Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for The Great Courses

Music History Monday: In a Class by Himself

We mark the birth on September 25, 1932 – 91 years ago today – of the pianist Glenn Herbert Gold, in Toronto, Canada.  (Yes, the surname on “Glenn Gould’s” birth certificate is “Gold.”  When the young guy was seven years old his family began informally using the surname “Gould,” though Glenn himself never formally changed his name from “Gold” to “Gould.”)  He died there in Toronto on October 4, 1982, at the age of fifty. Superlatives Cut Two Ways! I would observe that ordinarily, when we refer to someone as being “in a class by themselves,” it is usually understood as a compliment: that someone is “one of a kind”; “unique”; “sui generis”; “without equal”; sans pareil”; and so forth. But in fact, superlatives such as these can cut two ways, and are consequently not necessarily complimentary in their entirety.   For example. Tyrus Raymond “Ty” Cobb (1886-1961), the so-called “Georgia Peach” was – as I trust we all know – a baseball player during the Deadball Era (circa 1900-1920).  He was a transcendent baseball genius (as you know, I do not use the “g-word” – genius – lightly); he was truly “one of a kind”; “unique”; “sui generis”; “without […]

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Music History Monday: Jimi Hendrix and the 27 Club

We mark the death on September 18, 1970 – 53 years ago today – of the American guitarist, singer, and songwriter James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix, at St. Mary Abbots Hospital in London. He was born in Seattle, Washington on November 27, 1942, making him 27 years old at the time of his death, something we will discuss later in this post. Creating and Mastering a New Idiom “Top ten” lists are entirely subjective and thus often irrelevant. But they can be informative when they agree and as such, indicate a consensus. Here are a few such lists of rock ‘n’ roll guitarists, in which I’ve cut to the chase and listed only the “top four.” Rolling Stone, “100 Greatest [Rock] Guitarists”: Writing in Rolling Stone, the American guitarist, singer, songwriter, and political activist Tom Morello explains: “Jimi Hendrix exploded our idea of what rock music could [italics mine] be. His playing was effortless. There’s not one minute of his recorded career that feels like he’s working hard at it – it feels like it’s all flowing through him. He seamlessly weaves chords and single note runs together and uses chord voicings that don’t appear in any music book. His riffs […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Charles-Valentin Alkan

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post acknowledged the strange and by any measure, stupid death of Charles-Valentin Alkan on March 29, 1888. (You needn’t flip back to yesterday’s Music History Monday; we’ll recount Alkan’s “death by umbrella rack” later in this post.) By the time Charles-Valentin Alkan died in Paris on March 29, 1888, at the age of 74, his decades-long self-imposed isolation had effectively removed him from public consciousness. According to his obituary in the influential Parisian music journal Le Ménestral: “Charles-Valentin Alkan just died. It was necessary for him to die in order to suspect his existence. [He was] an artist infinitely greater than thousands of his more celebrated and praised contemporaries.” Damn straight. Born on November 30, 1813, in Paris, Alkan (born Charles-Valentine Morhange) was a prodigiously gifted pianist and composer. Pianistically, both Chopin and Liszt considered him their equal. (According to the English music writer and critic Jeremy Nichols [born 1947], Alkan had: “a keyboard technique that even Liszt admitted was the greatest he had ever known.” As I’ve not been able to substantiate that statement from another source, I’ve put it here in parentheses.) The virtuoso pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow described Alkan as being: […]

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Music History Monday: On the Spectrum

We mark the birth on September 4, 1824 – 199 years ago today – of the composer and organist Josef Anton Bruckner, in the Austrian village of Ansfelden, which today is a suburb of the city of Linz.  He died in the Austrian capital of Vienna on October 11, 1896, at the age of 72. It was Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) who famously said that Bruckner was: “Half simpleton, half God.” Strangeness I would be so bold as to suggest that there is such a thing as a “strangeness spectrum,” a scale of personality oddness that stretches from the merely quirky to the genuinely weird.  If we were to consider such a spectrum as a scale from one to ten, with one being “quirky” (or idiosyncratic); five being “eccentric” (or odd); and ten being really “weird” (or bizarre), then the personality of the composer and organist Anton Bruckner would lie at about an eleven: an off-the-charts “downright whacky” (and even, at times, unnervingly creepy). I know, I know: many of you are probably thinking something on the lines of “so what? He was a professional composer.  Show me a major composer besides, perhaps, Joseph Haydn and Antonin Dvořák who wasn’t a […]

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Music History Monday: Lohengrin

We mark the premiere performance on August 28, 1850 – 173 years ago today – of Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, in the central German city of Weimar.   The premiere was conducted by none-other-than Wagner’s friend and supporter (and future father-in-law!) Franz Liszt (1811-1886).  Liszt had chosen the premiere date of August 28 in honor of Weimar’s most famous citizen, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was born on August 28, 1749, 101 years to the day before Lohengrin’s premiere.  The “opera” – the last of Wagner’s stage works to be designated by him as being an “opera” – was brilliantly received and has been a mainstay of the international repertoire since that first performance. Alas, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was not in attendance there at the premiere.  With a price on his head, he had been de-facto exiled from Germany thanks to his activities in the Dresden Uprising of May of 1849.  Wagner did not hear a full performance of Lohengrin until 1861, 11 years later, in Vienna. Be informed that both today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes posts will deal with Lohengrin.  Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes will focus on three video performances, comparing video excerpts from each […]

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Music History Monday: Where is the “Sin” in “Synthesizer?: Robert Moog and “Synthetic” Sound

We mark the death on August 21, 2005 – 18 years ago today – of the American engineer and electronic music pioneer Robert Moog.  Born in New York City on May 23, 1934, he died of a brain tumor in Asheville, North Carolina, at the age of 71. First things first: let us pronounce this fine man’s surname properly.  It is not pronounced as “moo-g.”  “Moo-g” is a sound made by a cow after she painfully stubs her hoof.  Despite its double-o, the name is pronounced “mogue,” as in “vogue.” Moog didn’t invent the sound synthesizer.  Rather, he (and his inventing “partners,” the composer Herbert Arnold “Herb” Deutsch, 1932-2022 and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Wendy Carlos, born 1939) democratized the thing, making it affordable, portable, and playable enough to be bought and used by anyone who could get around a piano-like keyboard. Our Game Plan Today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes posts are conceived as a single post, one that I’ve divided in half and will post on two successive days.  As my Patreon subscribers know, I’ve done this before; it’s no big deal and I will certainly do it again.  However, for those of you […]

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Music History Monday: Worst. Timing. Ever

On August 14, 1962 – 61 years ago today – the manager of the Beatles Brian Epstein made a phone call to the drummer Ringo Starr, inviting him to join the band.  As I suspect we are all aware, Starr said “yes.”   Two days later, on August 16, Epstein had the unenviable task of firing the band’s present drummer, Randolph Peter “Pete” Best (born Randolph Peter Scanland, 1941), who had been the Beatles’ drummer for almost exactly two years, since August 1960.  Best’s firing, effective on August 18, 1962, was, for Best, the worst timing ever.  17 days later, on September 4, 1962, a reconfigured Beatles with Ringo Starr as drummer recorded their first #1 hit and went from nobodies to superstars in the span of a few weeks. Pete Best (Born 1941) Peter Best was born on November 24, 1941, in Madras, which was then part of British India.  His father, a marine engineer named Donald Peter Scanland, died during World War Two.  Pete’s mother Mona went on to marry a British officer from Liverpool named Johnny Best, with whom she had a second son, this one named Rory.  In 1945, the Best family returned to Britain on […]

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Music History Monday: All Hail The King!

We mark an online auction that concluded on August 7, 2008 – 15 years ago today – at which Elvis Presley’s white, sweat-stained, high-collared, plunging V-necked jumpsuit, decorated with a dazzling, hand-embroidered blue and gold peacock – sold for $300,000.  (Because I know you want to know, the jumpsuit is cinched at the waist by a wide belt decorated in gold medallions in a design meant to resemble the eye of a peacock feather, all of it an ongoing reflection of Elvis’ fascination with peacocks as being his personal good luck symbol.) The outfit cost Elvis a cool $10,000.  It was designed by the Los Angeles couturier Bill Belew (1931-2008), who designed all of The King’s stage wardrobe between 1968 and 1977. Talk about provenance (something we’ll define and discuss in just a bit)!  Aside from Elvis’ personal sweat stains (do they still . . . give off an odor?), he performed wearing the jumpsuit for the better part of a year.  Elvis first wore the “peacock” at a concert at the Forum in Los Angeles on May 11, 1974.  He then performed wearing it in Las Vegas and wore it as well on the cover of his album “Promised […]

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Music History Monday: Nepo Babies

Before we get to the actual date-related topic for today, I beg your indulgence, as I need to tell you a story.  It’s a story that most of you know, at least in part. Again, indulge me. The Godfather III – the third film in the storied Godfather franchise, released in 1990 – was one of the most anticipated films of all time.  And no wonder: the first of the Godfather movies – The Godfather, or “G1”, released in 1972 – was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and received three, including Best Picture and Best Actor (for Marlon Brando). G2, released two years later in 1974 was also nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning six of them, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (for Robert DeNiro).   So G3 – The Godfather III – had a lot riding on it. Much of the casting was easy.  Al Pacino returned in the role of Michael Corleone; Diane Keaton in the role of Kaye Corleone; and Talia Shire in the role of Connie Corleone. But there were new roles to fill, none more important than Mary Corleone, the now grown-up daughter of the “godfather” himself, Michael Corleone. G3’s writer and director, […]

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Music History Monday: Ernest Bloch

We mark the birth on July 24, 1880 – 143 years ago today – of the Swiss-born American composer and educator Ernest Bloch, who was born in Geneva, Switzerland.  He died in Portland, Oregon, on July 15, 1959, at the age of 78. Establishing a Genealogy People trace their family trees for all sorts of reasons: to establish family connections, to collect family medical information, to meet other people engaged in such research, and so forth.  But at the root (pun intended) of these (and other) reasons to establish a family tree is the issue of self-identity: the desire to connect with oneself by connecting with one’s ancestors: learning what we can of who they were; where they came from; what sort of lives they led; and what they accomplished. With the advent of genetic testing sites like “23 and Me,” “AncestryDNA,” “LivingDNA,” and “HomeDNA,” the whole family tree trip has taken a crazy-giant step forward, in that our family trees have gone from saplings to 400-year-old oaks. A couple of years ago, bored to death during the pandemic and unable to resist any longer, my wife and I were so tested using the site “23 and Me.”  Here are […]

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