Music History Monday

By Robert Greenberg

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Exploring Music History with Professor Robert Greenberg one Monday at a time. Every Monday Robert Greenberg explores some timely, perhaps intriguing and even, if we are lucky, salacious chunk of musical information relevant to that date, or to … whatever. If on (rare) occasion these features appear a tad irreverent, well, that’s okay: we would do well to remember that cultural icons do not create and make music but rather, people do, and people can do and say the darndest things.

Episode Date
Music History Monday: Béla Bartók’s American Exile
20:33

We mark the death on September 26, 1945 – 77 years ago today – of the pianist, composer, and Hungarian patriot Béla Bartók. Born in what was then the Hungarian town of Nagyszentmiklós(now Sînnicolau Mare in Romania) on March 25, 1881, Bartók died – during what he called his “comfortable exile” – in New York City. Before moving on to Bartók’s “American Exile”, let’s establish –as we can from our vantage point in 2022 – his creds as a great and influential twentieth century composer! In 1961, 16 years after Bartók’s death, Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) – composer, conductor, and, in the words of his teacher Olivier Messiaen, the great insufferable one – wrote this about Bartók’s music: “The pieces most applauded are the least good; his best products are loved in their weaker aspects. His work triumphs now through its ambiguity. Ambiguity that will surely bring him insults during future evaluation. His work has not the profound unity and novelty of Webern’s or the vigorous controlled dynamism of Stravinsky’s. His language lacks interior coherence. His name will live on in the limited ensemble of his chamber music.”  Boulez was not just wrong; he was snotty wrong.  But the degree of […]

The post Music History Monday: Béla Bartók’s American Exile first appeared on Robert Greenberg.

Sep 26, 2022
Music History Monday: Day Gigs
18:02

“Don’t give up your day gig.” Along with “don’t eat yellow snow” and “fake it ‘til you make it”, “don’t give up your day gig” remains one of the oldest, hoariest, clichéd pieces of advice anyone can give or receive. But unless you were lucky/wise enough to heed the other greatest piece of advice any musician can receive, that being “marry rich”, “don’t give up your day gig” is still among the very best pieces of advice a musician can receive. Very few of us get our dream job right out of school; hell, very few of us ever get our dream job. All too rapidly, reality intrudes on youthful artistic idealism and no matter how much one wants to compose, or play violin, or sing, unless we can find someone willing to pay us to do so, we must all do something to make money. And then, as we get older and develop a taste for the finer things in life – like feeding, clothing, and housing our children – our day gigs become not just a matter of survival for ourselves but for those around us. Now, here and there and every now and then, someone gets very […]

The post Music History Monday: Day Gigs first appeared on Robert Greenberg.

Sep 19, 2022
Music History Monday: Robert and Clara, Sittin’ in a Tree…
19:46

We mark the marriage on September 12, 1840 – 182 years ago today – of the pianist and composer Clara Wieck (1819-1896) to the composer and pianist Robert Schumann (1810-1856).  The couple were married the day before Clara’s 21st birthday (September 13, 1840), for reasons that will be explained in detail in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post. Not for the Timid I ask: what are the most difficult things any person can attempt?  To summit K2 and return alive?  To win Olympic gold?  To overcome addiction?  To row solo across the Pacific?  All tough things to accomplish, no doubt.   What are the scariest things anyone can do?   Swim with piranhas? Eat at a barbecue restaurant next to a cat hospital?  Urinate on Mike Tyson?  Scary stuff, dangerous stuff, that. But to my mind, nothing is more soul-searingly difficult-slash terrifying than one, raising children and two, staying in a first marriage.  (Okay; I’ve probably told you more about my life than I intended to, but there it is.) Children are to people what water is to a house: children will find and reveal every flaw in your “structure” – your personality – while simultaneously sucking dry your money, patience, […]

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Sep 12, 2022
Music History Monday: Fire
18:19

We mark the premiere on September 5, 1913 – 109 years ago today – of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  Prokofiev (1891-1953) composed the piece while still a student at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory; it was completed in April of 1913.  (For our information, Prokofiev still had another year to go at the Conservatory; he didn’t graduate until May of 1914.)   The concerto received its premiere – 109 years ago today – at the Vauxhall at Pavlovsk, Pavlovsk being a sprawling Imperial palace, park, garden, and summertime concert venue some 19 miles south of St. Petersburg.  The orchestra was conducted by Alexander Aslanov, who for many years led the summer concert series there at Pavlovsk. The piano solo – with its spectacularly difficult piano part – was performed by the then 22-year-old Prokofiev himself. That premiere performance provoked quite an uproar from the audience.  That uproar will be discussed at length in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, which will be built around Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 2.   For now, we are going to talk about what happened to the actual score of Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto.  But first, some historical background without which there would be no […]

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Sep 05, 2022
Music History Monday: Bird
17:49

We mark the birth on August 29, 1920 – 102 years ago today – of the alto saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker. The trumpet player (and one-time member of Charlie Parker’s quintet) Miles Davis (1926-1991) famously said: “You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.” Miles Davis never minced words, and he does not mince them here. Along with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker was (and remains) the most innovative, influential, and technically brilliant jazz musician to have yet lived. However, before moving on to Parker, we have one other piece of date-related musical business. I know, I know: I am most aware that having broached the subject of Charlie Parker, it behooves us – out of awe and respect – to get on with his story. But along with Parker’s birth, one other event occurred on this date that demands – demands! – our attention. So please, allow me this brief excursion. On this Day in Music History Stupid On August 29, 1977 – 45 years ago today – three people were arrested in Memphis after trying to steal Elvis Presley’s body. (The New York Post headline pictured above indicates that four people were […]

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Aug 29, 2022
Music History Monday: Debussy
24:58

We celebrate the birth on August 22, 1862 – 160 years ago today – of the French composer and pianist Claude Debussy.  Born in the Paris suburb of St. Germain-en-Laye, he died in Paris on March 25, 1918, at the age of 55.  Let’s tell it like it is: Monsieur Debussy was one of the great ones.  For all of its sensual beauty – and Debussy did indeed compose some of the most gorgeous music ever written – his music is among the most original, revolutionary, and influential ever composed.  At a time when young composers like Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) were casting about for new musical models, it was Debussy’s music that became their essential inspiration. Along with Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) Debussy was the most influential composer of the twentieth century. Among the radical triumvirate of Debussy, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky, it was Debussy who was the “breakout” composer, the first composer to cultivate a musical language that broke free of the melodic and harmonic traditions of tonality, traditions that had governed Western music since the fifteenth century.  That the musical revolution started in France is most significant, for reasons to be discussed in a […]

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Aug 22, 2022
Music History Monday: Woodstock: A Triumph of Locational Branding!
20:25

We mark the opening of the so-called “Woodstock Festival” on August 15, 1969 – 53 years ago today – “so-called” for the following reasons. “Woodstock.” Even without considering the original festival that bears its name, “Woodstock”, as a placename has a homey, countryside-like quality to it. And a beautiful, quaint town it is, with a population – in 1970 – of 5714 people (it’s just about the same today). Eighty-eight miles north of New York City, within the borders of the Catskill Mountains Park, Woodstock has been a hub for musicians, writers, artists, and actors going back to the 1940s. (Even a short list of just the musicians associated with Woodstock should make our saliva run down our chins. That short list includes The Band [the members of which shared a house and two of whom – Rick Danko and Levon Helm – are buried in Woodstock Cemetery], Carla Bley, David Bowie, Jimmy Cobb, Henry Cowell, Jack DeJohnette, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Pat Metheny, Charlie Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Van Morrison, Pauline Oliveros, Graham Parker, Bonnie Raitt, Sonny Rollins, Todd Rundgren, David Sandborn, Carlos Santana, and Peter Schickele [“P.D.Q. Bach” his very self!]) The festival was created by an operation called […]

The post Music History Monday: Woodstock: A Triumph of Locational Branding! first appeared on Robert Greenberg.

Aug 15, 2022
Music History Monday: Abbey Road, and This and That
17:22

August 8 is a great day, a signal day, an epic day for both good and bad reasons in the history of popular, rock, and jazz music.  We’d observe a few of today’s date-related events before moving on to our featured story. First, with heads respectfully bowed, we would note some of those who have passed away on this date.  On August 8, 1940 – 82 years ago today – the jazz clarinetist and alto saxophonist Johnny Dodds died of a heart attack in Chicago, all-too-young at the age of 48.  I have known Dodds’ wonderful, blues-inspired playing since I was a teenager, because that’s when I fell under the spell of two of the greatest jazz ensembles of all time: Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven, groups in which Dodds played and recorded. I wrote about Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven in Dr. Bob Prescribes on July 7, 2020. On this date in 1975 – 47 years ago today – the jazz alto saxophonist and bandleader Julian Edwin “Cannonball” Adderley also died all-too-young at the age of 46 in Gary Indiana, from a stroke.  Talk about being a member of an all-time great band and making all-time […]

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Aug 08, 2022
Music History Monday: The Wayward Bach, His Wayward Daughter, and the Bachs of Oklahoma
20:12

We mark the death on August 1, 1784 – 238 years ago today – of the German composer and organist Wilhelm Friedemann Bach in Berlin at the age of 73.  Born in the central German city of Weimar on November 22, 1710, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, who from here on we will refer to as Friedemann Bach, was the second child and first son of Johann Sebastian Bach (who from this point forward we will refer to as Sebastian Bach). Friedemann Bach was a gifted musician, the equal (in my opinion) to his more famous brothers Carl Philip Emanual and Johann Christian Bach.  But unlike his brothers, Friedemann harbored personal demons that poisoned his relationships with others and led to his financial ruin later in his life.  We’ll discuss these issues in detail in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, as well as the singular disaster Friedemann’s poverty eventually wrought, when he chose to the sell off so many of his father’s precious musical manuscripts, which were then lost for all time. For the remainder of this post, we’re going to shift our focus to Friedemann Bach’s only surviving child, his daughter Friederica Sophia, who was born in the Saxon city of […]

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Aug 01, 2022
Music History Monday: Under the Covers
21:49

We mark the death on July 25, 1984 – 38 years ago today – of the American Rhythm and Blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton.  Born on December 11, 1926, she died in Los Angeles of both heart and liver disease brought on by alcohol abuse.  According to Gillian Gaar, writing in She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll (Seal Press, 1992), during the brief period of her final illness, Thornton went from 450 pounds (Big Momma!) to 95 pounds, a weight loss of some 355 pounds. Thornton scored her one-and-only hit when, on August 13, 1952, she recorded a brand-new, 12-bar blues song by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller entitled Hound Dog.   Released by Peacock Records in February 1953, Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog sold over 500,000 copies and spent fourteen weeks on the Rhythm and Blues charts, seven of those fourteen weeks at number one.  Thornton’s recording is linked below: (By the way: please ignore the photo of Josephine Baker at the top of the link; Big Momma’s left leg was bigger than all of Madame Baker.) Thornton’s recording of Hound Dog was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2013 […]

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Jul 25, 2022
Music History Monday: A Debussy Discovery!
14:33

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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Jul 18, 2022
Music History Monday: The Death of George Gershwin
20:50

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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Jul 11, 2022
Music History Monday: As American as tarte aux pommes! Celebrating the Fourth with some Real American Music! or Tampering with National Property
17:05

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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Jul 04, 2022
Music History Monday: The Fabulous Hill Sisters!
14:29

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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Jun 27, 2022
Music History Monday: Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky
18:31

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 […]

The post Music History Monday: Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky first appeared on Robert Greenberg.

Jun 20, 2022
Music History Monday: The Ultimate Fanboy: The Mad King, Ludwig II
22:59

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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Jun 13, 2022
Music History Monday: Siegfried Wagner
20:34

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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Jun 06, 2022
Music History Monday: Benjamin Britten War Requiem
18:59

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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May 30, 2022
Music History Monday: Beethoven and the Human Voice
14:18

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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May 23, 2022
Music History Monday: The Phoenix Rises!
21:04

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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May 16, 2022
Music History Monday: Little Richard: The King and Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll
24:07

We mark the death on May 9, 2020 – just two years ago today – of the American musician, singer, and songwriter Richard Wayne Penniman, known universally by his stage name of “Little Richard.” Born on December 5, 1932, in Macon, Georgia, he died at his home in Tullahoma, Tennessee two years ago today from bone cancer.  He was 87 years old. As a founding inductee to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, the following statement was read aloud: “He claims to be ‘the architect of rock and roll’, and history would seem to bear out Little Richard’s boast. More than any other performer—save, perhaps, Elvis Presley – Little Richard blew the lid off the Fifties, laying the foundation for rock and roll with his explosive music and charismatic persona. On record, he made spine-tingling rock and roll. His frantically charged piano playing and raspy, shouted vocals on such classics as Tutti Frutti, Long Tall Sally, and Good Golly, Miss Molly defined the dynamic sound of rock and roll.” Along with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ike Turner, and Bo Diddley, Little Richard was one of that handful of Black American musicians who synthesized blues, rhythm and blues […]

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May 09, 2022
Music History Monday: Giacomo Meyerbeer and French PopOp
20:42

We mark the death on May 2, 1864 – 158 years ago today – of the German-born opera composer Jacob Liebmann Beer, also-known-as Giacomo Meyerbeer.  Born in Berlin on September 5, 1791, he died in Paris during the rehearsals for the premiere of his opera L’Africaine – “The African” – which turned out to be, no surprise then, his final opera.   Let us get to know Herr/Signore/Monsieur Meyerbeer a bit even as we explore the tremendous popularity of his operas, the reasons behind that popularity, and the reasons for their fall from popularity!   No Exaggeration: As Popular as Elvis Incredible though it may seem to us, here today, Meyerbeer was the Elvis Presley of nineteenth century opera.  Not that he was a pelvis gyrating,  groupie groping “rock star” as we understand a rock star to be today, no; but in the world of nineteenth century opera, he was the most popular musician of not just his time but of his century: the single most frequently performed opera composer of the nineteenth century.  In terms of his singular international fame and his income, Meyerbeer was – more than Gioachino Rossini, more than Giuseppe Verdi, more than Richard Wagner –the […]

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May 02, 2022
Music History Monday: Puccini’s Turandot: An Opera That Almost Wasn’t
17:11

We mark the premiere performance on April 25, 1926 – 96 years ago today – of Giacomo Puccini’s twelfth and final opera, Turandot.  The premiere took place at Milan’s storied La Scala opera house and was conducted by Puccini’s friend (and occasional nemesis!) Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957).  At the time of the premiere, Puccini himself had been dead for 17 months.  And therein lies our tale.  Because given the delays in creating the libretto for Turandot, Puccini’s failing health, his leaving the opera incomplete at his death, and the controversy surrounding Turandot’s subsequent completion by the composer Franco Alfano (1875-1954), itwas indeed an opera that almost didn’t happen. Giacomo Puccini was born in the Tuscan city of Lucca on December 22, 1858, and died in Brussels, Belgium on November 29, 1924, three weeks shy of his 66th birthday.  Puccini’s operas remain among the most popular in the repertoire, but among the most critically controversial as well.  It is a controversary we will not discuss in this post; rather, I’d direct you to Music History Monday for January 14, 2019.  That post – on Puccini’s opera Tosca – wades chin-deep into the critical issues that continue to dog his work. Sometime in […]

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Apr 25, 2022
Music History Monday: Charity Begins at Home
23:29

On April 18th, 1954 – 68 freaking years ago today – the American composer, pianist, music historian, and bloviator-par-excellence Robert Michael Greenberg was born in Brooklyn, New York. The Teaching Company-slash-The Great Courses and My Favorite Things Since 1993, I have recorded 32 courses for The Teaching Company, rebranded as The Great Courses in 2006, and further rebranded in 2021 as “Wondrium.” (The less said about that latest rebrand, the better. To me, “Wondrium” sounds like an acne control or irritable bowel medication.) I am frequently asked “which is my favorite course.” That’s always an easy question to answer because the answer is whichever course I most recently recorded. As of today, that would be The Great Music of the 20th Century. (Sadly, it would appear that I am the only person who bears much affection for this course, as The Great Music of the 20th Century has proven to be among the least popular course I’ve recorded. A principal issue is the musical examples. The Teaching Company/The Great Courses could not afford to license the music I needed to play during the course, much of which was still under original copyright. So we hit upon the idea of providing […]

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Apr 18, 2022
Music History Monday: St. Matthew Passion
21:03

We mark the first performance on April 11, 1727 – on what was Good Friday 295 years ago today – of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion at the St. Thomas Church (or Thomaskirche) in the Saxon city of Leipzig. The Passion was performed three more times in Bach’s lifetime, all under his direction in Leipzig: on April 15, 1729; March 30, 1736; and on March 23, 1742. Bach revised his St Matthew Passion between 1743 and 1746, and it is this revised version that we will hear in performances and recordings today. Our game plan for this post will be, one, to discuss what a “Passion” is and what the “gospels” are; two, to observe the structure and scope and make some blanket observations about the artistic quality of Bach’s St Matthew Passion; three, to discuss “the masterpiece syndrome” and some of the good and bad things that phrase implies; four, to once again venture into the unmapped minefield that is contemporary identity politics and attempt to create a meaningful context for the St Matthew Passion; and finally, five, to speculate on how the parishioners and church officials who, having filed in and taken their seats at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche […]

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Apr 11, 2022
Music History Monday: McKinley Morganfield, a.k.a. Muddy Waters
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We mark the birth on April 4, 1913 – 109 years ago today – of the American blues singer, songwriter, and guitar and harmonica player McKinley Morganfield.  He was born in either Rolling Fork or Jug’s Corner, Mississippi. Known professionally as “Muddy Waters” (as opposed to, say “Crystal Springs”, or “Briny Deep”, or “Silty Delta”, or “Occluded H20”), Maestro Morganfield-slash-Waters died in Westmont, Illinois on April 30, 1983, at the age of 70.  We will get to Muddy Waters (as we will now refer to him) in a bit.  But April 4 is a busy day in music history and thus, I’d like to observe three other date-related events. We mark the birth – on April 4, 1922, exactly 100 years ago today – of the American composer Elmer Bernstein, in New York City.  He died in Ojai, California, on August 18, 2004, at the age of 82. Elmer Bernstein is among my very favorite film and television composers, and he would have been the lead story today if not for the fact that my Music History Monday post for April 3, 2017, already celebrated his birthday.  (I’ll own up to it: April 3 is a quiet day in music […]

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Apr 04, 2022
Music History Monday: Sergei Rachmaninoff in California
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We mark the death on March 28, 1943 – 79 years ago today – of the composer, pianist, and conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff, at his home in Beverly Hills, California. He was born on April 1, 1873, and thus died just four days before his 70th birthday. This post, as well as tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes, will focus on the last year of Rachmaninoff’s life, during which he lived in Beverly Hills, California. Rachmaninoff – all 6’6” of him! – was one of the great pianists of his (or any) time; an outstanding composer; and a more than able conductor (he was, for example, the conductor of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow from 1904-1906). Lucrative though performing as a pianist and conductor were, what Rachmaninoff really wanted to be was a composer (the composition bug is, as I will attest, something of a disease). As is the case with so many “working” composers – meaning composers who make the bulk of their income doing something other than composing – Rachmaninoff composed primarily during the summer months.  Between 1890 and 1917 – from the ages of 17 to 44 – Rachmaninoff spent those summer months composing at his home in Ivanovka, a […]

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Mar 28, 2022
Music History Monday: Ludwig van Beethoven and the Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach
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We mark the birth on March 21, 1685, of Johann Sebastian Bach in the Thuringian town of Eisenach, in what today is central Germany.  He died 65 years later, on July 28, 1750, in the Saxon city of Leipzig. I can hear the howling now, “Dr. B, hello, Bach was born on March 31, 1685, not March 21; March 31: it says so on Wikipedia!” Chill out and unknot those jockeys; let’s talk.   Wikipedia and various other sources do indeed indicate, not incorrectly, that Bach was born on March 31.  But according to the irrefutable and unassailable Bach scholar Christoff Wolff writing in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Sebastian Bach was born on March 21.  And in fact Bach celebrated his birthday on March 21.  So what gives? A Brief Contemplation of Dates (by which we do not refer to one’s social life but the calendar) Old style and new style; in style and out-of-style.  It is a question of almost Talmudic complexity.   We’re talking about calendars and the confusion wrought by changing calendars. In 46 BCE (two years before his conversion into a human pincushion), Julius Caesar proposed replacing what was the 10-month Roman […]

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Mar 21, 2022
Music History Monday: Georg Philipp Telemann
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We mark the birth of March 14, 1681 – 341 years ago today – of the German composer Georg Philipp Telemann, in the city Magdeburg, in what today is central Germany. A contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) (both of whom Telemann numbered as good friends; Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel was both the godson and namesake of Georg Philipp Telemann), Telemann was considered in his lifetime the greatest composer living and working in Germany, with our friend Sebastian Bach well down that list. Telemann died in Hamburg on June 25, 1767, at the age of 86. Georg Philipp was the youngest of three surviving children (two boys and a girl) of Maria and Heinrich Telemann. Young Telemann came from a long line of Protestant clergymen. His mother Maria’s father was a deacon, and his father Heinrich Telemann was a Lutheran pastor (as was Heinrich’s father before him). Sadly, Heinrich Telemann died his late 30’s in 1685 when Georg Philipp was just 4 years old, and the task of raising and providing for the family fell squarely on Maria Telemann’s shoulders. Single mothers are usually, by necessity, a tough bunch, and in this Maria Telemann […]

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Mar 14, 2022
Music History Monday: Unexpected Warblers
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Before we go forth to encounter the “unexpected”, a quick birthday greeting to the wonderful Maurice Ravel, who was born in the southern French municipality of Ciboure on March 7, 1875: 147 years ago today. I would direct you to my Music History Monday post of December 28, 2020, a post that celebrated Ravel’s life on the anniversary of his death on December 28, 1937, at the age of 62. Happy birthdayMaestro. “Unexpected Warblers” About my choice of topic for today. Three weeks ago, on February 14 (St. Valentine’s Day), I ran a post featuring some of the most horrific love songs ever recorded. Then, last Thursday, on February 24 (a date that now joins December 7, 1941, for its infamy due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), I ran a post entitled “Phyllis Diller, Concert Pianist: Who Knew?”, a post that celebrated the unexpected keyboard talents of Ms. Phyllis Diller (1917-2012). Today’s Music History Monday combines aspects of both of those posts, as it explores what happens when movie actors not known for being singers actually sing on film. As you might expect, the results are mixed: some of these good people will, in fact, actually surprise us (in a […]

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Mar 07, 2022
Music History Monday: John Alden Carpenter
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We mark the birth on February 28, 1876 – 146 years ago today – of the American composer and pianist John Alden Carpenter, in Chicago, Illinois. He died there in the Windy City at the age of 75, on April 26, 1951. John Alden Carpenter is certainly not a musical household name here in 2022. But 75 years ago, Carpenter was among the best known and most respected living composers, musicians (he was an outstanding pianist), and musical philanthropists in the United States. His orchestral music was regularly conducted by the likes of Walter Damrosch (who conducted the New York Symphony Orchestra), Frederick Stock (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), Leopold Stokowski, Serge Koussevitzky (the Boston Symphony Orchestra), Fritz Reiner (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), Artur Rodzinski (the New York Philharmonic), Pierre Monteux (the San Francisco Symphony), Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter (the New York Philharmonic), and Eugene Ormandy (the Philadelphia Orchestra). The list of great singers, musicians, and chamber groups that championed Carpenter’s music is equally impressive. Carpenter was the only American composer ever to be commissioned by Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) and his Ballets Russes. The product of that commission was Carpenter’s third and final ballet, Skyscrapers: A Ballet of Modern American Life […]

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Feb 28, 2022
Music History Monday: Courage
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On February 21, 2012 – ten years ago today – five members of the Russian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot staged an unauthorized performance on the soleas [so-LAY-us] of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. (For our information, a “soleas” is the sanctuary platform in a Russian Orthodox Church.) The security personnel at the church were not pleased by this impromptu performance and quickly – within a minute – put an end to it. However, following the dictum that “anything worth doing is worth recording,” Pussy Riot recorded their “performance” for posterity; that recording is linked below: Why, oh why would these masked young women so desecrate a Russian Orthodox Cathedral? They had – to their minds – good reason. Vladimir Putin was up for re-election, and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (who was born Vladimir Mikhailovich in 1946), had thrown the church’s support behind Putin’s re-election. Later that evening of February 21, 2012 – ten years ago today – Pussy Riot released a music video entitled “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” Thanks to the internet, that video circulated internationally, overnight. That video is linked below. From […]

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Feb 21, 2022
Music History Monday: Worst Love Songs (A Few at Least!)
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On February 14, 1992 – an even 30 years ago today – the Paramount Pictures movie Wayne’s World was released in the United States. It was both a critical and commercial success. It became the tenth highest grossing film of 1992, raking in $183,097,323 at the box office. (For our information, number one that year was Disney’s Aladdin, which brought in a most respectable $504,050,219 at the box office; that’s over half-a-billion 1992 dollars!) To this day, Wayne’s World remains the highest-grossing film based on a sketch from Saturday Night Live. (The list of such other SNL-inspired flicks includes The Blues Brothers [with John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, 1980; to be discussed in next week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post], Coneheads [with Dan Ackroyd and Jane Curtin, 1993], It’s Pat [with Julia Sweeny, 1994], Stuart Saves his Family [with Al Franken, 1995]; and A Night at the Roxbury [with Will Ferrell, 1998].)  With my own fond memories of the film, I played Wayne’s World last year for my then 12- and 14-year-old kids. Sadly, it did not go well, as the movie has not aged well. Then again, neither has Mike Myers nor yours truly. Wayne’s World featured appearances by the […]

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Feb 14, 2022
Music History Monday: Gregorio Allegri, Allegri’s Miserere, and Wolfgang Mozart
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We mark the death on February 7, 1652 – 370 years ago today – of the Italian composer and Sistine Chapel singer Gregorio Allegri, in Rome. He had been born in that great and ancient city 70 years before, in 1582. Allegri is remembered today for a work he composed in the 1630s, during the reign of Pope Urban VIII, entitled Miserere mei, Deus (which means “Have mercy on me, O God”). The Miserere is a setting of Psalm 50 (Psalm 51 in Protestant Bibles).  Allegri composed his Miserere specifically (and exclusively!) for use in the Sistine Chapel (the Pope’s private chapel), to be performed during the Tenebrae services of Holy Week, which occur on the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before Easter Sunday. Allegri’s setting calls for two separate choirs, one employing five voices and the other, four voices. The choirs alternate with one another until the last part of the piece, during which they join to conclude the Miserere in nine-part polyphony. As the Miserere was performed over the years, embellishments were spontaneously added by the singers, embellishments that eventually became part of any performance but were never written down.  (For our historical information: Allegri’s Miserere is often identified […]

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Feb 07, 2022
Music History Monday: With a Little Help from His Friends
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We mark the birth on January 31, 1797 – 225 years ago today – of Franz Peter Schubert, in Vienna. He died in that city 31 years, 9 months, and 19 days later, on November 19, 1828.  Franz Schubert is no stranger to Music History Monday. However, we could not let his birthday pass without a post; no way, no how. Our angle today will be to focus on those friends without whom Schubert the man and the composer could not have survived. Schubert: Image and Reality  The short, pudgy Schubert was called by his friends “Schwammerl,” which means “little mushroom.” The fully-grown Schubert was 1.57 meters tall (about 5’1”) and as his portraits attest, he never lost his cherubic appearance. The following description of the adult Schubert was written by his friend Anselm Hüttenbrenner: “Schubert’s outward appearance was anything but striking. He was short of stature, with a full, round face, and was rather stout. His forehead was very beautifully domed. Because of his short sight, he always wore spectacles which he did not take off, even during sleep. Dress was a thing in which he took no interest whatsoever; consequently, he disliked going out into smart society. He […]

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Jan 31, 2022
Music History Monday: Conrad Paumann
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We mark the death on January 24, 1473 – 549 years ago today – of the German organist, lutenist, and composer Conrad Paumann, in Munich at the age of 63. Lest I be accused of dredging up an utterly unknown musician in order to come up with a topic on an otherwise topic-shy day, let us establish the following. Born circa 1410, by the year 1447, when the 37-year-old Paumann was appointed the official organist for the city of Nuremburg, he was considered the greatest organist in all of the German speaking lands, a position Johann Sebastian Bach would occupy some 275 years later. In that year of 1447, the poet Hans Rosenplüt (1400-1460) praised Paumann as being “master of all masters” as both an instrumentalist and as a composer. According to the unimpeachable musicologist and Bach scholar Christoff Wolff: “Despite his very limited surviving output, Paumann must be considered the leading figure in 15th-century German instrumental music, known internationally not only as a virtuoso but also as a composer.” Even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – hundreds of years after his death – Paumann was still remembered as the greatest organist of his time.  Writing in his Lectiones antiquae, published between 1601 and […]

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Jan 24, 2022
Music History Monday: Mic Gillette, Tower of Power, and the Oaktown Sound
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We mark the death on January 17, 2016 – six years ago today – of the American trumpet, trombone, flugelhorn, and tuba player and teacher, Mic Gillette, of a heart attack in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Concord.  Born on May 7, 1951, in Oakland, Gillette was 64 years old at the time of his death. You might not have heard of Mic Gillette, but I can assure you have heard Mr. Gillette’s playing, time and time again.  He was a founding member (in 1968) of what I consider to be the single greatest funk-rock/soul/horn band ever, Oakland’s own Tower of Power.  Gillette also performed and recorded extensively with two other Bay Area horn bands, Cold Blood and Sons of Champlin.  As one of the most highly respected session players anywhere, Gillette has appeared on hundreds of albums, including recordings by some of the biggest names in the business, including Santana, the Rolling Stones, Sheryl Crow, Rod Stewart, Elton John, the Doobie Brothers, Quincy Jones, Jefferson Starship, Huey Lewis and the News, and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Mic Gillette was a local legend, a legend burnished by his dedication to teaching and to his family.  This post is […]

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Jan 17, 2022
Music History Monday: Handel Ripped Off
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We mark the premiere on January 10, 1713 – 309 years ago today – of George Frederick Handel’s opera Teseo at the King’s/Queen’s Theater (also-known-as the “Italian Opera Theater”) on Haymarket, in London. It was the still 27-year-old Handel’s third opera composed for the London stage and it was a great success. However, its success was marred by a potentially catastrophic backstage incident after its second performance. We quote the London journal the Opera Register, which ran the following article on January 15, 1713, five days after Teseo opened. Here is the article as it originally appeared; I’ll translate the passage into contemporary English after we’ve read the original. (The punctuation, capitalization, and spelling below are all as in the original.) “Mr O. Swiny ye Manager of ye Theatre was now setting out a New Opera, Heroick. all ye Habits new & richer than ye former with 4 New Scenes, & other Decorations & Machines. Ye Tragick Opera was called Theseus. Ye Musick composed by Mr. Handel. Ye Opera being thus prepared Mr Swiny then did give out Tickets at half a Guinea each, for two Nights ye Boxes lay’d open to ye Pit. Ye House was very full these […]

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Jan 10, 2022
Music History Monday: The Fifth Beatle
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We mark the birth on January 3, 1926 – 96 years ago today – of the English record producer, arranger, conductor, composer, audio engineer, and musician Sir George Martin, the putative “Fifth Beatle.”  Martin produced 13 albums and 22 singles for the Beatles between 1962 and 1970.  All told, it’s a body of work that adds up to less than 10 hours of music.   But here’s a case where numbers do not tell the story, because thanks to George Martin, those 9 hours-plus of recorded music revolutionized the world of popular music. Today’s post will observe just how George Martin became the Beatles’ record producer.  Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will explore the impact Martin had on the Beatles’ recordings and what is, in my humble opinion, his masterwork: the Love album of 2006. But first: a dinner conversation that I believe you will find most interesting.  What Makes a Song “Last”? My neighbor across the street is a big, smart, outspoken man named John McGleenan. I love John.   He came to the United States from Dublin, Ireland, in 1992 at the age of 24, here to make his fame and fortune.  He has done both.  He founded […]

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Jan 03, 2022
Music History Monday: Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 7
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We mark the completion on December 27, 1941 – an even 80 years ago today – of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, the so-called “Leningrad Symphony.”  He had begun the symphony at home in Leningrad but completed it in Kuybishev, a city today known by its original name as Samara.  Located on the Volga River just west of the Ural Mountains, Kuybishev-slash-Samara was one of a number of “safe havens” set up by the Soviet government to protect its intelligentsia from the invading Nazi hordes. Background: With Friends Like These . . . On August 23, 1939, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet government signed a pact of nonaggression and friendship with Adolf Hitler’s Germany.  In a secret protocol, among other things, it was agreed that the Soviet Union and Germany would, between them slice ‘n’ dice and then gobble up Poland; and that the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia would stay within the Soviet sphere of influence.  In return, Stalin pledged to stay out of any war between Germany and any of the Western democracies. And so the Stalinist demon sold its soul to the Hitlerian devil.  The pact stunned the world.  Russia and Germany – the two great continental […]

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Dec 27, 2021
Music History Monday: Arthur Rubinstein: Fake It ‘Til You Make It
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We mark the death on December 20, 1982 – 39 years ago today – of the Polish-born American pianist Arthur Rubinstein, at the age of 95. Practicing the Piano Question: does anyone really like to practice the piano? Answer: believe it or not, yes. However, we’d observe that those good people who really like to practice are – frankly – in the minority. The vast minority. Now, obviously, there is a galactic difference between the practice schedules of kids and adult hobbyists taking piano lessons and serious students of music and professional musicians. We would expect the latter – serious students and professionals – to be practice room junkies, addicted to practice and inseparable from their instruments. But this is not always the case. Which brings us to the pianist Arthur (or Artur) Rubinstein (1887-1982). Rubinstein in America, 1906 Rubinstein made his first concert tour of the United States in 1906, when he was 19 years old. It did not go particularly well. Rubinstein played his first solo recital in New York City. Henry Krehbiel (1854-1923), the famed music critic for The New York Tribune, was there and his review was scathing. How scathing I do not know, as the […]

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Dec 20, 2021
Music History Monday: Why We Shouldn’t Bring Our Dogs to Work: A Cautionary Tale
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As those who read via blog and/or listen via podcast to Music History Monday know, as often as not I’ll mention two, three, or even more date related items before getting to the “main attraction” of a particular post. However, every now and then, one of those preliminary items will take on a life of its own and demand – rather curtly I would add – to be the main attraction itself. That’s precisely what has happened today. The original title for today’s Music History Monday was An American in Paris. Here is that post’s lead: “We mark the premiere on December 13, 1928 – 93 years ago today – of George Gershwin’s orchestral work An American in Paris. The premiere took place in Carnegie Hall, with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Philharmonic.” We will briefly deal with the creation and premiere of George Gershwin’s An American in Paris before moving on to the canine-related item that has stolen today’s show. Be assured, however, that we will return to An American in Paris and what was to be the meat-and-potatoes of today’s post on Thursday, December 23. A Brooklynite in Paris In the spring of 1926, George and Ira […]

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Dec 13, 2021
Music History Monday: Altamont
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We mark the disastrous concert held on December 6, 1969 – 52 years ago today – at the Altamont Speedway here in Alameda Country in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Over 300,000 people attended, four of whom died that day, one of them at the hands of the so-called “security personnel.” The word “Altamont” has become synonymous with “rock concert disasters.” However, before we get to the tragic events of December 6, 1969, we would recognize an event that occurred on this day in 1975, 46 years ago today, in this edition of “This Day in Music Stupid.” On Saturday, December 6, 1975, the Reverend Charles Boykin – associate pastor and youth director of the Lakewood Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Florida – gave a talk to the young people of his church on “evil effects of rock music on youth.”  Not content to just talk-the-talk, the good reverend had his charges gather up their rock ‘n’ records, including those by Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Cream, the Doors, and Neil Diamond, and burned them.   Boykin claimed to have been inspired by a nameless professor at Hyles-Anderson College (an unaccredited private independent Baptist college in unincorporated Crown Point, in Lake County, Indiana), […]

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Dec 06, 2021
Music History Monday: What to Do About Otello?
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Before getting to the question that drives today’s post, we would recognize five date-worthy events: a tragedy; two notable cancellations, and two notable opera performances. First, the tragedy. On November 29, 2001 – 20 years ago today – George Harrison died in Los Angeles of lung cancer at the age of 58.  Born in Liverpool on February 25, 1943, Harrison was the youngest of the Beatles: just 16 years old when he joined up in 1959.  Though not known for his song writing early on, Harrison’s contributions to the band’s repertoire came to rival those of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  Harrison contributed four songs to the Beatles second to last album, released in November of 1968 and nicknamed “The White Album” for its plain white cover.  Among those four songs is the exquisite While My Guitar Gently Weeps (the recording of which features Eric Clapton on lead guitar).  Harrison’s two contributions to the Beatles’ final album – Abby Road, released in 1969 – are both rock classics: Here Comes the Sun and Something. (John Lennon declared that Something was the best song on the album, and it is the second most covered Beatles song, after Paul McCartney’s Yesterday.  The […]

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Nov 29, 2021
Music History Monday: Benjamin Britten: The Making of a Composer
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We mark the birth on November 22, 1913 – 108 years ago today – of the English composer, pianist, and conductor Edward Benjamin Britten in Lowestoft, Suffolk, on the eastern coast of England, roughly 105 miles northeast of London. He died in nearby Aldeburgh on December 4, 1976, at the age of 63. The danger of overstatement is great when tossing around superlatives, but with Britten it’s no danger at all. He was not just the most important English composer of the twentieth century; he was quite arguably the most important English-born composer since Henry Purcell, who was born in London in 1659, 246 years before Britten. Britain composed scads of music(that’s a musical term, “scads”): orchestral music, choral music, chamber music, vocal music, and film music as well. But pride of place must go to his dramatic works: his War Requiem (of 1962) and his fifteen operas. Those operas include Peter Grimes (1945), Billy Budd (1951), Turn of the Screw (1954), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), Prodigal Son (1968), and Death in Venice (1974). Britten’s operas constitute, by any measure, the most significant body of opera composed during the twentieth century. Britten was lucky enough to have experienced fame […]

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Nov 22, 2021
Music History Monday: A Day of First Performances!
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We will observe the first performances that occurred on this date and contemplate, as well, the nature and reality of a “first performance” in a moment. But first. I know; I know. We collectively wait, with breaths bated, for today’s “This Day in Musical Stupid.” Sadly, aside from this very post, I have not been able to dig up any particular date-related event that would so qualify. However, I did find a brief but compelling item that qualifies under the heading, “This Day in Musical ENVY”, the envy being my own. Here’s the item. On November 15, 1956 – 65 years ago today – the 21-year-old Elvis Presley (1935-1977) celebrated his new-found success by buying himself a brand-new Harley Davidson motorcycle. He spent the remainder of the day tooling around Memphis on his new bike with a “friend” nestled on the seat behind him: the then 18-year-old actress, Natalie Wood (1938-1981). Okay people: let’s put ourselves in Elvis Presley’s riding boots. Can we imagine being 21 years old, poised at the edge of phenomenal fame and fortune, buying a Harley and driving around town with Natalie Wood’s arms around you, her young, nubile body pressed up around your back? Think […]

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Nov 15, 2021
Music History Monday: Maximilian Stadler: Witness to History
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We mark the death on November 8, 1833 – 188 years ago today – of the Austrian pianist, composer, and Benedictine monk, Maximilian Stadler. Born on August 4, 1748, in the Austrian city of Melk, Abbé Stadler died in his adopted home city of Vienna. Witnesses to History We contemplate “witnesses to history,” who I’m going to categorize as “chroniclers” and “bystanders”. “Chroniclers” would be those individuals who, advertently or inadvertently, were witness to historical events which they then reported, firsthand.  For example, John “Jack” Silas Reed (1887-1920). Reed was an American journalist, poet, and communist activist. A prominent World War One war correspondent, Reed was in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) immediately before during and after the Russian Revolution, which he witnessed as a member of the revolutionary inner circle. His book, Ten Days That Shook the World (published in 1919) remains, despite Reed’s parochial political leanings, a riveting, firsthand account of the October Revolution. Then there’s the American journalist and war correspondent William Shirer (1904-1993). As the European bureau chief for CBS, Shirer was headquartered in Vienna and was a firsthand witness to the “Anschluss”, the Nazi “annexation” of Austria on March 11, 1938. He reported the Munich agreement and Hitler’s occupation of […]

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Nov 08, 2021
Music History Monday: La Divina in Chicago
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We mark the American operatic debut on November 1, 1954 – 67 years ago today – of “La Divina” – “the divine one” – meaning Maria Callas at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Callas performed her signature role of Norma in Vincenzo Bellini’s opera of the same name under the baton of Nicola Rescigno. I have never envied great athletes or dancers, except perhaps for the income potential of the former. My (general) lack of envy stems from the all-too-brief shelf life of such careers. With rare exception – Phil Niekro, George Blanda, George Foreman, and Tom Brady come to mind – most top athletes and dancers hit their prime in their twenties. By their thirties, wear and tear and the aging process have damaged their bodies and eroded their skills and will soon enough bring their careers to an end. (Magnificent though they still are, Steph Curry [33 years old, born 1988] and LeBron James [presently still 36 years old, born 1984] are considered to be among the “old men” of their sport, that being professional basketball. An old man at 33? Please.) What professional athletes, dancers, and musicians all have in common is that they will have begun […]

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Nov 01, 2021
Music History Monday: Johannes Brahms and his Symphony No. 4
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We mark the world premiere – on October 25, 1885, 136 years ago today – of Johannes Brahms’ fourth and final symphony.  Performed by the superb Meiningen Court Orchestra, the performance was conducted by Brahms himself.  It went well. We’ll get to Herr Doktor Professor Brahms in a bit.  But first, some gratuitous, auto back slapping. I began writing these Music History Monday posts in September of 2016.  That was when Melanie Smith, President of San Francisco Performances (for which I am the Music-Historian-in-Residence) asked me to write some sort of regular feature for SFP’s Facebook page.  Here’s the first paragraph of my first post: a celebration of the birthday of Anton Diabelli (1771-1858, as in Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations) that appeared on September 5, 2016: “Welcome to what will become a weekly feature here on the San Francisco Performances Facebook page, ‘Music History Monday.’ (As titles go that’s about as thrilling as root canal, but it is an accurate description of the feature’s content so run with it we will.) Every Monday I will dredge up some timely, perhaps intriguing and even, if we are lucky, salacious chunk of musical information relevant to that date, or to San Francisco Performances’ […]

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Oct 25, 2021
Music History Monday: Viktor Ullman, the Musical Bard of Terezín
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We mark the death on October 18, 1944 – 77 years ago today – of the composer and pianist Viktor Ullmann, in a gas chamber at the concentration and death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Nazi-occupied Poland. Last week’s Music History Monday focused on a soft-rock song entitled Je t’aime… Moi non plus by the French singer-songwriter, author, filmmaker, and actor Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991), and recorded in 1969 by Gainsbourg and the English singer, songwriter, and actress Jane Birkin (born 1946). Musically, the song is, pardon, beaucoup de merde. Nevertheless, it climbed to number one on charts across the globe. That’s because over the course of the song, Ms. Birkin’s heavy breathing leads to a simulated orgasm at the “climax” of the song. As we observed last week, “sex sells.” We also observed that those arbiters of morality – of which there is never a dearth – declared the song “obscene” and it was banned from radio play by hundreds (if not thousands) of radio stations. I pointed out then as I would again now: that at an “obscenity level” from one to ten, Je t’aime… rates – maybe – a 00.5, while the tragic fate of the Czechoslovakian composer Viktor […]

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Oct 18, 2021
Music History Monday: Sex Sells
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There was a time, in the not terribly distant past (in our days of relative musical innocence), when a little heavy breathing was all it took to get a recording banned from the airwaves. Today we celebrate just such an event. On October 11, 1969 – 52 years ago today – a song entitled Je t’aime… Moi non plus, which means “I love you . . . me neither” hit number 1 on the UK singles chart. Written by the French singer-songwriter, author, filmmaker, and actor Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) and performed on record by Gainsbourg and the English singer, songwriter, actress, and former model Jane Birkin (born 1946), the song was controversial. Because of what was considered its overtly sexual content, the song was banned by many radio stations across Europe and North America. For the first time in the history of the BBC show Top of the Pops, the show’s producers refused to broadcast Je t’aime… Moi non plus despite the fact that it was the BBC’s “Number 1” song. *Public Service Announcement* Aspects of this post and its language are going to be off-color and perhaps off-putting, particularly for those who find sexual references offensive. If you are […]

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Oct 11, 2021
Music History Monday: Lending a Hand
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Before moving on to the main topic for today’s post, I would like to announce a new feature here on Music History Monday, something called “This Day in Musical Stupid.” I explain. As regular readers of this post know, I will, occasionally, dedicate a post to the shenanigans and sometimes plain old idiocy of musicians as they go about their daily lives and business. More often (far more often!) than not, such antics are perpetrated by pop, rock, rap, and hip-hop “artists”, but frankly, not always. In the past, if there is a topic of genuine import on a given Monday, I would ignore such events. In the past, I have only reported them when there was nothing else to write about. My thinking on this has changed. Why should I deny you the special pleasure that observing other people’s stupidity can give? Exactly. So whenever I can, I will initiate a Music History Monday post with just such a date appropriate event. Here’s today’s “This Day in Musical Stupid.” Just so, musicians, who are, in their own right athletes, must know their physical limits. Yes: we read about Franz Liszt (1811-1886) holing up in 1831 at the age of […]

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Oct 04, 2021
Music History Monday: Dvořák in America
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We mark the arrival on September 27, 1892 – 129 years ago today – of the Bohemian-born Czech composer Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) to the United States, here to take up the Directorship of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. He retained the directorship for 2½ years – until March of 1895 – at which time he and his family returned to Prague. Antonin Dvořák in 1891 By 1891 – at the age of fifty – Dvořák was that rarest of living composers: successful, appreciated by a worldwide public, and relatively wealthy. Regarded by many as the second-greatest living composer after Brahms, the nationalist Czech-accent with which Dvořák’s music spoke made it, in reality, much more “popular” than Brahms’ music. It was Dvořák’s fame as a “nationalist” composer that brought him to the attention of a rich American woman by the name of Jeanette Meyers Thurber (1850-1946). Mrs. Thurber was the wife of a wholesale grocer and was, herself, a musician of talent, having been educated at the Paris Conservatoire.  Jeanette Thurber was one of the greatest patrons of music the United States has ever known. I would suggest that had she given her name to any of […]

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Sep 27, 2021
Music History Monday: Finland, Jean Sibelius, and the Case of the Missing Symphony
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We mark the death on September 20, 1957 – 64 years ago today – of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, in Järvenpää (yes, that’s a lot of umlauts), Finland. Born on December 8, 1865, in Hameenlinna, Finland, Sibelius was 91 years old when he died. Scandanavia Scandinavia is the Canada of Europe: a huge, climatically challenged area of extraordinary beauty that has produced an artistic community the breadth and depth of which is way out of proportion with its relatively small population. Of course, the cynic might suggest that in such northern climes, where it’s so dark and so cold and you have to stay indoors for so much of the year, there are just so many things you can do after you’ve eaten, slept, drank, and reproduced, and playing a round of golf in February is not one of them, thus encouraging – perhaps – the production of art. Certainly, Scandinavia is a vast environment of physical extremes that challenges both the body and the soul, an environment that encourages reflection and contemplation. … Continue reading, only on Patreon! Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

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Sep 20, 2021
Music History Monday: Leopold Stokowski
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We mark the death, on September 13, 1977 – 44 years ago today – of the British conductor Leopold Anthony Stokowski, in Nether Wallop, Hampshire, United Kingdom, 67.6 miles (give or take) southwest of London.  Born in London on April 18 (the maestro and I share that day and month of birth) 1882, Stokowski was 95 years old when he died.  He was still recording for Columbia Records at the time of his death; his contract with Columbia would have kept him in the recording studio until he was 100 years old.   I will confess that I am always a bit loath to write about and celebrate conductors.  It’s not that I have anything against conductors, it’s just that so many of them spend so much of their time celebrating themselves that I feel, well, superfluous.   On just those lines, when it came to naked self-promotion and downright mythologizing, no conductor – and we mean not a one, not even Leonard Bernstein (who in many ways modelled his career on Stokowski’s) – could match Leopold Stokowski.   I’ll present a quick overview of his life and career, after which we’ll delve into those aspects of that life and […]

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Sep 13, 2021
Music History Monday: Mozart in Prague
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We mark the premiere on September 6, 1791 – 230 years ago today – of Wolfgang Mozart’s final opera La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency [or Mercy] of Titus), K. 621. Commissioned by the Prague-based opera producer and impresario Domenico Guardasoni (circa 1731-1806), the opera received its premiere at Prague’s Estates Theater, where Mozart’s Don Giovanni had been premiered as well in October 1787. (Put a visit to Prague’s Estates Theater on your bucket list; it’s the last surviving theater in which Mozart himself performed.)  We will get into the particulars of La Clemenza di Tito in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post. For the remainder of today’s Music History Monday, we’re going to explore the special relationship Mozart had with the audience in Prague, and why he might have lived a long and fruitful life had he chosen to leave Vienna and relocate to Prague. The city of Prague is the historic capital of the region of Bohemia and today the capitol of the Czech Republic. It’s beauty, history, and sheer magic (I know of no better word) are stunning. It is my experience that like Paris and Venice, Prague never fails to exceed expectations. Relatively untouched by World War Two (physically, at […]

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Sep 06, 2021
Music History Monday: Oh, Behave!
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Every now and again, circumstances force us to plum the tawdry here in Music History Monday. Usually, those “circumstances” are a dearth of good topics to write about; today is such a day. (In fact, there is an excellent, August 30th-associated topic we could have focused on: the completion of Shostakovich’s extremely controversial Symphony No. 9 of 1945. But, alas, I wrote about Shostakovich’s death just three weeks ago, on August 9, and as this feature is called Music History Monday and not Music History Shostakovich, we’ll have to take a pass on the Shosty 9 for now.) My typical fallback on such otherwise event-challenged dates is to find some date related craziness in the world of popular music and then extrapolate outwards, discussing other like examples that are not date related. However, we needn’t do that for August 30, because enough crazy, pop-world merde happened on this date to easily fill a post. So here we go! (Actually, for just a moment, here we not go.  You might rightly ask, why are we celebrating – and by doing so, perhaps even in some way encouraging – the antics of pop stars here on the august pages of Patreon? For […]

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Aug 30, 2021
Music History Monday: Moritz Moszkowski
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We mark the birth on August 23, 1854 – 167 years ago today – of the German-Polish composer, pianist, and teacher Moritz Moszkowski in the Prussian/Silesian city of Breslau, today the Polish city of Wrocław. He died in Paris on March 4, 1925, at the age of 70. Moszkowski was one of the most famous pianist-composers of his time, someone who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894), Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), and Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) Paderewski paid his friend and fellow Pole Moszkowski the ultimate compliment when he said that:  “After Chopin [who was, and remains, the great Polish national hero] Moszkowski best understands how to write for the piano, and his writing embraces the whole gamut of piano technique.” In the end – painfully, tragically, inevitably (or so it so often seems) – talent, success, and fame were no match for time, aging, and illness, and died in obscurity and poverty, a broken man. Sadly and unjustly, he and his music languish in near-total obscurity today.… Continue reading, only on Patreon! Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast

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Aug 23, 2021
Music History Monday: William John Evans
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We mark the birth on August 16, 1929 – 92 years ago today – of the jazz pianist and composer William John “Bill” Evans, in Plainfield, New Jersey. He died, tragically and all-too-young on September 15, 1980 in New York City at the age of 51. Just a week before his death, Evans had completed a nine-day run (from August 31 to September 8, 1980) at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. That run was recorded and issued on an 8-cd set entitled The Last Waltz, which will be among therecommended recordings in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post. Apropos of that appearance at the Keystone Korner, Jesse Hamlin, music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle writes: “Evans played with such fervor during that nine-day stint that his enraptured audiences would’ve found it hard to believe that his body was wasting away and that he’d be dead a week later.” All early, unnecessary deaths are tragic. Bill Evans’ death holds a special poignancy in that it was not only self-inflicted, but he had, in the end, lost his will to live. In the end, he was only able to ignore his disintegrating body while he was playing the piano. But not […]

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Aug 16, 2021
Music History Monday: Shostakovich’s Death
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We mark the death on August 9, 1975 – 46 years ago today – of the composer Dmitri Shostakovich at the age of 68, in Moscow. He was born on September 25, 1906, in St. Petersburg. Does Stress Kill? If stress kills, Dmitri Shostakovich should never have lived past the age of 30. In his early teens, as a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory (or what was then called, the “Petrograd” Conservatory), he and his classmates suffered severe malnutrition due to the Russian Civil War (which ran from 1917-1922). But he survived. In 1936, some eight months before his 30th birthday, he was officially purged on the orders of Joseph Stalin himself during the Great Terror. Few people expected Shostakovich to survive, least of all himself. Later admitting to having been suicidal, he lay awake at night, too terrified to sleep, waiting for the van (the feared “Black Maria”), to take him away. But he survived. In 1941, he survived the early stages of the Siege of Leningrad and in 1948, he was once again purged for writing music considered to be too modern and too personally self-expressive, music that did not subscribe to Soviet ideologic dicta. Again he […]

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Aug 09, 2021
Music History Monday: Carlos Chávez
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We mark the death on August 2, 1978 – 43 years ago today – of the Mexican composer, pianist, conductor, music educator, and journalist Carlos Chávez at the age of 79, in Mexico City. What’s the Problem Here? Allow me, por favor, to express a pet peeve framed as a question: why has the concert music of twentieth century and early twenty-first century Central and South American composers been so rarely performed and discussed in North America?  Note, please, that I qualified my pet-peeve-framed-as-a-question with the phrase “so rarely performed.” That’s because such performances are admittedly ticking up, particularly in those states bordering on Mexico: California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. However, had I broached that question before moving to California in 1978, I would have asked – based on my own admittedly spotty experience – “why is the concert music of twentieth century Central and South American composers never performed in North America?” That’s because, speaking personally, in all my years attending concerts in the great American northeast while growing up, I never, not once, ever, heard a piece of authentic Central or South American music performed. Of course there were performances here and there, but not frequently enough […]

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Aug 02, 2021
Music History Monday: Franz Xaver Mozart and the Grandmother of All Shadows
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Let us wish a happy birthday to three notable musicians, the third of whom will be the topic of today’s post. On July 26, 1785 – 236 years ago today – the composer, pianist, and teacher John Field was born in Dublin. His Nocturnes for piano powerfully influenced those of Frédéric Chopin. Field died far from home, in Moscow, on January 23, 1837, at the age of 51. We mark the birth on July 26, 1874 – 147 years ago today – of the conductor and double-bass player Serge Koussevitzky in the Russian city of Vishny Volotchok. He served as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949 and was a tireless champion of contemporary music. He founded the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Massachusetts in 1937 and created the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in 1942. He died at the age of 76 in New York City on June 4, 1951. Okay: here we go. We mark the birth on July 26, 1791 – 230 years ago today – of the composer, pianist, conductor and teacher Franz Xaver Mozart, in Vienna. He died in Karlsbad, Austria at the age of 53, on July 29, 1844. He also went […]

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Jul 26, 2021
Music History Monday: “V” for Victory!
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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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Jul 19, 2021
Music History Monday: Johann Joachim Quantz and his Most Famous Student
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We mark the death on July 12, 1773 – 248 years ago today – of the German composer, flutist, and teacher Johann Joachim, or “J. J.” Quantz, in Potsdam Germany, at the age of 76.  Honchos Who Can Play We contemplate the musical abilities of some national leaders. The Roman Emperor Nero (that would be Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who lived from December 37 to June 68, when he was assasinated at the age of 30 after a 14-year reign).  Nero famously played the lyre (and not the “fiddle”, which only came into existence some 1500 years after his death). Whether he actually “lyred” as Rome burned on the night of July 18 and 19, 64 we’ll never really know. What we do know is whatever other issues he had (and Nero had issues), artistic self-doubt was not among them. Anticipating his death, he paced up and down, muttering “Qualis artifex pereo” (“What an artist dies in me”).  Harry Truman (1884-1972), the 33rd President of these United States, was a competent pianist. Richard Nixon (1913-1994), the 37th President of the United States, was an even more accomplished pianist than Truman, and an equally accomplished violinist (he studied both instruments from […]

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Jul 12, 2021
Music History Monday: George Rochberg and the Great Dilemma
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We mark the birth on July 5, 1918 – 103 years ago today – of the American composer George Rochberg (pronounced ROCK-berg). He died at the age of 86 on May 29, 2005. Rochberg was of that generation of composers who, having served in the military during World War Two, found himself a radically changed person and artist by the war’s end in 1945. Like other composers of his generation – Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and György Ligeti – to name but a few – Rochberg’s aesthetic and world view were altered forever. Like the composers named above, he sought a modernist musical language relevant to what appeared to be an entirely new world. We’ll talk about the nature of much post-war modernism in just a bit; suffice it for now that it is music of daunting compositional complexity and sadly, far more often than not, unremitting ugliness. But then personal tragedy forced Rochberg to re-examine the roots and premises of his musical modernism. In 1972, with the composition of his String Quartet No. 3, Rochberg, musically reborn, re-emerged as a composer of a different sort of music with an entirely new aesthetic behind it. George […]

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Jul 05, 2021
Music History Monday: Adolphe Sax
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On June 28, 1846 – 175 years ago today – Adolphe Sax patented the saxophone family as a group of eight (not seven, as is often erroneously stated) instruments. Of these eight “saxophones”, four remain in common use today: the soprano and tenor saxophones, both pitched in B-flat, and the alto and baritone saxophones, both pitched in E-flat. The invention of the saxophone was a stunning achievement. Never before or since has a single individual created an entirely new family of instruments. That’s Not Funny! In the musical world there are all sorts of jokes (nasty jokes!) that are considered stereotypically appropriate for the sorts of people that play certain instruments. Most common are viola jokes. That’s not because there’s anything inherently funny about violas or the people who play them but because violists tend to be naturally supportive, genuinely nice people, people who will usually will not fight back when joshed but rather, will smile a melancholy smile, roll their eyes, and shake their heads. Question: what’s the difference between a viola and a coffin? Answer: with the coffin, the dead person is on the inside. No respect. But other instruments and their players have their own jokes as […]

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Jun 29, 2021
Music History Monday: The Mastersingers of Nuremberg
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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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Jun 21, 2021
Music History Monday: Henry Mancini
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We mark the death on June 14, 1994 – 27 years ago today – of the composer, songwriter, conductor, and arranger Enrico Nicola “Henry” Mancini in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of seventy. Known primarily for his film and television scores, Mancini received twenty Grammy Awards and four Oscars.  Today’s Music History Monday and Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes posts are conceived as a single large unit. Here’s how they will play out. Henry Mancini was the most influential American film composer of his generation. He was also the outstanding composer of what is now called the “modern Hollywood film score.” Today’s post will dwell on what constitutes the “modern Hollywood film score”, how it evolved, why it evolved, and why Mancini is considered its supreme representative. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will offer up Mancini’s biography along with the recommended discs, which feature his best-known works, including his Oscar-winning songs Moon River and Days of Wine and Roses, and his scores to Peter Gunn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Pink Panther, among many others.  My Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes posts for February 8 and 9 of this year, respectively, dealt with the life and music of […]

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Jun 14, 2021
Music History Monday: When Opera Singers Misbehave
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On June 7, 1727 – 294 years ago today – a long-running feud between the sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni broke out into open warfare – a screaming, hair-pulling, dress-ripping physical altercation on stage, in London – during a performance of Giovanni Bonancini’s opera Astianatte (of 1725). After pulling the “ladies” apart and dragging them from the stage, not only was the remainder of the performance cancelled but the remainder of George Frederick Handel’s Royal Academy of Music opera season as well! (FYI: Sources are in disagreement as to whether this brouhaha took place on Tuesday, June 6 or Wednesday, June 7, 1727. Obviously, I’ve chosen to run with the latter date.) Here’s what happened. The Italian operatic soprano Francesca Cuzzoni was born in Parma on April 2, 1696, and died on June 19, 1778 in Bologna. In 1718, at the age of 22, she made her Venetian operatic debut: the equivalent today of making a La Scala or Metropolitan Opera debut.  By 1723 – the year she made her London debut – Cuzzoni was one of the most celebrated singers in all of Europe. Then as now, star singers ruled the operatic roost, and London’s greatest opera impresario […]

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Jun 07, 2021
Music History Monday: Haydn’s Death and His Final Road Trip
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We mark the death, on May 31, 1809 – 212 years ago today – of the incomparable Joseph Haydn, at his home in Vienna at Kleine Steingasse 73 (today, the address is Haydngasse 19). At the time of his death, he was 77 years old and was, without any doubt, the most popular and beloved composer in the Western world. Franz Joseph Haydn was born on March 31, 1732 in the Austrian town of Rohrau. He was as self-made a person as any we’ll ever meet. A choirboy at St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna, he was booted out onto the mean streets of Vienna when his voice changed at the age of 16 and left entirely to his own devices. He subsisted in a Viennese garret, giving lessons and playing the violin in dance bands while he taught himself to compose. To indulge the cliché, the young dude attended the school of hard knocks and managed to graduate summa cum laude. He slowly climbed the Viennese musical ladder and in 1761 – at the age of 29 – took up a position with the Esterházy family, a fabulously wealthy family of Hungarian nobles. His position was that of Vice-Kapellmeister – […]

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May 31, 2021
Music History Monday: George Bridgetower, Louis van Beethoven, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and a Sonata for Violin!
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We mark the premiere on May 24, 1803 – 218 years ago today – of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47. When published in 1805, it was dedicated to the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, and has been known as the “Kreutzer Sonata” ever since. However, it was originally dedicated to the famed violinist George Bridgetower, who, along with Beethoven, premiered the work 218 years ago today. How and why George Bridgetower originally received and then lost the dedication of the sonata makes for quite a story! General Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (1763-1844) was an extraordinary character, the only of Napoleon Bonaparte’s generals to achieve any post-Napoleonic success on his own: he reigned as King of Norway and Sweden from 1818-1844. (Not bad for the son of a tailor from the nowheresville city of Pau in southwestern France!)  In February of 1798, long before he became King of Sweden and Norway (where he was known as “Charles/Carl XIV John”), the young and Hollywood good-looking Bernadotte was appointed the French minister to the Habsburg Emperor in Vienna. He didn’t last long in the job; Napoleon himself referred to Bernadotte as being “somewhere between hotheaded and crazy”, but he […]

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May 24, 2021
Music History Monday: The Making of an Eccentric: Erik Satie
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We mark the birth, on May 17, 1866 – 155 years ago today – of the French composer and provocateur Erik Alfred-Leslie Satie. He was born in the ancient port town of Honfleur, situated in Normandy at the mouth of the Seine River on the English Channel, roughly 100 miles northwest of Paris. According to a brief biographical snippet found on the internet, Satie was: “Known for his eccentricities and verbal virtuosity.” Oh my goodness, that’s not even a hundredth of it! This post is dedicated to Satie’s life and personality. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes will delve more deeply into his music, specifically his masterwork, Socrate, of 1918.  A preemptive apologia. There will be sections in this post that will drop names faster than a flock of gulls does guano. That’s okay; Satie lived and worked in Paris during a period called the Belle Époque, during which the city was home to a concentration of talent – artistic, literary, and musical – perhaps unparalleled in human history before or since.  On the Fringe Satie followed his own drummer from almost the beginning of his life. Her lost his mother to illness in 1872, when he was just six. He moved […]

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May 17, 2021
Music History Monday: The Riot at the Astor Place Opera House
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We mark the deadly riot on May 10, 1849 – 172 years ago today – that took place at the Astor Place Opera House in New York City. Between 22 and 31 people were killed and many hundreds more injured, in a riot that pitted immigrants and members of the working class against the wealthy elite who controlled the city’s police and militia.  Gala Openings, Class War, and Opera (and Theater) in the United States We’ve all seen pictures of the things; I imagine some of us have even attended them: opera galas. In San Francisco (where the San Francisco Opera is second only to the Metropolitan Opera in terms of its budget and number of performances), the season opening opera gala is the major social event for those fine people who “do” major social events. Tickets for the gala cost a small fortune. For the men, black tie is de rigueur; for the women, off-the-shoulder gowns, freshly coiffed hair, and tons of jewelry are, but of course. As best as I can tell, the social point of the gala is to be perceived as a member of the exclusive club that is “high society”: to be seen and to […]

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May 10, 2021
Music History Monday: The Word’s the Thing: Betty Comden and Adolph Green
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May 3 is a date rich in birthdays for American popular music. Let us acknowledge three of them before moving on to the particular birthday that has inspired this post. On May 3, 1919 – 102 years ago today – the American folk singer and songwriter Pete Seeger was born in New York City. Seeger was the prototypical American folk-singing, left-wing social activist. A man and musician allied with the working class and workers’ rights, he was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era only to re-emerge as an important singer of protest music in the 1960s in the service of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement, international disarmament, the environment, and whatever might be considered the “counterculture” at any given time. As a prominent voice and songwriter on the radio in the 1940s and founding member of the Weavers (in 1948), Seeger created a body of music that remains the backbone of the folk repertoire, including such songs as Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song), Kisses Sweeter Than Wine and Turn! Turn! Turn! He died an American legend on January 27, 2014 at the age of 94.  On May 3, 1933 […]

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May 03, 2021
Music History Monday: Tchaikovsky in America
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We mark the arrival in New York City on April 26, 1891 – 130 years ago today – of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He had come to America to conduct his own music and to help inaugurate Carnegie Hall (on May 5, 1891) by conducting his own Coronation Festival Overture.  Tchaikovsky at Fifty Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in the Russian town Votkinsk, roughly 630 miles east of Moscow. He might have started his life in the sticks, but he didn’t stay there, and by the age of fifty – in 1890 – he was one of the most beloved composers in the world and a Russian national hero. Photographs taken at the time depict a balding, grey haired and bearded man seemingly well advanced of fifty years, though in this, appearances can be deceiving. At the age of fifty Tchaikovsky was at the very top of his musical game and at the apogee of his fame. A single anecdote will suffice for his stature among contemporary Russian artists. During the winter of 1889, Tchaikovsky met a young medical-student-turned-writer at his brother Modest’s house named Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). At the time of their meeting Tchaikovsky expressed admiration […]

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Apr 26, 2021
Music History Monday: To the memory of an Angel
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We mark the posthumous premiere on April 19, 1936 – 85 years ago today – of Alban Berg’s breathtaking Violin Concerto. Its score bears a double dedication: “To Louis Krasner” (1903-1995; Krasner was the violinist who commissioned and premiered the concerto) and “To the Memory of an Angel” (the significance of which will be explained in due time). Albano Maria Johannes Berg was born in Vienna on February 9, 1885. He died there 50 years later, on December 24, 1935. Berg was born into a highly cultured family that travelled in the highest circle of Vienna’s cultural elite, at a time when Vienna was home to a staggering amount of talent. Berg numbered among his friends Gustav and Alma Mahler, the writers Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) and Karl Kraus (1874-1936); the architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933); and the artists Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). Among others. That’s quite a crew. A tall (he grew to be 6’5” in height), gangly, shy child, the young Berg was more interested in literature than music. A few elementary piano lessons aside, Berg had no formal musical training whatsoever until 1904, when he was 19. That was when he began composition lessons with the […]

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Apr 19, 2021
Music History Monday: Dr. Burney
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We mark the death on April 12, 1814 – 207 years ago today – of the English music historian and composer Charles Burney, in London. One rarely achieves much fame or fortune as a music historian; you can trust me on this; it’s something I know about firsthand. Nevertheless, Dr. Burney (he was awarded an honorary Doctor of music degree from Oxford) achieved a bit of both fame and fortune in his lifetime and immortality since. That’s because he didn’t just write blogs or record podcasts about music history; it’s because he lived it. Lots more on this once we (quickly) get through his biographical preliminaries.  He was born on April 7, 1726 in the market town of Shrewsbury, some 150 miles northwest of London. (For our information, Shrewsbury was, as well, the hometown of Charles Darwin.) The artistic gene was in the family: Burney’s father James was a musician, dancer, and portrait painter. Young Charles was trained on the organ, harpsichord, violin and in composition. For three years he was apprenticed in London with Thomas Arne (1710-1778), the most important English-born composer of theater music in the eighteenth century. (Many of us might not have heard of Arne, but […]

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Apr 12, 2021
Music History Monday: “Three’s the Charm”
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We mark the premiere on April 5, 1803 – 218 years ago today – of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor at a public concert held at the Theater-an-der-Wien, in Vienna. Beethoven was the piano soloist and conducted the Theater-an-der-Wien Orchestra from the piano. The title of this post – “Three’s the Charm” – is meant in no way to diminish Beethoven’s piano concerti nos. 1 and 2. Rather, it would indicate that this third concerto, completed when Beethoven was 32 years old, is the first piano concerto of his compositional maturity and is thus packed with the sorts of modernity and expressive range that the phrase “Beethoven’s maturity” implies. Beethoven’s “Akademies” In the Vienna of Beethoven’s time, public concerts – to which anyone could “subscribe” (that is, buy a ticket in advance) – were called “Akademies”. When a composer staged an Akademie, the concert was additionally referred to as a “benefit” in that the profits went directly into the pocket of the composer.  Staging a benefit concert was a big deal, though not without risk. It was a “big deal” because such concerts were usually the only way for a composer to put his music before the […]

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Apr 05, 2021
Music History Monday: Beethoven’s Funeral
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We mark the funeral of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) on March 29, 1827 – 194 years ago today – in Vienna. It was a grand affair; tens of thousands of people lined the route of the funeral cortege. The funeral itself was attended by Viennese luminaries of every stripe, from the aristocracy to such composers as Franz Shubert, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and Carl Czerny. Speaking strictly for myself, Beethoven’s virus-compromised 250th birthday celebration continues to rankle. As I have previously stated (with tiresome regularity, I fear), it is my intention to continue that celebration, which should have concluded on the occasion of his 250th birthday on December 16, 2020, well into 2021. Just so: my Music History Monday and Dr. Bob Prescribes posts for the next two weeks will feature the B-man and his music. This is all good. Funerals in Vienna The Viennese have traditionally had a “thing” about funerals. Far from being merely ritualized grief or memorials to those who have passed, traditional Viennese funerals – elaborate affairs with their grand caskets, long, parade-like processions and impassioned, theatrical eulogies – seem as much like Mardi Gras parades as they do “funerals.” Vienna even has a funeral museum, called […]

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Mar 29, 2021
Music History Monday: Stephen Sondheim: The Making of a Theatrical Life, Part One
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We mark the birth on March 22, 1930 – 91 years ago today – and the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Alive and we trust well, living in his brownstone townhouse in Manhattan’s Turtle Bay neighborhood on the East Side of Midtown (also the home of the Chrysler Building and the United Nations), we can only hope that Maestro Sondheim is spending the day doing what he does best: writing a song. What a wonderful coincidence: for the second week in a row, I get to write about one of my favorite subjects: the American musical theater. Last week it was the team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and their masterwork, My Fair Lady. In today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes, I get to write about Stephen Sondheim. What a pleasure!An upfront statement. Stephen Joshua Sondheim has lived a long, complex, incredibly productive and well-documented life. To attempt to tell his entire story in one or two 2500-word blog/podcasts can only trivialize his life story and his work. So instead, today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes posts will tell the painful story of his early life and explore the mentorships and experiences […]

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Mar 22, 2021
Music History Monday: My Fair Lady and the Making of a Partnership
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We mark the opening performance on March 15, 1956 – 65 years ago today – of the Broadway musical My Fair Lady at the Mark Hellinger Theater, which was located at 237 West 51st Street in mid-town Manhattan, New York City. (For our information, since 1989, the theater has been the home of the Times Square Church.) Originally starring Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, and Stanley Holloway, this first Broadway production of My Fair Lady (there have been four Broadway revivals) ran for what was then a record-breaking 2717 performances – for 6½ years! – until September 29, 1962. (Because we all want to know: the current record holder is Phantom of the Opera, which opened on January 26, 1988 and continues to run at the Majestic Theater. Currently suspended due to the pandemic, the Broadway production of Phantom has thus far racked up an astonishing 13,370 performances. Whoa!) My Fair Lady is routinely called “the perfect musical”, and who are we to argue with that appraisal? Speaking for myself, I saw that first Broadway production in April of 1962; attendance was my eighth birthday present. Though Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison, and Stanley Holloway had long before left the show, it […]

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Mar 15, 2021
Music History Monday: Dressed to Kill
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We mark the death on March 8, 1869 – 152 years ago today – of the French composer and conductor Hector Berlioz, in Paris at the age of 65. We will use this anniversary of Berlioz’ death for a two-day Berlioz wallow. Today’s Music History Monday post will frame Berlioz as a founding member of the Romantic movement and will tell a wonderful story that conveys to us much of what we need to know about Berlioz the man: his passion, his impulsiveness, and in the end, his good sense. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will delve more deeply into his biography and his proclivity for compositional gigantism, using his Requiem Mass of 1837 as an example. Background: The Romantic Era Cult (really, fetish) of Individual Expression An idealized image of the middle-class “individual” dominated the thought and art of the second half of the eighteenth century, a period generally referred to as the Enlightenment and, in music history, the Classical Era. This Enlightenment elevation of an idealized “individual person” saw its political denouement in the French Revolution (1789-1795) and its musical denouement in Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and the subsequent Romantic era cult of individual expression. Whereas Classical era […]

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Mar 08, 2021
Music History Monday: Orrin Keepnews: With Great Respect and Appreciation
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We mark the death on March 1, 2015 – six years ago today – of the American jazz producer and founder of Riverside Records and Milestone Records Orrin Keepnews, in El Cerrito California, but a couple of stones’ throws from where I’m writing this blog. Born in da Bronx on March 2, 1923, Keepnews died one day before what would have been his 92nd birthday. Keepnews remains one of those indispensable people who made entire careers possible, who protected and respected musicians in an often-vicious artistic environment, who labored in the background and was thus someone whose contributions are often overlooked. Well, not here; not today. We will get to Mr. Keepnews in a moment. But first: March 1st is one of those “feast days” during which so much stuff happened in music history that any number of anniversaries or events could have occupied the bulk of today’s post. As I would never forgive myself for not mentioning at least some of them, here we go. We mark the birth on March 1, 1810 – 221 years ago today – of the miraculous Frédéric François Chopin in Żelazowa Wola, Poland, not far from Warsaw. He died, all-too-young 39 years later, […]

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Mar 01, 2021
Music History Monday: Tchaikovsky: Two Women and a Symphony
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We mark the premiere on February 22, 1878 – 143 years ago today – of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor in a concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow, under the baton of Nicolai Rubinstein. The story of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and the two women that inspired it is a fascinating one, a story that desperately wants to be told in some detail. Therefore, I am stretching it across two posts: today’s Music History Monday and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes. Tchaikovsky at 37 Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) celebrated his 37th birthday on May 7, 1877. He was a man with many secrets and many fears: a cross-dressing homosexual with a penchant for teenaged boys living and working in one of the most homophobic societies ever: Tsarist Russia. Not surprisingly given his sexuality and the dangers it created for him, Tchaikovsky was over-sensitive to a fault, given to anxiety attacks, extended bouts of weeping, deep self-loathing and dependence on alcohol and tobacco. At the time of his 37th birthday Tchaikovsky was living in Moscow (where he taught at the Moscow Conservatory) and had begun sketching his fourth symphony. It was at this moment in time that – […]

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Feb 22, 2021
Music History Monday: What a Day!
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February 15 is one of those crazy days during which so much happened in the world of music that we are de facto forced to wonder if there is some metaphysical explanation for why this date should be a nexus of musical-historical activity! In an attempt to answer that question, I have probed. Ouch. Here is some of what I have found. February 15 is the 46th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. As of today, 319 days remain until the end of the year (320 days in leap years). It was on this day in 506 that Khosrau II was crowned as the last great Sassanian king (or “shah”) of Persia. Whoa. Was that a feather that just knocked me over? On this day in 706, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian II (668-711) had his predecessors, the Emperors Leontios and Tiberios III publicly executed in the Hippodrome of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). Now, lest we think that Justinian II was just a disrespectful welp, offing his predecessors on a whim, we’d observe that back in 695 the 27-year-old Justinian II had been deposed and, adding nasal insult to injury, had his nose cut off (thus his nickname, “Justinian Rhinotmetos”, meaning […]

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Feb 15, 2021
Music History Monday: John Williams
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We celebrate the birth on February 8, 1932 – 89 years ago today – of the American composer, conductor, pianist and trombonist John Towner Williams, in the neighborhood of Flushing, in the New York City borough of Queens. Williams must be regarded as among the greatest film composers of all time and is without a doubt the most successful in terms of awards garnered and dollars earned. Let’s do the numbers, if only to get them out of the way. To date, John Williams has created the scores for 8 of the 25 highest grossing films in American box office history. His 115(!) film scores include those for: The Reivers (1969) The Poseidon Adventure (1972) The Long Goodbye (1973) The Paper Chase (1973) Earthquake (1974) The Towering Inferno (1974) The Eiger Sanction (1975) Jaws (1975) The Missouri Breaks (1976) Midway (1976) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) E. T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982) The Witches of Eastwick (1987) Empire of the Sun (1987) Born on the Fourth of July (1989) Hook (1991) JFK (1991) Schindler’s List (1993) Sabrina (1995) Seven Years in Tibet (1997) Amistad (1997) Saving Private Ryan (1998) Angela’s Ashes (1999) Minority Report (2002) The Terminal (2004) […]

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Feb 08, 2021
Music History Monday: Pretty Much the Worst
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There are times I crave spicy – I mean really spicy – food. (Speaking of which: I knew a guy at university from San Antonio – we belonged to the same “eating club’ which was our version of fraternities – who put Tabasco Sauce on everything: cereal, peanut butter sandwiches, vanilla ice cream, I kid you not; everything. Next to Berto, who was a professional-grade consumer of capsaicin, I am merely a hobbyist. Then again, I never saw Berto consume a Carolina Reaper or a Trinidad Scorpion, hot peppers that both exceed 2 million Scoville heat units, making them 40% as hot as military-grade pepper spray.) But back to me, and my occasional but necessary consumption of Serrano peppers, Vietnamese Chili Garlic Sauce, and Calabrian chili peppers. Do I like having my mouth turned into a flaming pit of hell? No, well, but maybe . . . Do I enjoy having the mucus membranes in my sinuses go haywire? Not particularly, but. . . Is it fun having my eyes tear and turn red? Um. Do I like when all of this happens? And now the awful truth: I don’t just like it, I love it. And there it is: […]

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Feb 01, 2021
Music History Monday: When Richard Strauss was “Modernity”: ‘Salome’ and ‘Elektra’
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We mark the world premiere – on January 25, 1909 – 112 years ago today – of Ricard Strauss’ opera Elektra at the Semperoper, the opera house of the Sächsische Staatsoper – the Saxon State Opera – in Dresden. Today acknowledged as one of the masterworks of the operatic repertoire, the premiere of Elektra uncorked a degree of critical controversy equaled only by Strauss’ own opera Salome in 1905 and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913. If I were to ask you who was the most famous and controversial living composer in 1909, who would you name? Gustav Mahler, born in 1860? No: Mahler was then best known as a conductor and a composer of long and rarely performed symphonies. Igor Stravinsky, born in 1882? No: Stravinsky didn’t appear on Europe’s artistic radar until 1910, when his ballet The Firebird was premiered in Paris on June 25th of that year. Arnold Schoenberg, born 1874? In 1909, Schoenberg was hardly known outside of his native Vienna, and many (if not most) of those Viennese who did know his music considered him a crackpot; okay, a talented crackpot. You know where this is going. The most famous, controversial, and (not […]

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Jan 25, 2021
Music History Monday: Concerts I Would Like to Have Attended (and One I am Glad to have Missed!)
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January is usually a concert-heavy month, following, as it does, the holiday-heavy month of December. In a non-COVID environment, theaters thrive in the cold and early darkness of January, as folks look for something to do while they wait out the winter in anticipation of warmer, longer days and baseball season.  January 18th is particularly notable for concerts that have taken place on this date, concerts that with one glaring exception I personally would have been thrilled to attend. Stuck at home as we presently are thanks to you-know-what, let us live vicariously through these January 18 concerts, even as we anticipate – hungrily, hopefully – the soon-enough-to-be attended concerts of January 2022.  We will focus primarily on the first of these concerts – the premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose – after which we’ll do a quick prance through five other January 18-specific concert events of note. The Nose We mark the premiere performance on January 18, 1930 – 91 years ago today – of Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose, which was performed by the Maly Opera Theater in Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg). Completed in 1928 when Shostakovich was just 22 years old, The Nose is based […]

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Jan 18, 2021
Music History Monday: Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet, and the B***h Goddess
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We mark the first performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet on January 11, 1940 – 81 years ago today – by the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad, what today is St. Petersburg. Prokofiev was born on April 23, 1891 in Ukraine. He attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory as both a pianist and composer and graduated in 1914, first in his class. His rise to fame as both a pianist and composer was meteoric, and by 1917, the 26-year-old Prokofiev had come to be considered among Russia’s very best and brightest. Unfortunately, that’s also when current events had their way him. By 1917, World War One had been raging for three years. As the only son of a widow, Prokofiev had not been called up into the Russian army; a good thing, considering that four million Russians died in combat between 1914 and 1917. Violent frustration over the Russian war effort led Czar Nicholas II to abdicate on March 2, 1917. An armed insurrection brought Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party to power in November of 1917, and the Russian Civil War began. The Civil War would last for five horrific years and kill an additional 9 million Russians. In 1918, deciding […]

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Jan 11, 2021
Music History Monday: A Rockin’ Day
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What July 4th is for Americans; what Bastille Day on July 14th is for the French; what St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th is for the Irish, and what the Black-Necked Crane Festival on November 11th is for the Bhutanese, so January 4th is for fans of rock ‘n’ roll: a day when so much stuff happened as to enshrine it as a major, rock ‘n’ roll holiday! What, pray tell, happened on this day? Thank you for asking. Elvis Presley and Sam Philips It was on January 4, 1954 – 67 years ago today – that Elvis Presley, four days short of his 20th birthday (on January 8), came to the attention of the record producer and founder of Sun Records, Sam Phillips (1923-2003). It was the singular event that vaulted Elvis to stardom. Here’s what happened. On this day in 1954, Elvis made his second visit to the studios of the Memphis Recording Studio, which shared an office with Sun Records. On his first visit – six months before, on July 18, 1953 – Presley had recorded two songs (at his expense) on a two-sided, 10-inch acetate disc, claiming that the recording was a “gift for his mother.” […]

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Jan 04, 2021
Music History Monday: Maurice Ravel
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We mark the death on December 28, 1937 – 83 years ago today – of the French composer and pianist Maurice Ravel, in Paris, at the age of 62. We will get to the magnifique and formidable Monsieur Ravel in a moment, but first, we’ve a birthday to acknowledge. We mark the birth on December 28, 1896 – 124 years ago today – of the American composer and teacher Roger Huntingdon Sessions, in Brooklyn New York. He died, at the age of 88, on March 16, 1985, in Princeton, New Jersey. I myself never studied with Roger Sessions; he had retired from the Princeton faculty in 1965, while I was in attendance from 1972 to 1976. Nevertheless, the “old man” cut a wide swath on campus. And why the heck not? A multiple Pulitzer Prize winner; friend of Arnold Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, and Thomas Mann; Norton Fellow at Harvard: there was hardly an American musical event that took place during the twentieth century that Sessions wasn’t in some way involved with. While I never studied with Sessions, I did indeed study with his protégé Andrew Welsh Imbrie (1921-2007) when I was a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley; […]

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Dec 28, 2020
Music History Monday: The Top “ZZ’s” – Frank Zappa and Zdeněk Fibich
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We mark and celebrate two composers born on this date. Zdeněk Fibich was born on December 21, 1850; 170 years ago today. Frank Zappa was born on December 21, 1940, 80 years ago today. The two had more in common with each other than just a name that started with the letter “z”. They were both eclectic composers, who brought to bear in their music a wide variety of influences, influences that were deemed “incompatible” by their critics. Oh yes, their “critics”: as composers, both Fibich and Zappa were controversial. They both suffered from poor health and they both died young: Fibich at 49 and Zappa at 52. Frank Vincent Zappa was born on this date in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, the eldest of four children in an Italian-American family. Zappa’s father Francis was a defense-industry scientist, and as such the family lived a peripatetic existence: Baltimore, then to Florida; back to Maryland; then to Monterey, California; Claremont, California; El Cajon, California; San Diego, California; and finally, in 1956 (when Zappa was sixteen) to Lancaster, California, an aerospace and farming community in the Antelope Valley, in the Mojave Desert, near Edwards Airforce Base. The young Frank Zappa was chronically ill; […]

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Dec 21, 2020
Music History Monday: Wozzeck

We mark the premiere performance on December 14, 1925 – 95 years ago today – of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck in Berlin, conducted by Erich Kleiber. That premiere performance was preceded by 137 rehearsals. Wozzeck was, and remains, one of the great masterworks of the twentieth century. Johann Franz Wozzeck, the title character of Berg’s opera, is described as being: “Thirty years and seven months old, militia man and fusilier in the second regiment, second battalion, fourth company; uneducated, uncomprehending.” Wozzeck is slowly being driven insane by those around him, something we become aware of early in the first act. Composed in greatest part during and immediately after World War One, Johann Franz Wozzeck’s incipient madness reflects not just the eroding mind of a doomed soldier but a doomed generation as well. According to the musicology Professor Glenn Watkins of the University of Michigan: “Wozzeck’s growing madness is as vivid a projection of impending world doom as any to come out of the Great War.” Berg’s opera is based on a play based on a real-life person: a confessed murderer named Johann Christian Woyzeck (W-o-y-z-e-c-k). This Woyzeck was a Leipzig-born wigmaker and barber who later enlisted in the army. In […]

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Dec 14, 2020
Music History Monday: The Worthy and Unworthy, from High Taste to Low
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Prince Josef Lobkowitz and Some Number One Songs That Will Live in Infamy! We have three items on our calendar-driven agenda today, which also happens to be the 79th anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. One of these items is a birth; one of them is a recording session; and one of them notes some songs that will live in infamy! We begin with the recording session.  On December 7, 1967 – 53 years ago today – Otis Ray Redding, Jr. (1941-1967) entered the recording studio of Stax Records in Memphis Tennessee and recorded (Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay. Redding had written the first verse of the song while staying on a houseboat at Waldo Point, in the San Francisco Bay Area town of Sausalito (which I am presently looking at as I write this from across the Bay in Oakland).  The song went on to become his greatest hit, something – tragically – the 26-year-old Redding never lived to see; he was killed in an airplane crash just three days after the recording date, on December 10, 1967. Redding’s whistling at the conclusion of the song, just before […]

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Dec 07, 2020
Music History Monday: Furtwängler
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We mark the death on November 30, 1954 – 66 years ago today – of the German conductor and composer Gustav Heinrich Ernst Martin Wilhelm Furtwängler, who was one of the most important and controversial musicians of the twentieth century. We will talk all about Maestro Furtwängler in just a moment. But first: November 30 is a busy day in music history, and we have some important births and deaths to mark. We mark the birth on November 30, 1813 – 207 years ago today – of the French pianist, composer, and teacher Charles-Valentin Alkan in Paris. Alkan was a great piano virtuoso and an equally great oddball, who composed some of the most impossibly virtuosic piano music ever put to paper. Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post will celebrate Alkan and his Grande Sonata, Op. 33; his Sonatine, Op. 61; and his “Twelve etudes in all the minor keys” Op. 39, No. 12, an etude entitled “Aesop’s Feast”. The following three November 30th oriented entries all deal with musicians who made a profound impression on me growing up in the 1960s. Long before “Weird Al” Yankovic (born 1959) created satirical songs parodying pop culture, there was Allan Sherman, who was […]

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Nov 30, 2020
Music History Monday: Musicians Behaving Badly
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Before getting on to our central topic for today’s post – naughty, naughty musicians – we need to give a shoutout to the great Spanish composer and conductor Manuel de Falla who was born on November 23, 1876 – 144 years ago today – in the Andalucían port city of Cadiz. We will celebrate de Falla tomorrow in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post, which will focus on his ballet El amor brujo (meaning “The Magician Love”) of 1915, and the Carlos Saura movie of the same title (from 1986) based of de Falla’s ballet. On to today’s feature presentation, Musicians Behaving Badly. On November 23, 1956 – 64 years ago today – a sheet metal worker named Louis Balint was arrested after attacking the King – Elvis Presley – in Toledo, Ohio. Here’s what happened. On November 22, 1956, Elvis Presley and his band played two shows in Toledo’s Sports Arena. Elvis’ fame and popularity had skyrocketed since his first two appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show just a few weeks before, on September 9 and October 28, 1956. Along with the concerts, November 22, 1956 was an auspicious day for Elvis and his fans in Toledo, as that was […]

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Nov 23, 2020
Music History Monday: Chopin’s Last Concert
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It was on November 16, 1848 – 172 years ago today – that Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) performed his final concert. It was given at a benefit ball held in London’s Guildhall, staged to raise money for Polish exiles. Chopin, 38-years-old, was desperately ill. And although he lived another 11 months, he was never to perform again.  Frédéric François Chopin (born Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin) was a quintessential Romantic figure: a restless man of genius; a forlorn lover who could never settle down; a prodigy whose music and piano playing enchanted his listeners from the time he was an adolescent; someone whose muse demanded that he work in a white heat for days at a time despite his physical frailty and dismal health. He was a consumptive at a time when consumption (that is, tuberculosis) was considered that most “romantic” of illnesses, the “disease of genius”.  Of course, if you actually had tuberculosis, you didn’t consider it “romantic” at all; you were too busy trying not to cough your lungs out and to just freaking breathe. Chopin himself had no patience for the entire Romantic trip and claimed to be disgusted with the artistic precepts and pretentions of Romanticism, which he considered self-indulgent […]

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Nov 16, 2020
Music History Monday: “You will write your concerto. . .”
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We mark the first complete performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on November 9, 1901 – 119 years ago today – in Moscow. Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was the piano soloist. The performance was conducted by his cousin: the pianist, conductor and composer Alexander Siloti (1863-1945). Before moving on to Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto and the compelling story behind it, we’ve an utterly irresistible anniversary to note.  It was on this day in 1974 – 46 years ago today – that the unthinkable occurred onstage at the New York City Opera, and no, I’m not talking about copulating dogs during the Act I party scene of Rigoletto. The opera being performed was Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in Maschera (“The Masked Ball”) of 1859. In the starring role of Riccardo was the Italian-American tenor Michele Molese. Molese was a mainstay of the New York City Opera, and over the years he appeared there in almost every leading tenor role in the standard repertoire. He was known, particularly, as being among Beverly Sills’ favorite leading men, and together they appeared in new productions of, among other operas, Manon (by Jules Massenet, 1884), Faust (Charles Gounod, 1859), and Lucia di Lammermoor (Gaetano Donizetti, […]

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Nov 09, 2020
Music History Monday: Shostakovich and His String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110
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I’m doing something today that I have never done before in Music History Monday and which, I hope, I will never have to do again. November 2 is not a day bereft of musical events. For example, November 2, 1739 saw the birth, in Vienna, of the composer and violinist Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, who was a friend of Beethoven’s and who went on to become the concertmaster of the Esterhazy Orchestra. November 2, 1752 saw the birth of Count Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky in St. Petersburg. In 1792, Count Razumovsky became the Russian Ambassador to the Austrian Court in Vienna. It was as a resident of Vienna that he formed his own house string quartet and commissioned Beethoven to compose three quartets for his “Razumovsky String Quartet” (those quartets would be Op. 59, nos. 1, 2, and 3). Beethoven further immortalized Razumovsky by dedicating both his Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 to the Count. On this day in 1984, the Reverend Marvin Gaye Sr. was given a suspended six-year sentence and probation for shooting and killing his son, the singer and songwriter Marvin Gaye (1939-1984). Initially charged with first degree murder, the charges were reduced to voluntary manslaughter when it […]

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Nov 02, 2020
Music History Monday: Musical Riots and Assorted Mayhem
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We mark the riot that occurred on October 26, 1958 – 62 years ago today – when Bill Haley and his Comets played a concert at Berlin’s Sportpalast to an audience of some 7000 people. Signs of trouble had occurred at Haley’s first two German concerts on the previous two evenings, the first one in Hamburg and the next in Essen. But no one could have anticipated the mayhem in Berlin, where some 500 rock ‘n’ rollers and police staged a fist-and-stick battle during the show. Five policemen were badly beaten, six audience members severely injured, while damages to the venue amounted to over 50,000 Deutsche Marks. Both the East and West German authorities reacted with outrage. The West Berlin senate banned all future rock ‘n’ roll concerts. In East Germany, Neues Deutschland, the official Communist Party organ, condemned Haley in a front-page editorial for: “turning the youth of the land of Bach and Beethoven into raging beasts.” (With all due respect we would observe that just a few years before, “the youth of the land of Bach and Beethoven” had indeed behaved like raging beasts.) The newspapers in both East and West Berlin agreed that the Haley riots were: […]

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Oct 26, 2020
Franz Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”
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On October 19, 1814 – 206 years ago today – Franz Schubert composed his first masterwork, the song Gretchen am Spinnrade – “Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel” – for solo voice and piano, on a text by Johann von Goethe. Schubert was 17 years old. It is an enduring and, in the end, unanswerable question: how many songs did Franz Schubert compose? It’s not that various sources haven’t tried to answer the question. For example, according to volume twenty of the Schubert Gesamptausgabe (“complete edition”), a massive project completed in the 1890s, Schubert composed 603 songs. According to the Belgian musicologist and Schubert scholar Reinhard van Hoorickx (1918-1997), writing in his Thematic Catalog of Schubert’s Works: New Additions, Corrections and Notes (published in1976), Schubert composed 660 songs. Not to be outdone, the English Schubert scholar, Maurice John Edwin Brown writing in his Essays on Schubert (Macmillan, 1966), claims that Schubert composed 708 songs. FYI, in a lecture I gave at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater on February 25, 2003 entitled “Schubert: On the Wings of His Songs” I indicated that he had composed 637 songs. (I know I wouldn’t have made that number up, but presently, I can’t for the life of […]

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Oct 19, 2020
Music History Monday: And Please, Don’t Call Me “Ralph”!
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We mark the birth on October 12, 1872 – 148 years ago today – of the English composer, conductor, folksong collector and teacher Ralph (R-A-L-P-H, pronounced “Rayf”) Vaughan Williams in the village of Down Ampney, in the Cotswold district of Gloucester, 75 miles west of London. He died in London at the age of 85, on August 26, 1958. A confession: I came to the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams fairly late in my life. Sure, like most of us, I had heard his “greatest hits”; there was a time that when listening to a “Classical” radio station you couldn’t go a day without hearing one of them: the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910); The Lark Ascending (1914); and his Fantasia on Greensleeves (1934). But it wasn’t until I was researching and writing my Teaching Company/Great Courses survey The Symphony (which was recorded in October 2003) that I made a comprehensive study of his works, in this case, his symphonies. I was floored, and not for the first time – and I pray to heaven, not for the last – I experienced revelation: this fantastic repertoire, this whole new world of wonderful music that had been there […]

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Oct 12, 2020
Music History Monday: Gluck and Orfeo ed Euridice
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We mark the premiere performance on October 5, 1762 – 258 years ago today – of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice at the Burgtheater in Vienna, in the presence of Empress Maria Theresa her very self.  The history of opera is not unlike the history of the movies or television: it is a medium of great artistic and intellectual potential cyclically debased by its potential for huge monetary gain.  The first operas, composed between roughly 1600 and 1640 were courtly entertainments called “drammi per musica”: “dramas with music.” And that’s precisely what they were: stage dramas in which words and actions were deepened a gazillion-fold by setting them to music. Such entertainments were literate and sophisticated, and the great master of the genre was Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). … Continue Reading – Only on Patreon! Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

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Oct 05, 2020
Music History Monday: The Planets
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We mark the premiere performance – on September 28, 1918 – 102 years ago today – of Gustav Holst’s The Planets in Queen’s Hall, London, under the baton of Adrian Boult. To hear Holst (1874-1934) tell it, The Planets became an albatross around his neck; a monkey on his back; a large, gnarly grain of sand in his skivvies: it made him internationally famous and remained so popular that nothing he composed for the remainder of his life ever came close to approaching its popularity. Holst went to his grave believing that as far as the public was concerned, he was hardly more than a one-hit wonder.  As a composer and a man, Holst presents us with something of an enigma. In The Planets, we hear a composer of great passion, ecstatic joy, ethereal lyricism, and stunning violence. In its massive, seven-movement design, The Planets has no real precedent; it is quite original. Likewise, Holst’s compositional merging of Wagnerian expressive oomph, English folk song, and Hindu mysticism set him apart from every other English composer of his time. (Four our info, Holst was a student of Sanskrit literature who, among other Hindu-inspired works, set to music hymns from the Rig […]

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Sep 28, 2020
Music History Monday: The Prodigal Son Returns
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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 […]

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Sep 21, 2020
Music History Monday: The “Other” Haydn
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We mark the birth on September 14, 1737 – 283 years ago today – of the composer, organist, and violinist Johann Michael Haydn, in the western Austrian town of Rohrau. (Rohrau lies about 20 miles west of today’s capital of Slovakia – Bratislava – a city called Pressburg in Haydn’s day.) Forgive me a classic/stupid question-and-answer: Question: “what’s that guy doing in the corner?” Answer: “he’s Haydn”. Nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.  You’ll notice that in answering that question, we’ll naturally assume that the “Haydn” in the corner is Franz Joseph Haydn, as if there are no other Haydns out there whose existence we might need to account for. Did any of us, even for a moment, stop to consider whether that “Haydn” could have been Michael Haydn? And there it is, in that most convenient of nutshells, yet another example of life’s inherent unfairness: when one sibling, no matter how talented, is overshadowed by an even more talented brother or sister.  There are so many examples! Continue Reading, only on Patreon! Listen on the Music History Monday Podcast Robert Greenberg Courses On Sale Now

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Sep 14, 2020
Music History Monday: François-André Danican Philidor
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We mark the birth on September 7, 1726 – 294 years ago today – of the composer and chess master (properly, the “unofficial” world chess champion!) François-André Danican Philidor.  In my Dr. Bob Prescribes post for Tuesday, September 1 (all of last week), we observed that the composer and conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli died all-too young of a heart attack (while conducting a performance of Aida in Berlin), on April 20, 2001, at the age of 54. We further observed that he died two days before he was to receive a Laurea in Archeology – a bachelor’s degree in archeology – from the Università La Sapienza in Rome. Finally, we observed that among Sinopoli’s publications is a book entitled Masterpieces of Greek Ceramics from the Sinopoli Collection. Ah: “the Sinopoli Collection.” So, either he was himself a collector or he grew up with a family collection of Greek ceramics. Was he, then, just a hobbyist, a passionate collector, or something more? We would observe that hobbyists do not generally suffer the rigors of attaining a bachelor’s degree at the age of 54 just because they like to collect stuff. No: Giuseppe Sinopoli would appear to be that fairly rare, world-class professional […]

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Sep 07, 2020
Music History Monday: I Want, I Need, I Must Have: Rock Stars and Their Riders
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According to “This Day in Music.com”, on August 31, 2006 – 14 years ago today – the Times of London ran an article on the sometimes outright whacko-crazy demands made by rock stars when on tour. Today we’ll live vicariously through a few of these rockers and see what sort of extravagance we too could command if we were among their number. But first, let us mark three worthy birthdays and one death. On August 31, 1879 – 141 years ago today – the composer, pianist, and muse Alma Maria Schindler was born in Vienna; she died in New York City on December 11, 1964. Had Ms. Schindler been born 100 years later, in 1976 rather that 1886, she would almost certainly be a professional composer today with a career of very much of her own. But alas and alack, the time and place of her birth forced her to find self-realization through the many men in her life, three of whom she actually married: the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911); the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969); and the author Franz Werfel (1890-1945). That this extraordinarily talented and literate woman should be best remembered for the men she slept […]

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Aug 31, 2020
Music History Monday: Bohemian Rhapsody
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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 […]

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Aug 24, 2020
Music History Monday: The Miracle at Bayreuth!
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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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Aug 17, 2020
Music History Monday: Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and the Summer of 1788
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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 […]

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Aug 10, 2020
Music History Monday: The Grandmother of them all: the Teatro alla Scala
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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 […]

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Aug 03, 2020
Music History Monday: Ferruccio Busoni
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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; […]

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Jul 27, 2020
Music History Monday: Shostakovich: Time magazine, a String Quartet, and a Symphony!
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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 […]

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Jul 20, 2020
Music History Monday: Musicians and Paint
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Two seemingly disparate events on this date provide the framework for today’s post. Here they are: On July 13, 1951 – 69 years ago today – the composer Arnold Schoenberg died in Los Angeles. Born in Vienna on September 13, 1874, the date and timing of Schoenberg’s death could not possibly have been more ironic. You see, for most of his life, Schoenberg suffered from a fear of the number “13”, something called “triskaidekaphobia” after the ancient Greek word for the number thirteen. He suffered as well from the associated condition called “paraskevidekatriaphobia”, which is ancient Greek for “Fear of Friday the 13th.” Well, not only was Schoenberg born on the 13th day of the month (of September) and not only did he die on July 13th, but July 13th 1951 was a Friday. Schoenberg’s age at the time he died was 76; 7+6 = 13. All we can say is yikes. The other event behind today’s post took place on this day in 1999, 21 years ago today. That was the day – according to THISDAYINMUSIC.COM – that an exhibition of 73 paintings by Paul McCartney opened to the public at the Kunstforum Lyz gallery in the German city […]

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Jul 13, 2020
Music History Monday: Pops: The Indispensable Man
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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 […]

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Jul 06, 2020
Music History Monday: I Left My Heart in Doylestown, Pennsylvania
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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.” […]

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Jun 29, 2020
Music History Monday: The Damrosch Dynasty: Where Would We Be Without Them?
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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 […]

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Jun 22, 2020
Music History Monday: Ella Fitzgerald: Singer and Musician
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We mark the death on June 15, 1996 – 24 years ago today – of the singer and musician – the First Lady of Song, the Queen of Jazz, Lady Ella – Ella Jane Fitzgerald at the age of 78.  We contemplate singers. I would begin by making a couple of distinctions, distinctions that might trouble any number singers. My apologies, then, in advance (though, frankly, if I was worried about upsetting singers I would never have become a composer in the first place). Distinction one: in the world of music, there is often a divide – a big divide – between musicians and singers. A musician is someone who can not only sing and/or play a musical instrument and/or compose, but someone who knows something of music. Whether a concert violinist, a rock guitarist, an operatic soprano, or a jazz saxophonist, someone who “knows something of music” is a musician who is familiar with the repertoire and the history of her discipline, and has attained a working technical knowledge of the vocabulary of music: rhythm, melody, harmony, etc.  Many singers grow up as musicians, who studied voice and/or a musical instrument as children. But not infrequently, singers are laypeople […]

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Jun 15, 2020