of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, from 1927-1938); also born on this date in 1888 was the 12-string blues guitarist Huddie William Ledbetter (a.k.a. “Leadbelly”; he died in 1949); the Russian/American violinist Mischa Elman was born on January 20, 1891 (and died 1967); the American composer Walter Piston was born on this date in 1894 (he died in 1976 and was featured in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post on March 19, 2019); and Yvonne Loriod, an exceptional French pianist and wife of the composer Olivier Messiaen, was born on this date in 1924 (and died in 2010).  Notable deaths on this date include the Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, who died at the age of 80 in 2014, and the composer, publisher, writer, singer, visual artist, illustrator, patron of young talent, and social activist (wow) […]

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Music History Monday: How to Identify a Gentleman

We would recognize a number of date-worthy events before moving on to the admittedly painful principal topic of today’s Music History Monday. Johann Christoph Graupner We recognize the birth on January 13, 1683 – 337 years ago today – of the German harpsichordist and composer Johann Christoph Graupner in the Saxon town Kirchberg. (He died 77 years later, in Darmstadt, in 1760.) Herr Graupner was known as a good and conscientious man, highly respected by his employers and students alike. He was also a competent and prolific composer, with more than 2000 surviving works in his catalog. Nevertheless, he would be totally forgotten today but for a single event in 1723. In 1722, Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) – the chief musician for the churches and municipality of Leipzig – went on to that great clavichord in the sky. The famous Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), unhappy with his salary in Hamburg, applied for and was offered the job in Leipzig. But it was all a ploy to leverage a higher salary in Hamburg, which he received and where he remained. In early 1723, the paternal units of Leipzig then offered the job to Graupner, who accepted but whose boss – the Landgrave Ernst […]

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Music History Monday: The Odd Person Out

On January 6, 1872 – 148 years ago today – the composer Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin was born in Moscow. He died in Moscow just 43 years later, on April 27, 1915. Scriabin was not just “the odd person out” of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Russian composers; he was, very arguably, one of the two or three “oddest-people-out” in the history of Western Music. Scriabin didn’t start out as an oddball. He was a piano prodigy and a friend and classmate of Sergei Rachmaninoff, first in the piano studio and private school of Nikolai Zverov and later at the Moscow Conservatory. When they graduated together in 1892 (at which point Rachmaninoff was nineteen and Scriabin was twenty), Rachmaninoff received the “Great Gold Medal” and Scriabin the “Little Gold Medal”, somehow appropriate given that Rachmaninoff stood 6’6” tall while Scriabin stood just over 5’ tall. (That variance of physical stature notwithstanding, the Moscow Conservatory Class of 1892 was pretty impressive!) Scriabin’s early career was not marked by any particular “oddness” either. He began his career as a touring pianist and composed charming piano miniatures a la Chopin. He married and quickly fathered four children. When he wasn’t on tour, he taught at the Moscow Conservatory. […]

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Music History Monday: Richard Rodgers and the American Crucible

We mark the death on December 30, 1979 – 40 years ago today – of the American composer Richard Rodgers at the age of 77. A life-long New Yorker, Rodgers was one of the most prolific American composers of all time, having written the music for – among other works – 43 Broadway musicals and over 900 songs. He is one of only two people to have scored an EGOT, meaning that he received an Emmy, a GRAMMY® (three of them, actually), an Oscar, a Tony (seven in all) along with a Pulitzer Prize (for the musical South Pacific, in 1950). (For our information, the only other person to have won all five awards was the phenomenal Marvin Hamlisch, 1944-2012.) We will discuss Maestro Rodgers as an exemplar of the “American crucible” in a bit. But first, permit me some first-person information that, believe it or not, will eventually have a direct bearing on this post. An observation: we all do things to our bodies when we are young (or relatively young) that, in retrospect, we should not have. For me it was fairly serious weightlifting, which I took up in my early 30’s and continued until I was 51. […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Life and Times of Beethoven – The First Angry Man

In February of this year, I was asked to be among the first “influencers” (yes, that’s how I was referred to: I, who am incapable of “influencing” my daughter to turn out the lights when she’s left a room or my son to flush the freakin’ toilet) to record original content for Amazon’s Audible brand. The result is a ten-lecture, five-hour (30 minutes per lecture), 40,000-word biography of Beethoven titled The Life and Times of Beethoven: The First Angry Man. Created in conjunction with The Great Courses, the course was recorded in Chantilly, Virginia in July and hit the market last month. A couple of points before moving on.  Point one. By titling my course The First Angry Man, I have, admittedly, indulged in the tired cliché that Beethoven was angry pretty much all the time, a cliché reinforced a gazillion-fold by the famously scowling images of Beethoven that became stock-in-trade of the Beethoven myth as it evolved during the nineteenth century. In response to the clichéd images of a sullen, glowering Beethoven, enjoy the included image of Beethoven smiling. Yes, of course, it is bogus, but so is the impression that he never smiled or laughed, which he did, […]

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Music History Monday: The Man

We mark the birth on December 16, 1770 – 249 years ago today – of Ludwig, or Louis, or Luigi (he went by all three names) van Beethoven, in the Rhineland city of Bonn. Although there is no documentary evidence confirming that Beethoven was actually born on the 16th, we assume – with that proverbial 99.99% degree of certainty – that he was. This is because the Catholic parishes of the time required that newborns be baptized within 24 hours of birth and Beethoven’s baptism was registered at the church of St. Remigius on December 17, 1770.

As we brace ourselves for the hoopla celebrating the 250th year of Beethoven’s birth, we pause and ask ourselves, honestly, why Beethoven: why do we, as a listening public, so adore his music?

I would answer that question by drawing on some material from my recently published “Audible Original Course”, Beethoven: The First Angry Man (which, gratuitously, will be the topic of tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post)

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Music History Monday: Turangalîla

December 2 is – was – a great date for world premieres, as well as for one unfortunate and extremely notable exit.   Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 received its first performance on December 3, 1883 – 136 years ago today – in Vienna, when it was performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Hans Richter.   On this date in 1949 – 70 years ago today – Béla Bartók’s Viola Concerto, completed posthumously by Tibor Serly [TEE-bor SHARE-ly] (Bartók himself had died four years earlier, in 1945), received its premiere in Minneapolis, where it was performed by violist William Primrose and the Minneapolis Symphony, conducted by Antal Dorati.    We would note the unfortunate exit, on December 2, 1990, of the composer Aaron Copland.  He died at the age of 90 in North Tarrytown (known today as “Sleepy Hollow”), New York, about 30 miles north of New York City. There’s one more premiere to note, which will occupy the remainder of today’s post.  We mark the premiere, in Boston on December 2, 1949 – the same day as the premiere of Bartók’s Viola Concerto – of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by […]

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Music History Monday: The Grand Journey

On November 18, 1763, 256 years ago today, the Mozart family – father Leopold, mother Anna Maria, daughter Marianne (12 years old) and son Wolfgang (7 years old) – arrived in Paris. They were in the midst of their “Grand Journey”, a 3½ year concert tour of Central and Western Europe that was to change the history of Western music.

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Music History Monday: Disproportionate Numbers and “The Screaming Skull”

We mark the birth, on October 21, 1912 – 107 years ago today – of the Hungarian-born pianist and conductor György Stern (better known as Sir Georg Solti) in Budapest, Hungary. Considered one of the greatest conductors to have ever lived, Solti is the Michael Phelps, the Simone Biles of the musical world, having received a record 31(!) GRAMMY® Awards.

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Music History Monday: Der Bingle

We mark the death on October 14, 1977 – 42 years ago today – of the American singer and actor Harry Lillis “Bing” Crosby of a so-called “widow maker”: a massive, dead-before-he-hit-the-ground heart attack. We sense that he went out the way he would have chosen to go out.

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