Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Wagner

Music History Monday: The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

We mark the premiere performance on June 21, 1868 – 153 years ago today – of Richard Wagner’s music drama The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. The performance took place at the National Theater Munich, which today is the home of the Bavarian State Opera. Conducted by Franz Liszt’s student (and son-in-law) and Wagner’s protégé Hans von Bülow, the performance was sponsored and paid for by none-other-than the mad king himself, Ludwig II of Bavaria (1885-1886). Excepting Wagner’s second complete and first performed opera Das Liebesverbot (“The Ban on Love” of 1836, a work that Wagner ultimately rejected) The Mastersingers of Nuremberg was Wagner’s one-and-only operatic comedy. Wagner and Verdi: A Brief (and Important!) Comparison For all their many and seemingly irreconcilable differences, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi had rather more in common than we might think. They were exact contemporaries, born 4 months and 19 days apart: Wagner on May 22, 1813 (he died on February 13, 1883) and Verdi on October 10, 1813 (he died on January 27, 1901). They were the leading nineteenth-century exponents of their respective operatic traditions: Verdi Italian opera and Wagner German. They were both considered ardent patriots by their countrymen, composers who, each in his own […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes Siegfried Idyll

Yesterday’s Music History Monday marked the 144th anniversary of the premiere of Richard Wagner’s music drama Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods), the fourth and final installment of his epic tetralogy The Ring of the Nibelungs. As we properly observed yesterday, Wagner’s Ring was and remains the greatest single undertaking in the long history of Western music. We read – here and there – that “Wagner wrote almost no instrumental music.” This is a most misleading statement, as he was a brilliant composer for orchestra and did indeed compose a significant body of orchestral music. However, it just so happens that the great bulk of that orchestral music was incorporated into his stage works as overtures, entr’actes, interludes, codas, etc. Let’s rephrase that just-quoted statement to read this way: “in his maturity, Wagner (1813-1883) wrote very few self-standing, exclusively instrumental compositions, the most famous of which is his Siegfried Idyll of 1870.” Siegfried Idyll is an exquisite work, with a fabulous back-story, and after all, how often do we get to hear and revel in a Wagnerian opus that runs but 20 minutes from beginning to end? So let’s do it! But first, let us contemplate good birth dates and […]

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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 […]

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Music History Monday: Tristan und Isolde

On June 10, 1865 – 154 years ago today – Richard Wagner’s magnificent music drama Tristan und Isolde received its premiere in Munich under the baton of Hans von Bülow (with whose wife, Cosima, Wagner was carrying on an affair).  (The parts of Tristan and Isolde were sung by the real-life husband and wife team of Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Having sung the role of Tristan four times, Ludwig dropped dead on July 21, 1865, prompting the rumor than the role of Tristan – one of the most difficult in the repertoire – had flat-out killed him. Malvina was so distraught that though she lived for another 38 years, she never sang again.)   Tristan und Isolde is a three-act music drama, or what Wagner himself called “eine Handlung” (which means “a drama” or“an action”; by mid-career Wagner refused to use the word “opera”, claiming that it represented the debased pseudo-art of anyone not named “Wagner”.) Tristan und Isolde’s libretto (or “poem”, as Wagner would have us call it) was written and its music composed by Wagner between 1855 and 1859. Wagner based his “poem” on a twelfth-century romance entitled Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg, who died circa 1210. […]

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Music History Monday: One Tough Lady

We mark the birth on December 24, 1837 – 181 years ago today – of Cosima Liszt von Bülow Wagner: the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt; the wife of the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow; and then the mistress and wife of Richard Wagner. As Wagner’s wife, she became his protector and his muse. According to Ernest Newman, whose four-volume, 2429 page biography of Wagner remains an essential reference, Cosima was “the greatest figure that ever came within Wagner’s circle”.  As Wagner’s widow, she became the “keeper of the Wagnerian flame”; she rescued and made profitable Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival and protected Wagner’s artistic legacy with a ferocity ordinarily associated with wolverines and spotted hyenas. Cosima Liszt von Bülow Wagner remains a controversial figure. Her racism and anti-Semitism were even more virulent than Wagner’s, and by the time she died – in 1930 – the close association of Wagner, Hitler and the Nazis was becoming institutionalized. Writing in 1930, Cosima’s first biographer – Richard du Moulin Eckart – asserts that she was “the greatest woman of the century”. According to the critic and librettist Philip Hensher, writing in 2010: “Wagner was a genius, but also a fairly appalling human being. […]

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Dr. Bob Prescribes: My Parsifal Conductor – A play in two acts by Allan Leicht

My Parsifal Conductor opens October 11, 2018 for a limited engagement at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side Y, 10 West 64th Street, New York, NY; presented by The Directors Company. Starring Eddie Korbich, Claire Brownwell, Geoffrey Cantor, Carlo Bosticco, Logan James Hall, Alison Cimmet, and Jazmin Gorsline, and directed by Robert Kalfin. About three weeks ago, I received an email from Matt Sicoli, a media marketer who is promoting a new, off-Broadway play entitled My Parsifal Conductor, written by the Emmy and Writer’s Guild Winner Allan Leicht. Mr. Sicoli generously offered tickets in exchange for advertising and promotion. I informed him that I am keeping both my Facebook and Patreon sites free of advertising (for now), but that I’d be happy to read the script and, pending an enthusiastic response, write about the play. I am most enthusiastic and thus this post. Here is a synopsis provided by Mr. Sicoli: “Musical genius Richard Wagner (Eddie Korbich) and his ever-faithful wife, Cosima (Claire Brownell), find themselves in a moral, political and musical dilemma when King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Carlo Bosticco) insists that Hermann Levi (Geoffrey Cantor), the son of a rabbi, conduct Wagner’s final masterpiece, […]

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Music History Monday: A Very Tough Crowd

156 years ago today – on March 13, 1861 – Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser was first performed in Paris at the Théâtre Imperial de l’Opéra. The Paris production of Tannhäuser remains one of the greatest operatic flops of all time: a scheduled ten-performance run that was reduced to three disastrous performances before the opera was withdrawn. Aside from its fabulous gossip value, it’s a story that must be told because it is this Paris version of Tannhäuser that continues to be the version performed today. Richard Wagner had a checkered history with Paris and the Parisians. He lived there in terrible poverty between 1839 and 1842. He returned there in 1859 under very different circumstances: he was no longer an unknown and had, for the time being, some real money in his pocket. While in Paris this second time around, Wagner made friends in very high places, including Princess Pauline Metternich, the daughter-in-law of the former Austrian Chancellor Prince Clemens Wenzel von Metternich. It was thanks to the intervention of the Princess that in March of 1860 the French Emperor, Louis-Napoleon, commanded a performance of Tannhäuser at the Paris Opera. Tannhäuser was not a new work. It had been premiered […]

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Richard Wagner: What Ever Happened To Wagner’s Manuscripts?

The scope of Nazi Germany’s crimes against humanity will forever boggle the mind. Incredibly, almost seventy years after the end of World War II, art and treasure pillaged by Nazi Germany continues to be found even as treasure hunters search for billions of dollars worth of missing gold, platinum, and diamonds. The stories of these treasure hunts read like fictional WWII thrillers by such authors as Len Deighton, Ken Follett and Jack Higgins. But sometimes the clichés hold true and fact is stranger than fiction. Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933 and blew out his diseased brain on April 30, 1945. His projected “Thousand Year Reich” lasted all of 4473 days, 4472 days too long. During the course of those 12 years the Nazis plundered art and treasure from across Europe. As the War entered its terminal phase in 1945, a frantic effort was made to hide the loot from the advancing Allies. The recent movie Monuments Men (2014) tells the story of some of the missing art, but gives no sense of the incredible scope of what was stolen and hidden. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Nazis stole at least 16,000 pieces of […]

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Let The Party Begin – 200th Birthday Celebrations for Verdi and Wagner

Let the party begin! We are about to embark on the greatest one-two birthday punch in the history of opera. Tomorrow – May 22 – marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Wilhelm Richard Wagner. 151 days later – on October 10 – we will celebrate the 200th birthday of Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi, aka “Joe Green, the Italian opera Machine”. Of course, the musical festivities have been going on for many months already; we can hardly turn over an operatic rock anywhere on the planet and not find a Wagner or Verdi festival or a Ring Cycle underneath. The opera season notwithstanding, the popular media is poised to jump on the Wagner-Verdi bandwagon, and we should thus gird our loins in anticipation of the onslaught of information and misinformation, facts and opinions-parading-as-facts, articles and books, radio shows, recordings and documentaries, all timed to coincide with the birthdays. Among those documentaries is an hour-long radio show created by the venerable WQXR in New York entitled “Clash of the Titans: An Exploration of Verdi & Wagner.” Created by Jeff Spurgeon and Aaron Cohen, the show seeks to compare and contrast the lives and music of Wagner and Verdi. It is […]

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