Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for The Phoenix Symphony

Music History Monday: The Prodigal Son Returns

On September 21, 1962 – 58 years ago today – the composer Igor Stravinsky returned to Russia for the first time in 48 years: he had been gone since 1914. Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882 in the tony summer resort town of Oranienbaum (today known as Lomonosov) on the Gulf of Finland, about 25 miles from St. Petersburg. His father Fyodor Ignatievich Stravinsky (1843-1902) was a well-known opera singer – a bass (oh, how the Russians love their bass singers!) – with the Kyiv Opera and Mariinsky Theater there in Peter. The Stravinsky family was of Russian-Polish heritage, descended, we are told by biographer Steven Walsh: “from a long line of Polish grandees, senators and landowners.” Stravinsky’s mother Anna Kirillovna Stravinskaya (born Kholodovskaya, 1854-1939) was from Kiev, and came from a family hardly less distinguished than her husband’s: landowners from the governing class of 19th century Russia. She numbered among her ancestors distinguished politicians, military officers, noblemen and noblewomen.  Igor Stravinsky grew up in St. Petersburg with his three brothers (two older, one younger), his mother and father, and the servants (as many as five or six), in a large, eight-room, second-story flat at No. 66 […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Bohemian Rhapsody

It was on August 24, 1975 – 45 years ago today – that Queen began recording Bohemian Rhapsody at Rockfield Studio No. 1 in Monmouth, Wales. It would take a total of three weeks to record the song. We are told that Freddie Mercury had “mentally prepared the song beforehand” and thus he directed the sessions. We are also told that Mercury, along with fellow bandmembers Brian May and Roger Taylor, sang their vocal parts pretty much non-stop for “ten to twelve hours a day”, resulting, in the end, in 180-plus separate overdubs (to say nothing for sore throats and hoarse voices!).  I Confess I have been accused of being a critical Pollyanna, of heaping praise on every work and performance I write about; of employing such adjectives as “brilliant”, and “amazing”, and “outstanding”, and “singular”, and “awesome”, and “astonishing”, and “extraordinary” to a frankly tiresome degree. To such accusations I stand guilty as charged. Here’s the thing (or “things”, as the case may be). First, my formal training is in music composition, not musicology. I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, a “musicologist” (though I am occasionally billed as such by good people who do not […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: The Miracle at Bayreuth!

On August 17, 1876 – 144 years ago today – Richard Wagner’s music drama Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) received its premiere in his newly-opened “Festival Theater” in Bayreuth, Germany. That performance of Götterdämmerung brought to its conclusion the first production of Wagner’s epic four evening tetralogy, The Ring of the Niebelung.  Let’s say it up front because it needs to be said. That performance concluded what was and remains the greatest single undertaking in the history of Western music: not just Wagner’s writing and composition of the four music dramas that make up The Ring, but of the construction and opening of Wagner’s great shrine to himself: his custom-built Festival Theater in the Bavarian city of Bayreuth. The Conception and the Creation of The Ring of the Nibelung On May 16, 1849, an arrest warrant was issued by the Dresden police for the 36-year-old Richard Wagner (1813-1883). He was charged with treason due to his actions in the just terminated Dresden uprising, a charge that carried with it the death penalty. The warrant read as follows:  “Wagner is of medium stature, has brown hair, an open forehead; eyebrows, brown; eyes, grayish blue; nose and mouth, proportioned; chin, round, and […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and the Summer of 1788

We mark the completion, on August 10, 1788 – 232 years ago today – of Mozart’s Symphony in C major, catalogued by Ludwig Köchel as K. 551 and nicknamed the “Jupiter”. It was Mozart’s final symphony, a towering, innovative masterwork, the greatest symphony ever composed to its time and by any standard of measure one of a handful of greatest symphonies ever composed. That it took Mozart all of 16 days to commit it to paper defies our imaginations. That it was composed back-to-back with the luminous, transcendentally lyric Symphony in E-flat major and the tragic, gut-busting Symphony in G Minor in something under a total of eight weeks beggars our belief. Finally, that Mozart managed this mind-blowing compositional feat while under a black cloud of grief, physical ill-health, and mounting financial disaster is just, well, inconceivable. Let’s add a bit more head-shaking information to the mix. At the same time he was composing these last three symphonies, Mozart was composing a number of other works as well! He completed his Trio for piano, violin and cello in E Major, K. 542 on June 22, 1788 and the Trio in C Major, K. 548, on July 14; he finished his […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: The Grandmother of them all: the Teatro alla Scala

We mark the opening on August 3, 1778 – 242 years today – of the grandmother of all opera houses, the Teatro alla Scala, or simply “La Scala.” The inaugural performance was the premiere of Antonio Salieri’s opera Europa Riconosciuta, or “Europe Rewarded”.  I trust we’re all aware that something being touted as “baseball season” has begun. Ordinarily, the return of professional baseball in the first week of April is a cause for celebration in my house, a seasonal marker as sure as the turning of the leaves in the fall and the true coming of spring, when the camellias bloom in mid-January (I know: if I didn’t live here I’d hate California too). But baseball in the time of COVID is, frankly, absurd; with more and more players being tested positive (today it was an unspecified number of St. Louis Cardinals), it seems to me that it’s only a matter of time before this truncated season is shut down for good. (I’m writing this on Friday, July 31; for all I know, by Monday, August 3 the “season” will already be over.) This sorry state of affairs calls for a necessary dose of nostalgic escapism. A particular badge of […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Ferruccio Busoni

We mark the death on July 27, 1924 – 96 years ago today – of the composer and pianist Ferruccio Busoni, who great fame rests on having invented the ice-smoothing machine popularized by none-other-than Charles Schulz’s Snoopy. Nah, I’m just messing with you: it was Frank Zamboni, 1901-1988, who invented the ice-thing in 1949.  We’re here to talk about Ferruccio Busoni, who was born in Empoli, Italy – a suburb of Florence – on April 1, 1866 and died on this day at the age of 58 in Berlin.  But before moving on to Signore Busoni, a tip-of-the hat to his countryman, Antonio Vivaldi – Il Prieto Rosso, “The Red Priest” – who died on this day in 1741 in Vienna, age 63. Vivaldi’s birth on March 4, 1678 was the subject of my Music History Monday post on March 4, 2019; I would invite you to check it out. Ferruccio Busoni was a phenomenon, a figure almost unique in Western music, a man and musician impossible to pigeon-hole. He was a virtuoso in pretty much every field of music he chose to explore. He was a pianist of other-worldly ability; a visionary composer possessing the very highest technical skills; […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Shostakovich: Time magazine, a String Quartet, and a Symphony!

July 20th was a very important date in the life of the Soviet composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich. On July 20, 1942 – 78 years ago today – he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, wearing his Leningrad firefighter’s helmet and becoming, all at once, an international symbol for the Soviet struggle against the invading German horde. On this date in 1962 – 58 years ago today – Shostakovich completed his Symphony No. 13, subtitled “Babi Yar”, itself a stunning indictment of Soviet anti-Semitism and truly, the entire Soviet system. How and why he managed to get away with composing and premiering such a symphony without being strung up by his short-‘n’-curlies will be the subject of tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post. Finally, on this day in 1964 – 56 years ago today – Shostakovich completed his String Quartet No. 10 in A-flat major, Op. 118. Yes indeed, July 20 was an important date in the life of Dmitri Shostakovich. But before we can get to Shostakovich and that Time magazine cover, we’ve got two other events to observe from this day in music history. We begin with a call-out to the songwriter, guitarist, and fusion bandleader Carlos Santana, who […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: Pops: The Indispensable Man

We mark the death on July 6, 1971 – 49 years ago today – of the jazz trumpet-player, singer, bandleader, and American icon Louis Armstrong. (For our information, Armstrong pronounced his first name as “Lewis”, as shall we.) Known alternately as Louis (as in LOO-wee), “Satchmo”, “Satch”, or simply “Pops”, Armstrong was the “indispensable” man of jazz. One brief but, I think, most worthy item of date appropriate business to mention before moving on to Maestro Armstrong, an event that occurred on this date in 1957, 63 years ago today. That was the day that Paul McCartney and John Lennon met for the first time.  In November of 1956, two high school students – John Lennon (1940-1980) and his friend, the guitarist (and later, dry cleaner) Eric Griffiths (1940-2005) – founded a band in their hometown of Liverpool. They initially called the band the Blackjacks but quickly renamed it the Quarrymen, in honor of their high school, Quarry Bank High School. By early 1957, the band numbered six members. Lennon designed a poster which was put up across Liverpool, which informed its readers that “Country-and-western, rock ‘n’ roll, skiffle band — The Quarrymen — Open for Engagements.”  On July 6, 1957, the […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: I Left My Heart in Doylestown, Pennsylvania

On June 29, 1941 – 79 years ago today – the Polish pianist, composer, philanthropist, vintner, and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski died in New York City. He was 80 years old. Before moving on to the story of that truly remarkable man’s life, we would grudgingly allot 230 words to a story so wonderfully ridiculous that I’d wager not a one of us could have made it up. On this day in 2000, Marshall Bruce Mathers III (born 1972) – better known by his stage name of “Eminem” – was sued for $10 million for slander and defamation of character by his mother Debbie Mathers-Nelson (born 1955). She had taken offense from a line in Eminem’s breakthrough single “My Name Is” (from his 1999 debut album The Slim Shady LP). The offending line? “My mom smokes more dope than I do”.  For his part, the rapper maintained that his lyric about his mother was totally true: that she did smoke more dope than he did. By her conduct during the suit, Ms. Mathers-Nelson provided all the evidence necessary to support her son’s assertion. According to her attorney Fred Gibson “she was the most high-maintenance client I’ve had in my legal career.” […]

Continue Reading

Music History Monday: The Damrosch Dynasty: Where Would We Be Without Them?

We mark the birth on June 22, 1859 – 161 years ago today – of the German-born American conductor and educator Frank Heino Damrosch.   Permit me, please, a personal reminiscence before moving on to establish why Frank Damrosch, his father Leopold, his brother Walter and his sister Clara were nothing less than the first family of American music from the 1870s through the 1920s.   It was one of those days I will never forget.  We all have them – a wedding; a graduation; the birth of a child; heaven help us, the death of someone dear – days during which events occur that by their sheer magnitude become indelibly printed in our memories.  Many thousands of us had just such a day on Sunday, October 19, 1991.  It was a hot, martini-dry, cloudless and very windy day in the San Francisco Bay Area; fire weather, as it is colloquially known.  We were at the end of our so-called “dry season”; it hadn’t rained since March.  We were also in the midst of a multi-year drought, and dead trees, dried out eucalyptus bark (eucalyptus trees molt/shed like Siberian Huskies in July); dried leaves and brush and pine needles had […]

Continue Reading