Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for WWII

Music History Monday: “V” for Victory!

On July 19, 1941 – 80 years ago today – the BBC World Service began using the first four notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 of 1808 as a “linking” device on its broadcasts into Nazi-occupied Europe.  Why the BBC chose to use music by a German-born composer, and what those four notes meant makes for quite a story. Background The European phase of World War Two began on September 1, 1939, when Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded its neighbor to the east, Poland.  The invasion had been made possible just 8 days before, when the Soviet Union entered into a so-called “non-aggression” pact with Nazi Germany.  It was an act that stunned the world: these two greatest enemies, these two most diametrically opposed political ideologies – fascism and communism – had made nice: Hitler and Stalin had cozied up, climbed into the sack, and done the thang with each other.  Here are two of the many contemporary political cartoons that satirized the pact: The treaty was called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named for the foreign ministers, respectively, of the Soviet Union and Germany who negotiated the thing: Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop. The “planned” expiration date of the pact […]

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Music History Monday: Émigrés

We mark the birth – on July 16, 1901, 117 years ago today – of the Austrian composer and conductor Fritz Mahler. While we might not recognize his first name, we surely recognize his surname, and Fritz’ father was indeed a cousin of the great composer and conductor Gustav Mahler. His present obscurity aside, Fritz Mahler was a well-known musician in his time. He studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. He emigrated to America in 1936, where he taught at Juilliard and conducted the Erie Philharmonic and the Hartford Symphony. For us, for now, the key phrase is “he emigrated to America in 1936”: Fritz Mahler was one of the hundreds – the thousands – of artists, scientists, writers, and intellectuals who managed to escape Europe in the 1930s. And thereby hangs our tale. Catastrophe On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was appointed Chancellor of Germany: head of the German government. Until April 30, 1945, when a palsied and defeated Hitler put his 7.656 mm Walther pistol against his right temple and scrambled his diseased brain, he presided over as malignant and criminal a regime as modern Europe has ever seen. Once in power, Hitler […]

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Music History Monday: Richard Strauss

We celebrate the birth of the composer Richard Strauss, who was born on June 11, 1864, 154 years ago today. I will pull no punches here: in my humble (but happily expressed) opinion, Richard Strauss was one the greatest composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He was a melodist and musical dramatist on near par with Mozart, which is, I think, just about the highest compliment any composer can be paid. His brilliant (though, admittedly, sometimes sprawling) tone poems – From Italy, Don Juan, Macbeth, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Don Quixote, A Hero’s Life, Domestic Symphony, and An Alpine Symphony – constitute, virtually, a genre of experimental music of their own. His superb operas pick up from where Richard Wagner’s “music dramas” leave off, which inspired the wags of his time to call Strauss “Richard II”. He continued to turn out masterworks until the very end of his long life; his exquisite Oboe Concerto (1945) and Metamorphosen for strings (also 1945) were composed when he was 81; his Four Last Songs (1948) was composed when he was 84. In 1947, the 83 year-old Strauss declared with typical self-deprecation: “I may not be a […]

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