Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for The Great Courses

Music History Monday: Puff the Magic Dragon

Before getting to the Puffster, I’d like us to recognize three other noteworthy musical events that have fallen on this date. On March 16, 1736 – 284 years ago today – the Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi died in Pozzuoli Italy, a city that today is part of metropolitan Naples. Pergolesi passed away at the utterly obscene age of 26. He was born in Jesi, in central Italy not far from the Adriatic Sea. He spent his professional life – what there was of it – in Naples, where he experienced great success. He died of tuberculosis and, according to one source, “his ill health was probably due to his notorious profligacy”. Profligate or not, he was amazingly talented, and his early death robbed us all of someone special. We’re reminded of Schubert’s epitaph, written by Franz Grillparzer: “Music here has buried a rich treasure, but still fairer hopes.” On this day in 1947 – 73 years ago today – the coloratura soprano Margaret Truman (1924-2008), the daughter of then-President Harry Truman, made her professional radio debut when she sang with the Detroit Symphony. Ms. Truman continued to perform on stage, radio, and television through 1956. In the early years of […]

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Music History Monday: Unspeakable Catastrophe and Unqualified Triumph!

We mark the first performance on March 9, 1842 – 178 years ago today – of Giuseppe Verdi’s third opera and first operatic masterwork, Nabucco, at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813-1901) was born on either the ninth or tenth of October 1813, in the north-central Italian village of Le Roncole in the Duchy of Parma.  At the time, the Duchy of Parma was part of Napoleon’s “First French Empire” and as such Verdi’s birth name was recorded in French as “Joseph Fortunin François”. Thus, this great Italian patriot was born– much to his later annoyance – as a citizen of France. Verdi’s family moved to nearby Busseto when he was still a child, and it was there that Verdi acquired the padrone – the patron – who would shape his life: a wealthy merchant named Antonio Barezzi. Barezzi paid for Verdi’s musical education, arranged for Verdi’s first full-time music position (as Busetto’s “town music master”), and sponsored Verdi’s first public performance. But even more, Antonio Barezzi “gave” Verdi the greatest gift any father can give, and that was the hand of his daughter Margherita; the two were married on May 4, 1836. Margherita in turn […]

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Music History Monday: M’Lord Falstaff

We mark the death, in Vienna, on March 2, 1830 – 190 years ago today – of the violinist and conductor Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Born in Vienna on November 20, 1776, he was 53 at the time of his death, reportedly of “paralysis”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Speaking generally but accurately, a measure of professional contentment can be hard to come by in the professional musical world. That’s because a professional career – for composers and performers alike – consists (particularly early in our careers when we are most vulnerable) of a seemingly endless sequence of (often failed) auditions; rejection; criticism (sometimes fair but more usually unfair); rejection; scratching out a living that is in no way commensurate with one’s talents and skills; and rejection. (Did I remember to mention “rejection”?) Sure, what audiences see and hear during a concert performance are skilled musicians, playing their hearts out and receiving – in the end – applause for a job well done. But hang out afterward and scratch the scab that is any professional musician’s psyche, and the frustration will likely spurt forth like goobers from a lanced boil. One will rarely – if ever – meet a professional musician who, […]

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Music History Monday: The Game Changer

We mark the first performance on February 24, 1607 – 413 years ago today – of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo, in Mantua, Italy. I suppose I should apologize. I have been advised, gently but firmly, to diversify these Music History Monday posts as much as possible: to spread the topics around by focusing on relatively “contemporary musical events” (a euphemism for “popular musical events”) as well as on concert music and opera. And this I have done, as best as I can. For example, we celebrated the great Broadway composer Richard Rodgers on December 30; we discussed the fortunate/unfortunate patenting of the accordion on January 13; we dined on bat tartare together with Ozzy Osbourne on January 20.  Certainly, there is no shortage of (relatively) contemporary musical events we could celebrate here on February 24. For example, on February 24, 1965, the Beatles began filming the movie Help in the Bahamas. On February 24, 1978, “The Second Barry Manilow Special” was broadcast on ABC-TV with guest star Ray Charles (OMG; be still our hearts!).  On February 24, 1988 the delightful Alice Cooper (born 1948) announced he would run for Governor of the great state of Arizona as a member of […]

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Music History Monday: The Case Against Madama Butterfly

We mark the world premiere performance on February 17, 1904 – 116 years ago today – of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly at the storied opera house of La Scala, in the Italian city of Milan. I would tell you a story. Some 34 years ago my first wife and I attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at the San Francisco Opera (I know it was that long ago because my wife was pregnant with our first child, my daughter Rachel. Having mentioned Rachel, or Rocqui as she is known to me, I would play the supreme bore and note that she and her husband Jon delivered up our first grandchild in December. Her name is Celeste Marigold Shahvar, and her royal adorableness is pictured below.) Pardon me my distraction. Back to where we were: some 34 years ago my first wife and I attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at the San Francisco Opera. Sitting behind us were four guys; my guess is that they were in their early-to-mid 40’s. We chatted a bit. They told us that they were something of an opera club, and that as their partners didn’t share their operatic passion, they attended with each […]

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Music History Monday: It Ain’t Over Until the Fat Man Sings!

We would note two major events on this day from the world of opera. We will mark the first event in a moment; the second event – which constitutes the body and soul of this post – will be observed only after we’ve had a chance to do some prep. We mark the birth on February 10, 1927 – 93 years ago today – of the glorious soprano Leontyne Price. (More than just a soprano, Price in her prime was a lyric-spinta, or “pushed lyric soprano”, meaning that she had all the high notes of a lyric soprano but could also push her voice to realize dramatic climaxes without any strain. The great lyric-spinta roles include Aida, Desdemona from Verdi’s Otello, the Marschallin from Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier, and Floria Tosca.) Every inch the true diva (in the best sense), Price is alive and we trust well at her home in Columbia, Maryland. Happy birthday, you stunning goddess you.  Preliminaries A “malaprop” (or “malapropism”) “is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, sometimes humorous utterance.” “Gibberish” (a.k.a. jibber-jabber or gobbledygook) is a tad different; it is defined as […]

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Music History Monday: A Model of Utopian Perfection to this Day!

We mark the presumed birth on February 3, 1525 – 495 years ago today – of the Rome-based Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Unlike virtually every other great composer of the Renaissance, a list of which includes such formidable names as Josquin des Prez, William Byrd, Giovanni Gabrieli, Guillaume Dufay, Orlande de Lassus, and Johannes Ockeghem, Palestrina’s name, reputation, and music have never faded from view since his death in 1593. The staying power of his name, reputation, and music can be attributed to three of factors, all of which will be explored in today’s Music History Monday post and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post (which can be accessed at Patreon.com/RobertGreenbergMusic). These factors are, one, Palestrina’s posthumous reputation as the ostensible “savior” of Catholic church music during the conservative, austere artistic climate of the Counter Reformation (which will be discussed in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes); two, his personal compositional style, which was (and still is) embraced as a paradigm of utopian perfection and has thus been employed in teaching counterpoint since the early seventeenth century; and three (and most importantly), the fact that he wrote a tremendous amount of first rate music, the great bulk of which is sacred.  […]

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Music History Monday: A Day That Can Mean Only One Thing!

We mark the birth on January 27, 1756 – 264 years ago today – of Wolfgang Mozart.  There are certain dates that are so universally recognized that once invoked they can mean only one thing for a majority of people living on this planet. For example. Did we all know that January 1 is, among other things, Apple Gifting Day? It is also Bonza Bottler Day, Copyright Law Day, Ellis Island Day, Global Family Day, National Bloody Mary Day, and Public Domain Day. Did we all know that? And really, do any of us care? Because January 1 is New Year’s Day and every other observance shrinks to insignificance by comparison (excepting, perhaps, “National Bloody Mary Day”). Despite the fact that December 25 is Constitution Day in Taiwan and National Pumpkin Pie Day in the United States, the mention of that date can mean only one thing in much of the world: Christmas Day. May 1 is, in the northern hemisphere, May Day: a traditional celebration of spring. Planet wide, it is International Workers’ Day.  Since at least the fourteenth century, April 1 has been “international prank day”: April Fool’s Day. From its beginnings as a Celtic harvest festival, Halloween […]

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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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