Podcast | Robert Greenberg | Speaker, Composer, Author, Professor, Historian
Podcast | Robert Greenberg | Speaker, Composer, Author, Professor, Historian
Robert Greenberg
Speaker, Composer, Author, Professor, Historian
Music History Monday: American Pie
On January 15, 1972 – 52 years ago today – Don McLean’s folk-rock song American Pie began what would eventually be a four-week stay at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  The song made the singer, songwriter, and guitarist Don McLean (born 1945) very famous and very rich, and it is considered by many to be one of the greatest songs ever written. Don McLean (born 1945) in 1972 No One is Perfect Not a one of us is perfect, and that goes double/triple/quadruple for me.  I eat ice cream right out of the carton before putting it back in the freezer, and will guzzle club soda and tonic water out of the bottle before putting it back in the fridge. I will lick a knife with cream cheese or peanut butter on it, lest any of it go to waste, and I will observe my personal ten-to-fifteen second rule when I drop food on the floor (providing one of the cats hasn’t gotten to it first).  I don’t always turn my socks right-side-out before putting them in the washing machine, and I have been known to forget to water the plants even when I’ve been reminded to do so. (Regarding the freaking plants: the heck with them if they don’t have a sense of humor; besides, do I ever ask them to make me a drink?).    (FYI: I routinely introduce myself to house plants as “Agent Orange.” You can actually hear them shrivel.) I would add in my favor that I always put the seat down and replace the toilet paper roll; I floss every day; hang up my towel; immediately put my dirty clothes in the hamper; and never, ever, leave dirty dishes on the counter or in the sink. What, you ask, has prompted this bit of confession, which might very well be considered TMI by many (if not most) of you? Here’s why. By admitting to some of my many flaws, I am attempting to pre-emptively head off your criticism of me, criticism for disparaging a rock ‘n’ roll song considered by many to be an icon, a classic, one of the greatest songs of the rock ‘n’ roll era (an era now some 70 years in age!).  The song I am referring to is none-other-than Don McLean’s American Pie. Freddie Mercury (second from left, as if you need me to tell you) and Queen in 1977 We’ve Been Down This Road Before This is not the first time I’ve proven myself aesthetically imperfect by offering up a less-than-positive critical evaluation of a presumably “classic” rock ‘n’ roll song.  (Yes: I typically prefer to take a high critical road here on Patreon, but sometimes that’s just not possible.) Such a thing happened in my Music History Monday post of August 24, 2020, a post that “celebrated” what was then the 45th anniversary of Freddie Mercury and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.  I admitted then and will admit now that I have always considered Bohemian Rhapsody to be among the most overrated things in contemporary popular culture, right up there with Tik Tok, air pods, anime, and Cardi B.  In that post I observed that Bohemian Rhapsody was never considered, by its creator(s), to be anything other than nonsense. According to Freddie Mercury’s friend, the DJ and television personality Kenny Everett (who played a key role in promoting Bohemian Rhapsody on his radio show), the song’s lyrics have no meaning whatsoever.  According to Everett, Freddie Mercury told him that the words were simply “random rhyming nonsense.” Producer Roy Thomas Baker (born 1946, center) with Queen in 1975 Bohemian Rhapsody’s producer Roy Thomas Baker recalled in 1999: “Bohemian Rhapsody was totally insane, but we enjoyed every minute of it.
Jan 15
26 min
Music History Monday: Pianist, Conductor, Composer, and a Cuckold for the Ages
Hans Guido von Bülow (1830-1894), circa 1875 We mark the birth on January 8, 1830 – 196 years ago today – of the German pianist, conductor, composer, and cuckold, Hans Guido von Bülow.  Born in the Saxon capital of Dresden, he died in a hotel in Cairo, Egypt, on February 12, 1894, at the age of 64.  Poor Hans von Bülow.  He was one of the top pianists and conductors of his time.  His career was closely associated with some of the greatest composers of all time, including Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky.  Famous for his devastating wit and ability to turn a phrase, it was Bülow who coined the alliterative trio of “Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.” Sadly, for all of his many accomplishments and deserved renown, he remains best known today (in no small measure because of scandal-mongering sensationalists like myself) as one of the great cuckolds of all time, right up there with myself (cuckolded by my college girlfriend Maureen Makler and an Israeli guy named Avi Luzon); Eddie Fisher (cuckolded by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), and Henry VIII (cuckolded, or so we are told, by Ann Boleyn and a wide assortment of various courtiers and hangers-on).  Bummer all the way around, Hans, just bummer. (Listen: to make up for this gracelessly scandalous post and to give Herr von Bülow some of the respect he is due, tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will feature Alan Walker’s superb biography of the man’s life, a life that should not be defined solely by the betrayal of his wife, Cosima Liszt von Bülow, and his erstwhile “friend,” Richard Wagner!) Hans von Bülow (1830-1894) Bülow circa 1850, at the age of 20 He was born into the noble “House of Bülow,” an ancient German/Danish family whose members have, over the centuries, been entitled Freiherr (meaning Baron); Graf (meaning Count); and even Fürst (meaning Prince). Growing up in Dresden, Bülow began formal piano lessons at the age of nine and quickly established himself as a major prodigy.  In 1844, at the age of 14, he and his mother moved to Leipzig, where he enrolled at the Leipzig Conservatory, founded just a year before by Felix Mendelssohn.  It was there that Hans studied with the highly regarded pedant Louis Plaidy. In 1845, at the of 15, Bülow took his piano lessons with Friedrich Wieck.  (Wieck was the father of Clara Wieck-Schumann, eventual father-in-law of Robert Schumann, and the piano teacher who ruined Robert Schumann’s right hand!)   Hans von Bülow was as intellectually precocious as he was musically precocious.  Unfortunately, the physical package that contained these gifts was . . . wanting.  Writes Alan Walker: “As a child von Bülow was a weakling.  According to his mother he succumbed to ‘brain fever’ five times and was continually in the care of doctors.  [For our information, ‘Brain Fever’ is defined as ‘an acute nervous breakdown and/or temporary insanity, due to extreme emotional distress.’] Bülow was ravaged by headaches, which struck him down whenever the problems of life overwhelmed him.  He also became self-conscious about his personal appearance; his short stature, high forehead, and slightly bulging eyes caused him embarrassment. Eventually, he learned to protect himself from the imagined hostility of the world by his trenchant use of language, which became the scourge of his enemies and the despair of his friends.” Hans von Bülow in his adulthood; there is no mistaking him for George Clooney In a story that has become as cliché as a movie character setting fire to a building and walking away in slow motion, Hans’ parents (that would be the novelist Karl Eduard von...
Jan 8
29 min
Music History Monday: Shostakovich Symphony No. 13
On December 18, 1962 – 61 years ago today – Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 received its premiere in Moscow.  The symphony stirred up a proverbial hornet’s nest of controversy, and we’re not talking here about your everyday hornet, but rather, those gnarly ‘n’ gnasty Asian Giant Hornets! Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906-1975) in 1962 It was a symphonic premiere that almost didn’t take place, though, in the end, the show did go on.  Nevertheless, the authorities (the Soviet authorities, notable for their heavy blue serge suits, vodka breaths, and deficient senses of humor) did everything in their power to squash the symphony out of existence.  In this they failed miserably, and Shostakovich’s Thirteenth is today acknowledged as not just one of Shostakovich’s supreme masterworks but as one of the most musically and politically important works composed during the twentieth century.  A Good Communist During the late 1950s, Shostakovich was increasingly used by the Soviet authorities as a sort of artistic “figure head,” meant to represent the supposedly “free” Soviet intelligentsia.  In 1960, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) – decided to make the 54-year-old Shostakovich the chairman of the newly founded RSFSR, the Russian Union of Composers.  It was a huge honor, and Shostakovich felt that it was a position that would make him, finally and for all time, unassailable, untouchable, unpurgeable and, of equal importance, would guarantee the safety and success of his two now-grown children, Galina (24 years old) and Maxim (22 years old).  However, there was a catch: to take the position, Shostakovich had to join the Communist Party, something he had long-sworn he would never, ever, under any circumstances, do.  Well, he did join the Communist Party, telling his friends that he signed the necessary papers while under the influence of alcohol, SUI, “signing under the influence.”  For months afterwards, Shostakovich was – no exaggeration – literally hysterical with self-loathing.  The musicologist, folklorist, and friend of Shostakovich Lev Lebedinsky recalled: “I will never forget some of the things he said that night [before his induction into the Party], sobbing hysterically: ‘I’m scared to death of them’; ‘You don’t know the whole truth’; ‘From childhood I’ve always had to do things I didn’t want to do’; ‘I’ve been a whore, and always will be a whore.’  He often lashed at himself in strong words.”  And so, kicking and screaming, Shostakovich joined the Soviet Communist Party.  For all the world, he was the picture of a good and obedient Communist apparatchik.  Again, according to the previously quoted Lev Lebedinsky: “Without fail he attended every possible ridiculous meeting of the Supreme Soviet, every plenary session, every political gathering; he even took part in the AGITPROP [agitation/propaganda] car rally.  In other words, he eagerly took part in events that he himself described as ‘torture by boredom.’  He sat there like a puppet, applauding when the others applauded.  Once I remember him clapping eagerly after Khrennikov had made a speech in which he made some offensive remarks about Shostakovich!’ ‘Why did you clap when you were being criticized?’ I asked.  He hadn’t even noticed!  What moved him was not a lack of principles, but [fear].  Take his attack on Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov.  It is well known that Shostakovich sympathized with both of them.  So God only knows what possessed him to put his signature on that filthy slander of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn.
Dec 18, 2023
22 min
Music History Monday: The “Amusa”
Friederica Henrietta of Anhalt-Bernburg (1702-1723), the “Amusa” On December 11, 1721 – 302 years ago today – Johann Sebastian Bach’s employer, the 27-year-old Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (1694-1728), married the 19-year-old Friederica Henrietta of Anhalt-Bernburg (1702-1723).  She was the fourth daughter (and youngest child) of Charles Frederick, Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg (1668-1721) and his first wife, Sophie Albertine of Solms-Sonnenwalde (1672-1708). We can only hope that the kids enjoyed their wedding, because, sadly, their marriage was not fated to last for very long. (Allow me, please, a small bit of editorial bloviation. Speaking as a lower middle-class American kid born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in South Jersey – meaning someone with zero tolerance for all this royalty stuff – I find all of these puffed-up hereditary royals insufferable in both their titles and their actions.  Among the actions of the literally hundreds of “princes” and “princesses” of the Holy Roman Empire was to intermarry, for generations, with other such “people of quality,” meaning their cousins.  A brief look at their life spans – which are, indeed, representative of their “class” – reveals how well that turned out.  Bach’s beloved boss, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, lived for all of 33 years.   Leopold’s father, Emmanuel Lebrecht of Anhalt-Cöthen [1671-1704] lasted just 33 years as well, though Leopold’s mother – Anna Eleonore of Stolberg-Wernigerode [1651-1690] – managed to live for 39 years.  Leopold’s wife – Friederica Henrietta, the Amusa of this post’s title – lived to be only 21.  Her parents – Charles Frederick, Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg and Sophie Albertine of Solms-Sonnenwalde did a bit better, living, respectively, to the ages of 53 and 36.  Meanwhile, our magnificent Johann Sebastian Bach lived to be 65 and would certainly have lived longer if not for a botched cataract operation by a quack “oculist” named “Chevalier” John Taylor who, incidentally, lived to be 69 years of age.  ”Chevalier” John Taylor (1703-1722) Speaking strictly for myself, if I had to choose between a “title” and a long life span, I’ll choose life span every time.)  Back, please, to the wedding of Prince Leopold and Princess Friederica Henrietta.  It was a lavish and extended five-week long affair, one that put my cousins Arthur and Larry Gottlieb’s Bar Mitzvahs in Massapequa, Long Island, to shame. Unfortunately, for Bach, the wedding was something else: it was the final nail in the coffin lid of what had once been his dream job: that of Kapellmeister (master-of-music) for the court of Cöthen, in the central German state of Saxony-Anhalt.  It was a position he had held since 1717 and one that he had hoped to hold for the remainder of his life.   Alas; as the old Yiddish saying goes, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht,” meaning “man plans, and God laughs.” Sebastian Bach (as he was known to his family, friends, and colleagues; “Johann” was but a Bach family patronymic that went back generations) was nobody’s fool.  He knew his worth, and at a time when artisans like himself were expected to keep a low profile and “know their place,” Bach was an outspoken, often troublesome, even cantankerous employee, something that got him into trouble on a regular basis.… Continue reading, and listen without interruption, only on Patreon! Become a Patron! 
Dec 11, 2023
15 min
Music History Monday: Unplayable
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) in 1888, looking rather older than his 48 years We mark the premiere on December 4, 1881 – 142 years ago today – of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s one-and-only violin concerto, his Violin Concerto in D major.  It received its premiere in Vienna, where it was performed by the violinist Adolf Brodsky and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Hans Richter. The concerto is, in my humble opinion, Tchaikovsky’s single greatest work and one of a handful of greatest concerti ever composed.   Yet its premiere in Vienna elicited one of the most vicious reviews of all time. Unfortunately for him, Tchaikovsky was indeed one of the most over-criticized composers in the history of Western music. (Just asking: do any of us like being criticized?  I think not, and please, let’s not dignify that oxymoronic phrase, “constructive criticism” by considering it seriously. I don’t mean to sound over-sensitive, but after a certain age – say, 25 – criticism of any sort, even if it is deserved [we’re talking to you, George Santos] is simply infuriating.) Tchaikovsky was also one of the most over-sensitive people ever to become a major composer, which meant that the sometimes brutal criticism he received drove him to near madness.  (Regarding Tchaikovsky’s sensitivity, as a youngster, his governess called him “a porcelain child” so easily was his spirit chipped and cracked.)  Given Tchaikovsky’s emotional nature, and the fact that he was additionally – as a homosexual in Tsarist Russia – leading virtually a double life, well, we’ve got a prescription for a challenging emotional life. Tchaikovsky and his “wife”, Antonina Milyukova, on their “honeymoon,” July 1877; Tchaikovsky appears genuinely shell-shocked, which in fact he was Who Will Play My Concerto? The actual composition of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto went smoothly.  However, the drama surrounding its first performance drove the poor, hysteria-prone dude to despair.   Background.  In late February of 1878, Tchaikovsky arrived in Clarens, on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where he and his “entourage” took up lodging at the Villa Richelieu.  Tchaikovsky was on the mend from his epically disastrous marriage to a frankly crazed former student of his named Antonina Milyukova. The marriage had lasted less than three months, from July 18 to October 7, 1877, at which time Tchaikovsky had a complete nervous breakdown and was spirited out of Moscow by his brothers.   One of Tchaikovsky’s visitors there at Clarens was the violinist Yosif Kotek (1855-1885), a bi-sexual lover of Tchaikovsky’s.  Tchaikovsky and Kotek engaged in all sorts of activities there in Clarens – some of them even musical – and Tchaikovsky, feeling rejuvenated and inspired, sketched and orchestrated his entire violin concerto in under a month. Tchaikovsky wanted to dedicate the concerto to Kotek – he really did – but he didn’t dare because he was terrified by the gossip he believed the dedication would inspire.  So instead, he dedicated it to a faculty colleague at the Moscow Conservatory, the then world-famous violinist Leopold Auer (1845-1930).  Politically, it was a savvy choice: Tchaikovsky knew that Auer’s fame would give the concerto the sort of caché that would ensure its success. Leopold Auer (1845-1930) Sadly, Tchaikovsky’s plan blew up in his face when Auer pronounced that the solo part was “unplayable.” A mortified Tchaikovsky later wrote in his diary: “Auer pronounced it impossible to play, and this verdict,
Dec 4, 2023
13 min
Music History Monday: Richard Strauss, Stanley Kubrick, Friedrich Nietzsche, and “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) in 1894 On November 27, 1896 – 127 years ago today – Richard Strauss conducted the premiere performance of his sprawling orchestral tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra in the German city of Frankfurt.  Requests A momentary and applicable (if gratuitous) diversion.  Over the course of the first half of my musical life I played a lot of gigs, both in bands and as a solo piano player.  The bands ranged from fairly high end to not fairly high end.  The best band I ever played with was led by the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz; the worst was a disco band the name of which will remain my little secret.  The first band in which I played was a rock ‘n’ roll garage band called “Cold Sun” and the last was a Berkeley, California-based Klezmer group called “Hot Borscht.” (“Cold Sun” and “Hot Borscht”: temperature challenged tags in both cases.) The former home of The Pewter House Restaurant, at 3909 Grand Avenue, Oakland, California; the building, built in 1916, is currently vacant and in desperate need for some TLC As a solo player I’ve played pretty much every sort of gig, from cocktail parties, weddings, sing-a-longs, awards shows, and receptions to a long-running gig at a long defunct restaurant in Oakland, California, called The Pewter House. I played at The Pewter House, in 1978 and 1979, on Friday and Saturday evenings.  It was most definitely during my “starving (grad) student” stage, so what I particularly loved about the job was the dinner I’d eat with the staff after closing time.  There was always left-over prime rib, and I consumed my body weight on a weekly basis.  I also loved the people I worked with and dined with after-hours: the bartender, a big, beautifully mustachioed Czech named Marin; the wait staff (particularly the cocktail waitresses; OMG: how I continue to adore cocktail waitresses!); and the kitchen staff (mostly illegals who worked like dogs at multiple jobs and sent whatever money they could back home); talk about a cross section of Oakland’s population.  What I did not love about my job was an occupational hazard shared by all house musicians, and that is the request.  I’d prime my tip jar with a twenty and a couple of fives, but that wouldn’t stop folks from making requests and then winking at me as they dropped a dime or a quarter into the jar, as if they were doing me a favor.  As evenings wore on, and the restaurant’s action increasingly moved into the cocktail lounge (where the piano was located), the blood alcohol level of the clientele became markedly higher.  It was not at all uncommon, later in the evening, for me to be approached by an off-kilter patron who, in making their request, would say something on the lines of: “hey, can you guys play . . .” Yes, I was a solo act, but perhaps these inebriates were seeing double, thus the “you guys.” Among the most common requests I received at The Pewter House there in the late 1970s were: “can you guys play The Sting?” (this meant Scott Joplin’s classic rag, The Entertainer, which dominated the soundtrack of the 1973 Paul Newman/Robert Redford movie The Sting). Just as often I was asked to play Love is Blue, Classical Gas, Brian’s Song, and . . . and . . . wait for it . . . “the theme from 2001.” 2001: A Space Odyssey, Produced, Directed, and Co-written by Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) The American film director, producer, screenwriter, and photographer Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999), who produced, directed, and co-wrote (with Arthur C. Clarke) the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey; on the set By “the theme from 2001,
Nov 27, 2023
21 min
Music History Monday: The Great-Grandmother of All Concert Tours: Elton John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road: The Final Tour”
Elton Hercules John (born Reggie Kenneth Dwight; March 25, 1947) performing at the Glastonbury Festival in June 2023, during the last leg of his “Farewell Yellow Brick Road: The Final Tour” We mark the conclusion on November 20, 2022 – one year ago today – of the North American leg of Elton John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road: The Final Tour.”  The concert took place at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles; it was the third of three “farewell” concerts held at Dodgers Stadium. The three concerts (on November 17, 19, and 20) saw a total attendance of 142,970 people and grossed $23,462,993. Since the first rock ‘n’ roll concert , which was held in Cleveland on March 21, 1952 (that would be the “Moondog Coronation Ball”), there have been rock ‘n’ roll concert tours and there have been rock ‘n’ roll farewell concert tours.  But Elton John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road: The Final Tour” was in a league of its own and will likely never, ever be matched.  The numbers are mind-boggling and bladder-weakening.  The tour, interrupted, as it was, by the COVID epidemic, ran for nearly five years, from September 8, 2018, to July 8, 2023.  It began in Allentown, Pennsylvania and concluded in Stockholm, Sweden. It consisted of nine separate legs (or “tours within the tour”) and a total of 330 shows.  All together, the tour was attended by 6.1 million fans of Elton Hercules John (born Reginald Kenneth Dwight on March 25, 1947) and generated a box office total of $939.1 million (heck, given all the merchandise that was also sold at the concerts, let’s just round that number up and call it a cool billion).   Reggie Dwight (a.k.a. Elton John] in 1955 Given these numbers, it should come as no surprise that Elton John’s “Farewell Yellow Brick Road: The Final Tour” is the highest grossing, the longest running, and most highly attended concert tour of all time.   Elton John (born Reginald Dwight, 1947) We will save a detailed biography of Maestro John for another time, so please – for now – suffice it the following. Born in the ‘burbs just northwest of London, he began playing the piano as a young child.  Lessons began at seven, and by the time he was eleven his talents as a pianist were such that he won a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music.  Young Reggie attended the Royal Academy part-time for the next five years, later claiming that what he enjoyed best was playing the music of Chopin and Sebastian Bach and singing in the Academy chorus. Still going as Reginald Dwight, Elton John (left) with his band band Bluesology at the Marquee Club in London, 1966 At the age of 15, with the support and assistance of his mother and stepfather, Reggie got a job playing the piano – Thursday through Sunday evenings – at a local pub located in the Northwood Hills Hotel. (The hotel is still there, at 76 Joel Street, Northwood, about 10 miles northwest of central London.) It was there that he played standards and songs of his own composition.  Reg began playing in bands (most notably one he helped found called Bluesology), and even though his eyesight at the time was just fine, he began wearing black, horn-rimmed glasses in solidarity with Buddy Holly.… Continue Reading, and listen without interruption, only on Patreon! Become a Patron!  Listen and Subscribe to the Music History Monday Podcast Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now
Nov 20, 2023
18 min
Music History Monday: Gioachino Rossini and the Comedic Mind
Gioachino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868) circa 1856 We mark the death on November 13, 1868 – 155 years ago today – of the opera composer Gioachino Antonio Rossini, in Paris, at the age of 76. He was one of the most famous and beloved artists of his time, and he remains no less so today. It is my humble opinion that anyone who does not like Rossini’s operas – and, believe it or not, I have met any number of such people in the “rarified” confines of academia – well, such a person is a crank and a humbug, someone averse to melodic brilliance, theatric sparkle, and wit. 10,000 Hours? In his book Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Company, 2008), the English-born Canadian journalist (and staff writer at The New Yorker) Malcolm Gladwell posited his “10,000-hour rule.” Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule asserts that: “the key to achieving true expertise in any skill is simply a matter of practicing, albeit in the correct way, for at least 10,000 hours.” Of course this is complete nonsense. We must conclude that Mr. Gladwell has practiced making absurd statements for well over 10,000 hours, so completely daft is his “rule.” Listen: when I was twenty, I was 5’7” in height and weighed 145 pounds (I can only wish that the latter were still the case!). I was strong, fast, and had good hand-eye coordination. I also had a vertical jump of about six inches, so no amount of time and practice was going to make me a high-jump champion, a ballet dancer, or allow me to fulfill my singular fantasy: to be able to dunk a basketball. No way, no how. Alicia de Laroccha (1923-2009) The magnificent Spanish pianist Alicia de Laroccha (1923-2009) is said to have learned and memorized in twelve days – when she was but a child – the twelve pieces that make up Isaac Albéniz’s incredibly virtuosic Iberia.  All 12 pieces in 12 days; one piece a day. Again, I would, gratuitously, use myself as an example: I have “practiced” the piano for many more than 10,000 hours over the course of my life, and there no way on this good earth that I could learn and memorize any one piece from Iberia in under two weeks, if at all. Again, no way, no how. It is an unfortunate but irrefutable fact that genetic predisposition – meaning talent – counts for something as well. Yes, talent must be nurtured and “practiced,” but without it, Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours means bupkis (which is Yiddish for “goat droppings”). Rossini in 1862, photographed in Passy (Paris), where he lived (and died) in a no longer extant villa at 2 Avenue Ingrès Wit I would suggest that among the gene-given abilities most impossible to “learn” – practice time notwithstanding (along with being able to dunk a basketball) – is wit, which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: “a natural aptitude [i.e. talent] for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humor.” When it comes to wit, you either got it or you don’t. Practicing bon mots for 10,000 hours will not make a tedious bore a witty person. (I personally find few social situations more awkward than being trapped in conversation with someone who thinks he or she is really clever but is, in fact, not clever at all. To paraphrase the old saw, “’tis better to remain silent and be thought a witless blockhead than to open one’s mouth and prove it.”) Gioachino Rossini was, bless him, pretty much always the wittiest person in the room. Yes, other composers were famous for their quips as well; the acid-tongued Johannes Brahms and the easily irritated ...
Nov 13, 2023
19 min
Music History Monday: The March King
John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) in 1900 We mark the birth on November 6, 1854 – 169 years ago today – of the American composer, conductor, and violinist John Philip Sousa.  Born in Washington, D.C., Sousa died in Reading, Pennsylvania on March 6, 1932, at the age of 77. Timing, Location, Life Experience, and Talent We are told that talent – be it athletic, musical, artistic, culinary, whatever – will only take us so far; that without commitment, hard work, and perseverance “talent” is, in the end, nothing but potential.  But success in any field in which innate, gene-given talent is an underlying necessity requires something more than just blood, sweat, and tears: it also requires timing, location, and life experience. We consider.  How many potential William Shakespeares have been born in times and places in which vernacular, secular theater was not being cultivated to a revolutionary degree?  How many latent Sebastian Bachs lived until one was born into the perfect family and at the perfect time and place to exploit his skill set? How many possible LeBron Jameses existed before the invention of basketball?  Left: the 24-year-old Mozart in Salzburg, 1780; Right: the 24-year-old Mozart in Cupertino, California, 2023 I would suggest that what made Mozart “Mozart” was not just his talent and work ethic, but that his father was a professional musician who trained his son at a time and place when high-end music making was considered culturally indispensable.  If our Mozart had been born in 1999 in Cupertino, California to a father (or mother!) who worked for Apple, how do we think his talents and energies might have been directed?  Towards music?  I wouldn’t bet on it. Yes, talent is huge, but timing and location and life experience make the artist as well, and rarely will we find a more striking confluence of talent, time, place, and experience than in the case of John Philip Sousa. John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) John Anthony Sousa (1824-1892), John Philip’s father, in his Marine uniform, circa 1863 He was the third of ten children born to immigrant parents.  His mother, Maria Elizabeth (born Trinkhaus, 1826-1908) was born in Bavaria, in what today is southern Germany.  Sousa’s father, John Anthony Sousa (1824-1892), was born João António de Sousa in Spain, to Portuguese parents.   Sousa was born, and the family lived, in a modest house at 636 G Street, in southeast Washington, D.C.  The address is significant because it was close to the United States Marine barracks where John Philip’s father, Antonio, was a trombonist in the Marine Band.  (For our information, the Marine Band based in Washington, D.C. is not just any military band. Known as “The President’s Own,” it is – today – the best and most prestigious military band in the United States and among the very best in the world.  It was John Philip Sousa himself, who led the Marine Band from 1880-1892, who turned it into the crack ensemble it remains to this day.) Life experience. Growing up, John Philip Sousa’s musical mother’s milk was military band music.  It was in his blood, his DNA, and he was never to veer far from it.  … Continue Reading, only on Patreon! Become a Patron!  Listen and Subscribe to the Music History Monday Podcast The Robert Greenberg Store
Nov 6, 2023
19 min
Music History Monday: Franz Schubert: An Unfinished Symphony; An Unfinished Life
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) in 1824 We mark October 30, 1822 – 201 years ago today – as being the day on which Franz Schubert began what is now known as his Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the “Unfinished Symphony.”  Lost just months after Schubert completed the two movements that make up the “Unfinished,” the symphony was heard for the first time in 1865, 43 years after its composition and 37 years after Schubert’s death.   A Fable Agreed Upon One of the many clever statements (or in this case, a question) credited to Napoleon Bonaparte is: “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” A good question for a despot who was intent on creating his own version of history. Beethoven (1770-1827), portrait in oils (detail) by Joseph Carl Stieler, 1820 However, it is a question that applies as well to our contemporary view of Ludwig van Beethoven, and how we have come to believe his music was perceived in his own time.  Today, Beethoven’s mature symphonies (nos. 3 through 9) are rightly perceived as representing his own, personal struggles and revolutionary times.  Our mistake – the “fable agreed upon” – occurs when we assume that Beethoven’s contemporaries believed the same thing about his mature symphonies.   They did not.   For Beethoven’s symphonic contemporaries, the first two decades of the nineteenth century were about the discovery and study of Haydn’s and Mozart’s late symphonies.  The musical style of such well-known, even famous (at the time) symphonic composers as Carl Friedrich Zelter, Jean-Paul Richter, Carl Maria von Weber, Ludwig Spohr, Adalbert Gyrowetz, Ferdinand Ries, Andrea Romberg, and Peter Winter was firmly based on the classical models of Haydn and Mozart.  According to musicologist Nicholas Temperley, these composers and others like them: “reached a [classical] musical ideal to which Beethoven’s mature art seemed an intrusive irrelevance.”  Posterity has been unkind to the symphonies of the aforementioned composers, symphonies that in their time were performed much more frequently than Beethoven’s.  It was only once that Beethoven’s symphonies came to be understood and appreciated for the masterworks that they are – and that process took a generation – that those of his more conservative, more classically oriented contemporaries were relegated to almost total obscurity.  Today, they are the stuff of Ph.D. dissertations and scholarly papers, the surest indicators of utter irrelevance.   With one exception: the symphonies of Franz Schubert. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) Franz Peter Schubert was born in Vienna on January 31, 1797.  It was in Vienna that he died, on November 19, 1828, aged 31 years, 9 months, and 20 days.   Franz was one of four surviving Schubert children.  Our Franz was the beloved “pet” of the family; from every account that has come down to us he was a small, plump, and endearingly sweet child.  His growth-spurt hardly kicked in; the fully-grown Schubert was 1.57 meters in height (about 5’1”) and as his portraits attest, he never lost his cherubic appearance.  … Continue reading, and listen without interruption, only on Patreon Become a Patron!  Listen and Subscribe to the Music History Monday Podcast
Oct 30, 2023
24 min