Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for The Great Courses – Page 2

Music History Monday: A Debussy Discovery!

Before getting into the date specific event/discovery that drives today’s post, permit me, please, to tell the story of the greatest manuscript discovery of all time.  The ancient city of Jerusalem sits at nearly 2,700 feet above sea level.  Less than 15 miles south of Jerusalem sits the Dead Sea, which at 1,300 feet below sea level is the lowest point on earth.   In November of 1946, three Bedouin shepherds – Muhammed edh-Dhib, his cousin Jum’a Muhammed, and his friend Khalil Musa – were looking for a stray goat (or sheep; the story shifts) around the cliffs at the northern end of the Dead Sea.  According to the story they told, Muhammed edh-Dhib threw a rock into a cave on the side of a cliff, thinking the stray animal was inside and that the rock would chase it out.  Instead of a hearing a frightened bleat, he heard pottery breaking.  Lowering himself into the cave, he found three ancient scrolls wrapped in linen.  Having climbed out of the cave and shown them to his companions, the guys went back into the cave and found four more scrolls, seven in all.  They put them in a bag and, on returning […]

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Music History Monday: The Death of George Gershwin

We mark the death on July 11, 1937 – 85 years ago today – of the American composer and pianist George Gershwin, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.  Born in Brooklyn New York on September 26, 1898, Gershwin was only 38 years old at the time of his death. This is going to be an unavoidably depressing post.  Dealing with anyone’s death is difficult.  Dealing with the death of a young person (and damn, from where I stand, 38 is still a kid) is both difficult and tragic.  When we add to that Gershwin’s dazzling talent and unlimited promise we are forced, as well, to ask “what if . . .?” George Gershwin (1898-1937) George Gershwin had it all.  Tall, athletic, good-looking (in his own lantern-jawed sort of way), he was blessed with preternatural talent.  As someone who had grown up poor on the streets of New York City, he was devoid of snobbery or pretense and could get along with just about anyone.  He suffered no childhood trauma; he adored and was adored by his family and friends and was filled with vitality and an infectious joie de vivre. We are told that given his gifts and effusive […]

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Music History Monday: As American as tarte aux pommes! Celebrating the Fourth with some Real American Music! or Tampering with National Property

We mark the completion on July 4, 1941 – 81 years ago today – of Igor Stravinsky’s reharmonization and orchestration of The Star-Spangled Banner.   Stravinsky in America In September of 1939, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and his long-time mistress Vera de Bosset (1889-1982) arrived in the United States from their home in Paris.  The couple were married in Bedford, Massachusetts six months later, on March 9, 1940. Stravinsky had come to the United States to spend the 1939-1940 academic year at Harvard University, where he was to occupy the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry and deliver six lectures on music that were that year’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures.   By the time the academic year ended in June of 1940, the Stravinskys, Igor and Vera, had no home to return to.  Nazi Germany had occupied Paris on June 14, and France surrendered to Germany 8 days later, on June 22, 1940.   The couple settled in Los Angeles in 1941 and bought a house at 1260 North Wetherly Drive, just above the Sunset Strip, in Hollywood. Stravinsky and Vera would live there for the next 29 years, until his final illness forced a move to New York City.  (For […]

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Music History Monday: The Fabulous Hill Sisters!

Humiliation Before getting to the anniversary we are honoring in today’s Music History Monday post, it is necessary for us to contemplate the painful issue of humiliation. “Humiliation” is a consequence of unjustified shaming, as a result of which one’s social status, public image, and self-esteem are decreased, often quite significantly. Humiliation hurts; humiliation sucks. We are not, for now, going to discuss the seemingly countless ways we can (and have! and will!) be humiliated.  Let us instead – for now – observe the difference between spontaneous humiliation and ritual humiliation. “Spontaneous” humiliations would be those unexpected moments of shaming, bullying, rejection, or deep embarrassment that come out of nowhere and have the emotional and physical impact of a punch to the gut.   “Ritual” humiliations are different, in that we know exactly what’s coming but are powerless to stop them.  Ostracism and its attendant processes – excommunication, shunning, and blackballing, whereby someone is purposely excluded from a community – is a form of ritual humiliation.  “Hazing rituals” are another: those activities that purposely humiliate, degrade, and even risk physical harm to someone wanting to join a group or maintain status within a group.   Then, there is – for […]

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Music History Monday: Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky

We mark the birth on June 20, 1843 – 179 years ago today – of the Russia bass opera singer Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky, in the city of Minsk, which is today the capital of Belarus but was then part of the Russian Empire.  Considered one of the greatest singers of his time, Fyodor Ignatyevich has largely been forgotten because, one, he never recorded and, two, he’s been eclipsed by the fame of his son, the composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). He was born of Polish descent in the “Government (province) of Minsk”, in what had been part of Poland until 1793, when the Russian Empire sliced off and annexed a large chunk of Poland in what is euphemistically called the “second partition of Poland.”  (Today, the “province of Minsk” is part of the “nation” of Belarus, which is advised to mind its P’s and Q’s, as Tsar Putin no more considers Belarus to be separate country than he does Ukraine.  Not that you need me to point this out, but I’ll do it anyway: the “annexation” of Crimea in 2014 and the present attempts to destroy Ukraine and annex the Donbas demonstrate that Russian actions towards its neighbors have not changed […]

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Music History Monday: The Ultimate Fanboy: The Mad King, Ludwig II

We mark the death (the most suspicious death) on June 13, 1886 – 136 years ago today – of the ultimate Richard Wagner fanboy King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The Running Man Richard Wagner was among the least-athletic looking people to ever grace a composing studio or a conductor’s podium.  Depending upon the source, he was between 5’ 3” and 5’ 5” in heights.  His legs were too short for his torso, and his oversized square head was perched on an otherwise frail body.  In his lifetime, an unknown wag referred to him as “that shovel-faced dwarf”, an unkind if not inaccurate description of the man. But despite his physical shortcomings, Wagner – believe it or not – could run like the wind for remarkable distances. These miracles of sustained athleticism were inspired by Wagner’s creditors and/or the law, from which Wagner was forced to flee on a regular basis.   For example, in April of 1836, following the failure of his opera Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love”; for your information, my spell check just tried to change “liebesverbot” to “lobster pot”).Again: in April of 1836, following the failure of his opera Das Liebesverbot in the central German city […]

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Music History Monday: Siegfried Wagner

We mark the birth of Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried Wagner on June 6, 1869 – 163 years ago today – in Lucerne, Switzerland.  Like the sons of so many great men groomed to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, he could never hope to measure up to or escape from his father’s shadow. Cliché We contemplate, for a moment, this thing called a “cliché.” Strictly defined, a cliché is: “an element of an artistic work, saying, or idea that has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.” Granted. But clichés didn’t become the tiresome, oft-repeated, over-used devices that – by definition – they are without carrying within them a kernel of truth. Admittedly, some clichés express stereotypes that may (or may not) be true, but the vast majority of them are analogies that do indeed express truisms.  In fact, when it comes to expressing a truism succinctly, nothing succeeds more quickly that a cliché. For example: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” (Parenthetically, some folks would tell us that “the apple doesn’t fall […]

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Music History Monday: Benjamin Britten War Requiem

We mark the premiere performance on May 30, 1962 – 60 years ago today – of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.  Completed in early 1962, the War Requiem was commissioned to mark the consecration of the “new” Coventry Cathedral, which was built to replace the original fourteenth century cathedral that had been destroyed on the evening and night of November 14 and 15, 1940. Today’s post will deal entirely with the events that led up to the composition of Britten’s War Requiem: the destruction of Coventry’s Cathedral of St. Michael, the extraordinary spirit of forgiveness and redemption that came to be identified with its ruins, and the New Cathedral that was built between 1956 and 1962.  We cannot appreciate the meaning and spirit of Britten’s War Requiem unless we first come to grips with the meaning and spirit of the destruction and rebirth of Coventry Cathedral.  Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will get into the specifics of the Requiem itself, along with a recommended recording of the piece. Coventry and its Cathedral Coventry is a city in the West Midlands of England, 95 miles north-west of London.  Founded by the Romans, by the fourteenth century Coventry had become a major center […]

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Music History Monday: Beethoven and the Human Voice

We mark the premiere on May 23, 1814 – 208 years ago today – of Ludwig van Beethoven’s one-and-only opera, Fidelio, at the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna.  While Beethoven (1770-1827) had composed two preliminary versions of the opera, which had been performed in 1805 and 1806, it is this third and substantially different version that we will hear in the opera house today. It’s an odd but, in this case, an applicable idiom, “red herring.” Literally, a “red herring” is, believe it or not, a red herring (see image above): a dried and smoked herring that’s turned red due to being smoked.  However, for our purposes, a “red herring” is: “something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question. It may be either a logical fallacy or a literary device that leads readers or audiences toward a false conclusion.” The Beethovenian red herring to which we are referring started with the German author, legal scholar, composer, music critic, and artist Ernst Theodor Amadeus (or “E. T. A.”) Hoffman (1776-1822).  Hoffman wrote a lengthy and frankly worshipful appreciation of Beethoven’s instrumental music entitled “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music” in 1813, when Beethoven was in his 43rd year.  In the course of […]

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Music History Monday: The Phoenix Rises!

We mark the opening on May 16, 1792 – 230 years ago today – of Venice’s principal opera house, the Teatro la Fenice, meaning the “The Phoenix Theater.” Excepting, perhaps, the magnificent phallus that is the Washington Monument, dedicated as it is to “The Father of Our Country,” rarely – if ever – will a building be better named than La Fenice, which has risen from the ashes three times. Background The first public opera house – the Teatro San Cassiano – opened in Venice in 1637.  Public opera quickly proved to be tremendously popular and immensely profitable, and Venice – already the tourist capitol, the Las Vegas of the European world – had yet another recreational activity to offer its endless stream of visitors.  By 1700, there were some twenty opera theaters operating  in Venice, cranking out operas the way Hollywood cranked out movies in the pre-television glory days of the 1930s and 1940s.   As the popularity of public opera spread first across Italy and then all of Europe, so opera theaters were built across Europe.  No longer the singular purveyor of public opera, many of Venice’s opera houses closed, so that by 1770 only five remained.  Of […]

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