25 episodes

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.

Music History Monday Robert Greenberg

    • Music History

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.

    Music History Monday: The Case Against Madama Butterfly

    Music History Monday: The Case Against Madama Butterfly

    We mark the world premiere performance on February 17, 1904 – 116 years ago today – of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly at the storied opera house of La Scala, in the Italian city of Milan.

    • 19 min
    Music History Monday: It Ain’t Over Until the Fat Man Sings!

    Music History Monday: It Ain’t Over Until the Fat Man Sings!

    We would note two major events on this day from the world of opera. We will mark the first event in a moment; the second event – which constitutes the body and soul of this post – will be observed only after we’ve had a chance to do some prep.

    Leontyne Price (born 1927)

    We mark the birth on February 10, 1927 – 93 years ago today – of the glorious soprano Leontyne Price. (More than just a soprano, Price in her prime was a lyric-spinta, or “pushed lyric soprano”, meaning that she had all the high notes of a lyric soprano but could also push her voice to realize dramatic climaxes without any strain. The great lyric-spinta roles include Aida, Desdemona from Verdi’s Otello, the Marschallin from Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier, and Floria Tosca.) Every inch the true diva (in the best sense), Price is alive and we trust well at her home in Columbia, Maryland. Happy birthday, you stunning goddess you. 


    A “malaprop” (or “malapropism”) “is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, sometimes humorous utterance.”

    “Gibberish” (a.k.a. jibber-jabber or gobbledygook) is a tad different; it is defined as being “nonsense speech that may include speech sounds that are not actual words, or language games and specialized jargon that seems nonsensical to outsiders.”

    Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra (1925-2015) in 2008, age 83

    I would suggest that the greatest English language-speaking master of both malaprops and gibberish was the baseball catcher, coach, manager, and Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra (1925-2015). Malaprops and gibberish poured forth from his 5’7” frame like that proverbial poop from a goose; that they were uttered inadvertently make them all the funnier. 

    Should we want to (and I will admit that I am tempted), the remainder of this post could consist entirely of what have come to be known as “Yogi-isms.” Among the untold number of malaprops he uttered over his 90 years of life are such gems as:

    “It ain’t the heat; it’s the humility.”“I take that with a grin of salt.”“Texas has a lot of electrical votes.” (As opposed to “electoral” votes.)

    But truly, Berra’s greatest verbal creations are his gibberish: nonsense sentences, some of which have actually become part of our everyday lexicon. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations features eight such Yogi-isms. A quick sampling must include such gems as:

    “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”“You can observe a lot by just watching.” “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”“No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.”“Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”“Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”“If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.”

    And finally, 

    “Never answer an anonymous letter.”

    Thank you, Maestro Berra; these are wonderful; just wonderful. 

    Such was Yogi Berra’s reputation that every now and then he was credited with having said something he never in fact said. Perhaps the most famous such misattribution (aside from “anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined”, which was, in fact, articulated by the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn) is:

    “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

    (Yes, Yogi Berra did indeed coin the phrase “it ain’t over till it’s over”, but there was no rotund, obese, zaftig, corpulent or Rubenesque lady in his utterance.)

    • 14 min
    Music History Monday: A Model of Utopian Perfection to this Day!

    Music History Monday: A Model of Utopian Perfection to this Day!

    Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1593)

    We mark the presumed birth on February 3, 1525 – 495 years ago today – of the Rome-based Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Unlike virtually every other great composer of the Renaissance, a list of which includes such formidable names as Josquin des Prez, William Byrd, Giovanni Gabrieli, Guillaume Dufay, Orlande de Lassus, and Johannes Ockeghem, Palestrina’s name, reputation, and music have never faded from view since his death in 1593. The staying power of his name, reputation, and music can be attributed to three of factors, all of which will be explored in today’s Music History Monday post and tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post (which can be accessed at Patreon.com/RobertGreenbergMusic). These factors are, one, Palestrina’s posthumous reputation as the ostensible “savior” of Catholic church music during the conservative, austere artistic climate of the Counter Reformation (which will be discussed in tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes); two, his personal compositional style, which was (and still is) embraced as a paradigm of utopian perfection and has thus been employed in teaching counterpoint since the early seventeenth century; and three (and most importantly), the fact that he wrote a tremendous amount of first rate music, the great bulk of which is sacred. 

    His collected works include 104 Masses (an extraordinary number and by strange coincidence the same number of symphonies attributed to Joseph Haydn); well over 300 motets (which are vocal liturgical works of varying length); over 140 madrigals (secular vocal works of varying length); 68 offertories (that is, music that accompanies the procession of the faithful bearing the bread and wine – the symbolic body and blood of Christ – as well as other gifts/offerings for the Church); 35 magnificats (which means “magnifies”, as in “My soul magnifies the Lord”), a setting of the “Song (or canticle) of Mary”, the text of which comes from the Gospel of Luke; 72 hymns; 11 litanies; numerous sets of lamentations; etc.; all told, a lot of music. 

    Giovanni Pierluigi was born in Palestrina, an ancient city in the Sabine Hills 22 miles (or so) east-southeast of Rome. While his earliest education took place there in Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi (or “Gianetto” as he was nicknamed) spent the great bulk of his student days, apprenticeship, and career within the confines of the three most important churches in the holy city of Rome:  Santa Maria Maggiore, Saint John Lateran, and Saint Peter’s.

    Pope Julius III, born Giovanni Maria Ciocchi del Monte (1487-1555), pope from 1550-1555

    In 1554, the 29-year-old Palestrina dedicated his first published book of masses to Pope Julius III, who had previously been known to Palestrina as the Bishop of Palestrina. (The truism holds: it’s not just what you know, but who you know.) The dedication to Pope Julius was clearly the politic thing to do, because just a few months later, on January 13, 1555, Palestrina was appointed as a chorister in the single most prestigious choir in Christendom: that of the Sistine Chapel, the pope’s “personal” chapel. Palestrina’s hiring was controversial: he was neither a priest nor even celibate, but rather married (*gasp!*). According to the “Diarii Sistina” – the diaries of the Sistine Chapel – Palestrina was hired:

    “on the orders of His Holiness Pope Julius, without any examination and without the consent of the singers.” 

    We can safely assume that Palestrina’s extraordinary talents quickly overcame any residual resistance from his fellow choristers.

    • 14 min
    Music History Monday: A Day That Can Mean Only One Thing!

    Music History Monday: A Day That Can Mean Only One Thing!

    A portrait of Mozart dating from 1782/83 by his brother-in-law, Joseph Lange. The portrait is incomplete; Lange planned to depict Mozart playing a piano. Incomplete or not, Lange’s portrait was considered by Mozart’s contemporaries to be the most accurate depiction of Mozart ever made.

    We mark the birth on January 27, 1756 – 264 years ago today – of Wolfgang Mozart. 

    There are certain dates that are so universally recognized that once invoked they can mean only one thing for a majority of people living on this planet. For example. Did we all know that January 1 is, among other things, Apple Gifting Day? It is also Bonza Bottler Day, Copyright Law Day, Ellis Island Day, Global Family Day, National Bloody Mary Day, and Public Domain Day. Did we all know that? And really, do any of us care? Because January 1 is New Year’s Day and every other observance shrinks to insignificance by comparison (excepting, perhaps, “National Bloody Mary Day”).

    Despite the fact that December 25 is Constitution Day in Taiwan and National Pumpkin Pie Day in the United States, the mention of that date can mean only one thing in much of the world: Christmas Day.

    May 1 is, in the northern hemisphere, May Day: a traditional celebration of spring. Planet wide, it is International Workers’ Day. 

    Since at least the fourteenth century, April 1 has been “international prank day”: April Fool’s Day.

    From its beginnings as a Celtic harvest festival, Halloween (a.k.a. October 31, Hallowe’en, Allhallowe’en, All Hallows’ Eve, and All Saints’ Eve) has today become an international celebration, the promotion of which can be cynically attributed to a dark element within the international dental community, whose ministrations must repair the tooth damage perpetrated by all that ingested candy. 

    We must now acknowledge another date that can only mean one thing, a date that once uttered should be recognized by each and every one of us as representing something wonderful, something miraculous, a gift without which our lives would be bereft: the birth of Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart.

    (We would also take a moment to acknowledge the horrific irony that January 27 is also both Auschwitz Liberation Day and International Chocolate Cake Day.)

    Where do we start when talking about Mozart? His music is so consistently glorious, his life was so tragically short, and his impact on global culture so immense that he stands as a singularity even among the giants of Western art. And yet for all of his fame and visibility, there is no major composer whose life and personality are more shrouded in myth and mistruth than Mozart’s. 

    I’ve written extensively about the so-called “Mozart myths”: the half-truths and un-truths that have accreted over Mozart’s memory like guano on sea-side rocks. He was not the fair-haired, boy-god of music created by nineteenth century Romantic era mythologists. Neither was he an idiot savant or autistic, as some biographers have suggested. Nor was he – as has been claimed – “the Hegelian apotheosis of musical perfection taken to god’s bosom at 35, once all his musical branches had borne fruit, the Christ of music.” 

    For now, we are going to deal with the most outrageous and familiar of the Mozart myths, “familiar” because it was set-in-stone in our communal consciousness by that movie: Amadeus. 

    Tom Hulce (born 1953) as Mozart in Amadeus

    That Movie

    Our most enduring image of Mozart today is the one we’ve received from Amadeus.

    The movie was – and remains – excellent entertain...

    • 17 min
    Music History Monday: Fine Dining

    Music History Monday: Fine Dining

    Józef Hofmann (1876-1967)

    January 20 is indeed an interesting day in music history, particularly notable for anniversaries of births and deaths. Among those born on this day was the outstanding Polish/American pianist Józef Hofmann, born in 1876 (and died in 1967; my grandmother took some lessons with Hofmann at the New York Institute of Musical Art between 1914 and 1916, after which he went on to became the director of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, from 1927-1938); also born on this date in 1888 was the 12-string blues guitarist Huddie William Ledbetter (a.k.a. “Leadbelly”; he died in 1949); the Russian/American violinist Mischa Elman was born on January 20, 1891 (and died 1967); the American composer Walter Piston was born on this date in 1894 (he died in 1976 and was featured in my Dr. Bob Prescribes post on March 19, 2019); and Yvonne Loriod, an exceptional French pianist and wife of the composer Olivier Messiaen, was born on this date in 1924 (and died in 2010). 

    Bettina Brentano (1785-1859) circa 1805

    Notable deaths on this date include the Italian conductor Claudio Abbado, who died at the age of 80 in 2014, and the composer, publisher, writer, singer, visual artist, illustrator, patron of young talent, and social activist (wow) Bettina Brentano, the Countess of Arnim, who died on this date in 1859 at the age of 73.

    (Elisabeth “Bettina” Catharina Ludovica Magdalena Brentano more than deserves a post of her own. She was a polymath who numbered among her best friends both Beethoven and Goethe. She personally knew and her work was admired by Robert and Clara Schumann, Franz Liszt, and Johannes Brahms among many others. She was the sister of the German writer Clemens Brentano and the wife of the writer Achim von Arnim. Together with her brother Clemens and her husband Achim, she helped gather up and edit the folk poems that were published under the title Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”), which were set to music by scores of composers (pun intended), most notably Gustav Mahler.

    Antonie Brentano (born Birkenstock, 1780-1869)

    Bettina met Beethoven in May of 1810 when she was 25 years old. An extroverted beauty, she charmed the composer to his cockles – the location of which we will not presently discuss – and for many years had been a leading candidate for the “Immortal Beloved”, the otherwise unnamed woman with whom Beethoven had a torrid love affair in 1812. However, today the identity of the “Immortal Beloved” is generally understood to be Bettina’s sister-in-law Antonie Brentano, who Bettina introduced to Beethoven in 1810.)

    Birthdays and death days: causes for, respectively, celebration and grief; days of seminal importance to the individuals involved. But I would point out that birth and death, except in the most tragic cases of the latter, are not issues of willful, conscious choice. Rather, they are natural events over which we have no control. It is not our births (or deaths) that make us who and what we are, that change our lives and the lives of those around us, but rather, the choices we make while we are abroad in this vale of tears.

    Choice. What a shockingly loaded word. Really, is there any such thing as free will – choice – or are we (as Dmitri Shostakovich was wont to say) nothing more than marionettes, dancing through our miserable and meaningless lives in a manner directed/predetermined by higher (or lower) forces? 

    We will presently resist a lengthy and speculative philosophical discussion on whether or not there is truly such a thing as “choice”, just as we will avoid – for now – grappling with other such weighty questions as “Certs: breath mint of candy mint?” or, like, “does anyone really know what time it is”? Rather,

    • 11 min
    Music History Monday: How to Identify a Gentleman

    Music History Monday: How to Identify a Gentleman

    Cute, but would you date an accordionist

    We would recognize a number of date-worthy events before moving on to the admittedly painful principal topic of today’s Music History Monday.

    Johann Christoph Graupner

    Johann Christoph Graupner (1683-1760)

    We recognize the birth on January 13, 1683 – 337 years ago today – of the German harpsichordist and composer Johann Christoph Graupner in the Saxon town Kirchberg. (He died 77 years later, in Darmstadt, in 1760.) Herr Graupner was known as a good and conscientious man, highly respected by his employers and students alike. He was also a competent and prolific composer, with more than 2000 surviving works in his catalog. Nevertheless, he would be totally forgotten today but for a single event in 1723.

    In 1722, Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722) – the chief musician for the churches and municipality of Leipzig – went on to that great clavichord in the sky. The famous Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), unhappy with his salary in Hamburg, applied for and was offered the job in Leipzig. But it was all a ploy to leverage a higher salary in Hamburg, which he received and where he remained. In early 1723, the paternal units of Leipzig then offered the job to Graupner, who accepted but whose boss – the Landgrave Ernst Ludwig of Hesse Darmstadt – refused to release him from his contract. Then the Leipzig authorities asked the violinist and composer Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758) to apply for the job but having done so, Fasch had second thoughts and withdrew his application. Finally, with no other viable candidates in sight, the authorities in Leipzig grudgingly offered the job to their distant fourth choice: a keyboard and violin player and composer with a (well deserved) reputation for insubordination named Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Bach took the job and stayed on the job for the remaining 27 years of his life.

    Why then do we remember Johann Christoph Graupner? Because he was the second choice for a job for which Sebastian Bach was the fourth choice.

    Ferdinand Ries

    Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838)

    We mark the death on January 13, 1838 – 182 years ago today – of the German composer Ferdinand Ries at the age of 53. Ries composed some 200 works, including 8 symphonies, 8 piano concerti, a violin concerto, 3 operas and 26 string quartets. But it is not for his music that Ries is remembered but rather, for his association with Beethoven. Ries was Beethoven’s student and later, his secretary. But most of all, he was Beethoven’s friend, someone whose reminiscences of Beethoven stand as the single most indispensable first-person account of the great man that has come down to us. For which we are forever in Herr Ries’ debt.

    Richard Wagner

    Richard Wagner (1813-1883), ca. 1880

    On January 13, 1882 – 138 years ago today – the German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) put the finishing touches on the words and music of his final music drama, Parsifal.  Never, in the long and storied history of Western music, has music more sublime and glorious been appended to words more vile and grotesque than in Parsifal. For a complete explanation of that statement I would humbly implore you to listen to or watch my Great Courses survey, The Music of Richard Wagner.

    The Accordion

    Early accordion, circa 1860

    Finally, on January 13, 1854 – 166 years ago today – a Philadelphia-based inventor named Anthony Foss received a patent for the accordion. Also known in English as a squeezebox and a squashbox,

    • 13 min

Customer Reviews

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Professor Greenberg is a real treasure. He not only provides great information, he does it in an entertaining and masterful way. This podcast is worth your time.

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Informative and funny- I laugh out loud at least a few times each episode.

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