Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for The Great Courses

Music History Monday: Boogie Fever

On June 24, 1374 – 650 years ago today – the men, women, and children of the Rhineland city of Aachen began to dash out of their houses and into the streets, where – inexplicably, compulsively, and uncontrollably – they began to twist and twirl, jump and shake, writhe and twitch until they dropped from exhaustion or, in some cases, just plain dropped dead.  It was a real-life disco inferno, true boogie-fever stuff: the first (but not the last) major occurrence of what would come to be known as the “dancing plague (or mania)” or “choreomania,” which soon enough spread across Europe. There had been small outbreaks of the “dancing plague” before, going back as far as the seventh century.  An outbreak in the thirteenth century – in 1237 – saw a group of children jump and dance all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in what today is central Germany, a distance of some 13 miles. It was an event that is believed to have inspired the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. But the outbreak in Aachen 650 years ago today was big.  Before it was over, thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children had taken […]

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Music History Monday: Unsung Heroes

We mark the death on June 17, 2014 – an even 10 years ago today – of the Grammy Award winning American record producer and Director of Columbia Masterworks Recordings John Taylor McClure.  McClure was born in Rahway, New Jersey on June 28, 1929, and died in Belmont Vermont at the age of 84, 11 days short of his 85th birthday. Record Producers The title of this post says it all: “Unsung Heroes.” It is my experience that unless someone has personally been involved in creating a recording, it’s pretty much impossible to appreciate the amount of work a producer puts into the process and the degree to which the producers’ own musical taste, musical proclivities, and musicality influence the final product.  The front of a record jacket or CD case might bear the image of a composer or performer, and the producer’s name might appear in the tiniest of print on the lower left-hand corner of the back of the jacket, but in fact – in terms of their singular impact on a recording – the producer should, by all rights, be pictured on the front of the album side-by-side with whomever else the producer deems worthy of joining […]

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Music History Monday: Let Us Quaff from the Cup: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

On June 10, 1865 – 159 years ago today – Richard Wagner’s magnificent and groundbreaking music drama Tristan und Isolde received its premiere in Munich under the baton of Hans von Bülow (whose wife, Cosima Liszt von Bülow, Wagner was enthusiastically shtupping at the same time).  Oh Goodness; Did I Just Write That? I did.  I know, right?  Here I am, introducing Tristan und Isolde – one of the most awesome, incredible works of art ever created – and I still couldn’t resist a cheap dig at Wagner the person.  As we have discussed in the past and will do so again, the same personality flaws that made Richard Wagner an often despicable narcissist allowed him the conceit to reject the operatic clichés and conventions of his time and to create a body of dramatic musical art unfathomable in its originality, beauty, dramatic power, and imagination. Of course, had he not been the towering genius he was, and had he not risked everything – including his sanity, over and over again – to create his unparalleled body of work, well, he would just have been another loathsome crank, writing nasty letters to newspaper editors and shouting at people in the […]

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Music History Monday: Ludwig von Köchel and the Seemingly Impossible Task

We mark the death on June 3, 1877 – 147 years ago today – of the Austrian lawyer, botanist, geologist, teacher, writer, publisher, composer, and “musicologist” Ludwig Alois Friedrich Ritter (“Ritter” meaning “Knight”) von Köchel, of cancer, in Vienna.  Born on January 14, 1800, he was 77 years old at the time of his death. Ludwig Köchel and the Archduke Herr Köchel wasn’t born a “Ritter” – a “knight” – a “von” – with all the privileges and perks that such a title brought.  Rather, he was born to the middle class in the Lower Austrian town of Krems an der Donau (meaning “At the junction of the Kremas and Danube Rivers”) some 43 miles west of Vienna. Smart and ambitious, he studied law in Vienna and went on to earn a Ph.D. in 1827, at the age of 27. Köchel was a polymath, someone who knew a lot about a lot of things.  As such, despite having a law degree, he chose a career as a teacher.  But he was not just any teacher, and he didn’t teach just any students.  For 15 years, Köchel was the tutor to the four sons of Archduke Charles of Austria. This requires […]

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Music History Monday: “Inappropriate”

There Must Be Something in the Air Have any of you done – or anticipate doing – anything particularly foolish today, anything particularly inappropriate? If you do, know that you will be in good company.  Perhaps it’s the angle of the sun; perhaps it’s something in the air or water, because as dates go, May 27 is ripe with musical stories and actions that we shall deem as being “inappropriate.” For example. On May 27, 1964 – 60 years ago today – four of the eleven 16-year-old boys suspended from Woodlands Comprehensive School in Coventry, UK, for having Mick Jagger haircuts complied with their headmaster’s demand that they cut their hair, and returned to school.  The other seven lads put their hair (or at least the allegiance to Mick Jagger!) before their schooling and remained suspended.  According to an article in the Coventry Evening Telegraph: “their headmaster Mr. Donald Thompson has said that he would not object if they returned to school with a ‘neat Beatle cut.’            Mr. Thompson told the Coventry Evening Telegraph today that he was not against boys having modern hair styles, but he did object to the ‘scruffy, long hair style of the Rolling Stones with hair curling into […]

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Music History Monday: A Difficult Life

Before we get to the principal topic of today’s post, we must note an operatic disaster that had nothing to do with singers or the opera being performed on stage.  Rather, it was a disaster that inspired Gaston Leroux to write the novel The Phantom of the Opera, which was published in 1909. On May 20, 1896 – 128 years ago today – a counterweight helping to hold up the six-ton chandelier at Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera House fell into the audience during a performance of Étienne-Joseph Floquet’s opera Hellé (composed in 1779).  We don’t know how the opera performance was going, but the counterweight was a big hit: one woman in the audience was killed and a number of other audience members were badly injured. The disaster was covered by a reporter for the Parisian daily Le Matin named Gaston Leroux (1868-1927).  The accident – to say nothing for the Paris Opera House itself and the lake beneath it – made quite an impression on Monsieur Leroux. About that underground “lake.” Writing in The New York Times on January 24, 2023, Sam Lubell tells us that: “When digging the foundations [for the Paris Opera House], workers hit a hidden arm of the Seine, […]

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Music History Monday: What Day is Today?

We recognize May 13th as being, among other “days” here in the United States, National Frog Jumping Day, Leprechaun Day, International Hummus Day, National Crouton Day, and – wait for it – World Cocktail Day! National Days, Weeks, and Months! Who creates these damned things? We’ll get to that in a moment.  But first, let’s distinguish between a national holiday and a national day (or week or month). In the United States, national (or “federal”) holidays are designated by Congress and/or the President.  There are presently a total of ten national/federal holidays, meaning that federal employees get to take the day off.  However, anyone can declare a national day (or week or month).  The trick is getting enough people to buy into the “day” that it actually gains some traction and has some meaning.  Such national days are created by advocacy groups; lobbying groups; industry groups; government bodies; even individuals. According to the “National Day Calendar,” today, May 13, 2024, is – along with those “days” listed at the top of this post – National Women’s Checkup Day; National Fruit Cocktail Day; and National Apple Pie Day.  May 13 of this year is also the first day of Bike to Work Week; of […]

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Music History Monday: The Evolution of Western Pop Music: USA (1960-2010)

We mark the public release, on May 6, 2015 – nine years ago today – of a scientific/statistical study published by The Royal Society Open Science Journal, a study entitled “The Evolution of Western Pop Music: USA (1960-2010).” Scoff not, my friends: this was, in fact, a high-end study conducted (and written up) by four high-end scientists: Dr. Matthias Mauch, of the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Queen Mary University of London, whose current professional title is “Research Manager for Recommender Systems and Music Intelligence at Apple Music”; Dr. Robert M. MacCallum, who teaches in the Division of Life Sciences at Imperial College, London; Dr. Mark Levy, a former research assistant at the Centre for Digital Music at the University of London and for the last three years a principal research scientist at Apple, where he researches potential future applications of machine learning to music creation and listening; and finally, Armand M. Leroi, a professor of evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College in London. Scary fine creds on display here: up, down, and sideways. The study’s abstract is as follows.  I figure it’s better to get it directly from the quartet of Mauch, MacCallum, Levy, and Leroi than […]

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Music History Monday: The Duke

We mark the birth of The Duke on April 29, 1899 – 125 years ago today – in Washington D.C.  By “The Duke,” we are not here referring to the actor John Wayne (who was born on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa), but rather, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, one of the greatest songwriters and composers ever to be born in the United States.   Aside from their shared nickname, it would appear that the only thing Duke Ellington had in common with John Wayne was that they both suffered from lung cancer.  In Ellington’s case, cancer killed him at the age of 75 on May 24, 1974, at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City (and not at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, as is inexplicably claimed on certain web sites!). Born in Washington D.C., he grew up at 2129 Ida Place (now Ward Place) NW, in the district’s West End neighborhood. His father, James Edward Ellington, worked as a blueprint maker for the Navy Department and on occasion as a butler, sometimes at the White House.  His mother, Daisy (born Kennedy) was the daughter of formerly enslaved people.  Theirs was a musical household; both […]

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Music History Monday: One of the Really Good Guys

We mark the birth on April 22, 1916 – 108 years ago today – of one of the really good guys of twentieth century music: the American-British violinist, conductor, and teacher Yehudi Menuhin. A reminder: because of my trip to Vienna, I am still – for this week – posting abbreviated Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes posts.  I can assure you that this hurts me more than it does you; not presently having the time and wherewithal to expand (as is my chronic wont) on Maestro Menuhin is causing me no small bit of spiritual and emotional damage. I will cope, but poorly. Yehudi Mnuchin was born into a family of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in New York City on April 22, 1916. In 1918, the family moved to San Francisco and in the following year, 1919, the Mnuchins became American citizens and changed their name to Menuhin. It was in San Francisco (and here in Oakland, where at the age of seven he made his professional debut at the Oakland Auditorium, on February 29, 1924) that Menuhin grew up as a spectacular child prodigy violinist.  He made his New York debut at the age of nine on March 17, 1926, and his first solo recordings in […]

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