Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for The Great Courses

Music History Monday: Frankie and Johnny, and Helen and Lee

I am aware that Valentine’s Day is already 5 days past, but darned if the romantic warm ‘n’ fuzzies aren’t still lingering with me like a rash from poison oak. As such, I will be excused for offering up what I will admit is a belated, but nevertheless Valentine’s Day-related post. Gratitude We should all be grateful that the following Valentine’s Day-related post is not on the lines of those blogs I wrote in 2010 and 2011, blogs written for various websites in my attempt to drum up sales for my Great Courses/Teaching Company Courses. For example, I wrote a couple of Valentine’s Day-themed blogs in 2011, one for Huffpost and the other for J-Date, as in “Jewish-Dating.” For those posts – entitled “Romantic Music” – I was tasked with recommending appropriately “romantic” music for an intimate, tête-à-tête Valentine’s Day evening. This is how they began: “Fresh flowers, chilled champagne, and a candlelight dinner for two; the stereotypical trappings of a successful Valentine’s Day evening. But the sensual menu is still incomplete: smell, taste, touch, and sight are covered, but proper sound is still wanting. Yes indeed, music, the purported feast of the gods, the indispensable aural lubricant for romance, […]

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Music History Monday: Unauthorized Use

February 12 is one of those remarkable days in music history, remarkable for all the notable events that took place on this day. So: before getting to our featured topic, let us acknowledge some of those events and share some links to previous Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes posts that dealt with those events. On this day in 1812, Beethoven’s student (and friend), the Austrian composer, pianist, and teacher Carl Czerny (1791-1857) performed as the soloist in the premiere of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, the “Emperor.” Czerny was the subject of Music History Monday on July 15, 2019. We wish a heartfelt farewell to the German pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, who died on this date in Cairo, Egypt in 1894, at the age of 64. Von Bülow was the subject of both Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes just last month, on January 8 and 9,respectively. Birthday greetings to the American composer Roy Harris (1898-1979), who was born on this date in 1898 in Chandler, Oklahoma. Harris and his Symphony No. 3 were featured in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post on April 9, 2019. On February 12, 1924 – exactly 100 […]

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Music History Monday: Getting Back to Work!

On February 5, 1887 – 137 years ago today – Giuseppe Verdi’s 25th and second-to-last opera, Otello, received its premiere at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.  The premiere was the single greatest triumph in Verdi’s sensational career.  But it was a premiere – and an opera – that was a long time coming. Background He was born on October 10, 1813, in the sticks: in the tiny village of Le Roncole, in the northern Italian province of Parma.   Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, received its premiere at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in November 1839, when Verdi was 26 years old.  Oberto was a modest success – it received 13 performances – and based on its success, the management at La Scala offered Verdi a contract to compose three more operas.  Verdi had begun his second opera – a comedy called A King for a Day – when catastrophe struck: he lost his wife and two young children to disease during a horrific, 20-month span between 1839 and 1840.  Rendered nearly insane by the deaths, Verdi nevertheless battled through his grief and managed to complete A King for a Day.  The opera received its premiere on September 5, […]

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Music History Monday: Idomeneo

We mark the premiere on January 29, 1781 – 243 years ago today – of Wolfgang Mozart’s opera Idomeneo, Re di Creta (“Idomeneo, King of Crete”).  With a libretto by Giambattista Varesco (1735-1805), which was adapted from a French story by Antoine Danchet (1671-1748), itself based on a play written in 1705 by the French tragedian Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (1674 -1762; that’s a lot of writing credits!), Idomeneo received its premiere at the Cuvilliés Theatre in Munich, Germany.  Idomeneo was a hit, and it constitutes not just Mozart’s first operatic masterwork but, by consensus, the single greatest Italian-language opera seria ever composed! Setting the Biographical Scene On January 15th, 1779, the 23-year-old Wolfgang Mozart returned home to Salzburg after having been away for 15 months.  His trip, which had taken him primarily to Mannheim and Paris, had been both a professional and personal disaster.  He had left Salzburg with his mother, filled with high hopes, high spirits, and dreams of finding a permanent job and romance.  He returned without his mother (who had died in Paris), without a job, without any money, and without the young woman he had met and fallen in love with during the trip (one Aloysia […]

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Music History Monday: Johannes Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1

We mark the premiere on January 22, 1859 – 165 years ago today – of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, in the German city of Hanover. No other work by Brahms caused him such effort; never before or after did he so agonize over a piece, working and reworking it over and over again. Background On October 1, 1853, the 20-year-old Johannes Brahms showed up at the door of Robert and Clara Schumann’s house in Düsseldorf, in the Rhineland.  At the time, Brahms was pretty much a complete unknown outside of his hometown of Hamburg.  He was visiting the Schumann’s at the behest of the violinist and conductor Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) who, although only two years older than Brahms, was already world famous.   Physically, the young Brahms looked virtually nothing like the bearded, portly, cigar-smoking, bear-like dude of his later years; at twenty he was described as being: “a shy, awkward, nearsighted young man, blonde, delicate, almost wispy, boyish in appearance as well as in manner (the beard was still 22 years away) and with a voice whose high pitch was a constant embarrassment to him.” This 20-year-old kid might not have looked like our familiar image of […]

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Music History Monday: American Pie

On January 15, 1972 – 52 years ago today – Don McLean’s folk-rock song American Pie began what would eventually be a four-week stay at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  The song made the singer, songwriter, and guitarist Don McLean (born 1945) very famous and very rich, and it is considered by many to be one of the greatest songs ever written. No One is Perfect Not a one of us is perfect, and that goes double/triple/quadruple for me.  I eat ice cream right out of the carton before putting it back in the freezer, and will guzzle club soda and tonic water out of the bottle before putting it back in the fridge. I will lick a knife with cream cheese or peanut butter on it, lest any of it go to waste, and I will observe my personal ten-to-fifteen second rule when I drop food on the floor (providing one of the cats hasn’t gotten to it first).  I don’t always turn my socks right-side-out before putting them in the washing machine, and I have been known to forget to water the plants even when I’ve been reminded to do so. (Regarding the freaking plants: […]

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Music History Monday: Pianist, Conductor, Composer, and a Cuckold for the Ages

We mark the birth on January 8, 1830 – 196 years ago today – of the German pianist, conductor, composer, and cuckold, Hans Guido von Bülow.  Born in the Saxon capital of Dresden, he died in a hotel in Cairo, Egypt, on February 12, 1894, at the age of 64.  Poor Hans von Bülow.  He was one of the top pianists and conductors of his time.  His career was closely associated with some of the greatest composers of all time, including Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.  Famous for his devastating wit and ability to turn a phrase, it was Bülow who coined the alliterative trio of “Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.” Sadly, for all of his many accomplishments and deserved renown, he remains best known today (in no small measure because of scandal-mongering sensationalists like myself) as one of the great cuckolds of all time, right up there with myself (cuckolded by my college girlfriend Maureen Makler and an Israeli guy named Avi Luzon); Eddie Fisher (cuckolded by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), and Henry VIII (cuckolded, or so we are told, by Ann Boleyn and a wide assortment of various courtiers and hangers-on).  Bummer all the way around, […]

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Music History Monday: The “Amusa”

On December 11, 1721 – 302 years ago today – Johann Sebastian Bach’s employer, the 27-year-old Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (1694-1728), married the 19-year-old Friederica Henrietta of Anhalt-Bernburg (1702-1723).  She was the fourth daughter (and youngest child) of Charles Frederick, Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg (1668-1721) and his first wife, Sophie Albertine of Solms-Sonnenwalde (1672-1708). We can only hope that the kids enjoyed their wedding, because, sadly, their marriage was not fated to last for very long. (Allow me, please, a small bit of editorial bloviation. Speaking as a lower middle-class American kid born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in South Jersey – meaning someone with zero tolerance for all this royalty stuff – I find all of these puffed-up hereditary royals insufferable in both their titles and their actions.  Among the actions of the literally hundreds of “princes” and “princesses” of the Holy Roman Empire was to intermarry, for generations, with other such “people of quality,” meaning their cousins.  A brief look at their life spans – which are, indeed, representative of their “class” – reveals how well that turned out.  Bach’s beloved boss, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, lived for all of 33 years.   Leopold’s father, Emmanuel Lebrecht of […]

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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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Music History Monday: Richard Strauss, Stanley Kubrick, Friedrich Nietzsche, and “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”

On November 27, 1896 – 127 years ago today – Richard Strauss conducted the premiere performance of his sprawling orchestral tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the German city of Frankfurt.  Requests A momentary and applicable (if gratuitous) diversion.  Over the course of the first half of my musical life I played a lot of gigs, both in bands and as a solo piano player.  The bands ranged from fairly high end to not fairly high end.  The best band I ever played with was led by the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz; the worst was a disco band the name of which will remain my little secret.  The first band in which I played was a rock ‘n’ roll garage band called “Cold Sun” and the last was a Berkeley, California-based Klezmer group called “Hot Borscht.” (“Cold Sun” and “Hot Borscht”: temperature challenged tags in both cases.) As a solo player I’ve played pretty much every sort of gig, from cocktail parties, weddings, sing-a-longs, awards shows, and receptions to a long-running gig at a long defunct restaurant in Oakland, California, called The Pewter House. I played at The Pewter House, in 1978 and 1979, on Friday and Saturday evenings.  It […]

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