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.
The Fabulous Hill Sisters!
We mark the birth on June 27, 1859 – 163 years ago today – of the American songwriter, composer, organist, pianist, and musicologist Mildred Jane Hill, in Louisville, Kentucky. She died on June 5, 1916, in Chicago, three weeks shy of her 57th birthday.
Mildred Hill was the eldest of three sisters: after her came Patty (1868-1946) and then Jessica.
Mildred Hill was a professional musician of real accomplishment. Along with teaching and performing, she was a songwriter and composer of some reputation. She was also a serious student and scholar of Negro Spirituals. Under the pen name of “Johann Tonsor”, she wrote extensively on the subject of Black American music. In 1892, she wrote an article called “Negro Music” that, as it turned out, had no small impact on the history of Western music!…
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Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky
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 capitol 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).
We’ll get to Maestro Fyodor Stravinsky in a bit. But first, we must observe that June 20 is one of those crazy, special dates, a date on which it would appear that a really disproportionate number of people have been born. I’m basing that statement on the number of notable musicians, writers, actors, and entertainment industry people who were born on June 20th, as revealed during my research for this post.
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 a whit in hundreds of years: invade, occupy, and annex; invade, occupy, and annex; repeat as necessary until the desired result has been achieved.)
In 1959, Igor Stravinsky explained the origin of his family’s name:
“‘Stravinsky’ comes from ‘Strava’, the name of a small river, tributary to the Vistula, in eastern Poland. We were originally called Soulima-Stravinsky – Soulima being the name of another Vistula branch – but when Russia annexed this part of Poland the Soulima was for some reason dropped.”
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The Ultimate Fanboy: The Mad King, Ludwig II
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. …
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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.
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.…
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Benjamin Britten War Requiem
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.…
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Beethoven and the Human Voice
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 his essay, Hoffmann wrote this:
“Beethoven’s [instrumental] music wields the lever of fear, awe, horror, and pain, and it awakens that eternal longing that is the essence of the romantic. If he has had less success with vocal music, this is because vocal music excludes the character of indefinite longing and [instead] represents the emotions [as described by] words.”
Hoffman’s implication – that Beethoven was inherently less successful as a composer of vocal music than of instrumental music – ran like open carbuncle through the Beethoven literature of the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century, it had become an article of faith among many musicians - who should have known better - that Beethoven couldn’t write properly for the voice because he could not compose “vocal styled” or so-called “lyric” melodies. …
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A hidden gem!
I found Dr. Greenberg through a free audible download of “Music As a Mirror of History”. After devouring the audiobook, I looked for more of his work and stumbled upon this podcast. This is absolute gold. Thank you, Dr. Bob!
Go Dr. Bob!!!
Dr. Greenberg is one of the finest lecturers I have encountered in any academic discipline. An accomplished master of the musical arts and remarkably well-versed in history and literature, Dr. Greenberg wears his deep erudition with effortless grace and jocularity. For the listener seeking a first tour through the wondrous but intimidating world of the classic Western musical repertoire, I can think of no better (or friendlier or funnier) guide than Dr. Bob. — Naturally, great teachers like Dr. Greenberg are becoming rarer and rarer at the modern American university. The reason is simple: effective defenders of Western culture are no longer welcome there, nor indeed is any scholar who would dare to question (let alone oppose) the rising tide of neofascist race hysteria within academia. Thank God that the internet has given Dr. Greenberg a form of academic freedom that is unassailable by merciless authoritarian children and their pusillanimous abettors in the administrative offices. — Let’s make it worth Dr. Bob’s while to be here, for he surely makes it worth our while to tune in!
Prof. Greenberg is without peer. He’s a vast resource of obscure musical knowledge, and a master storyteller. His hypnotic and engaging voice has sparked my interest in areas of music I had never considered. I’m forever grateful I stumbled upon him.