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.
Béla Bartók’s American Exile
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and his second wife, the pianist Ditta Pásztory (1903-1982), photographed in New York City circa 1942
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 his “wrongness” has only became apparent in time.
You see, Boulez and the modernist community he spoke for rejected Bartók’s music because they believed he had copped out, that he had squandered his potential as a compositional radical by employing elements of folk-music, tonality, dance rhythms, and Classical era forms to create a body of music that was on occasion – heaven forbid – viscerally exciting, and, even worse, accessible: music that employed such dreary and tired things as recognizable thematic melodies and was “expressive” in an unabashedly Romantic sense. (In direct response to Stravinsky’s assertion that music, in itself, “is powerless to express anything”, Bartók wrote:
“I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing.”)
The post-World War Two modernists considered Bartók to be a dinosaur, an evolutionary dead-end, a Romantic nationalist holdover who composed music during the first half of the twentieth century that was irredeemably irrelevant to the second half of the twentieth century.
Thankfully, we here in the twenty-first century know better. And it’s not just the fact that it is once again okay for “concert” music to be fun to listen to; or the fact that from a purely technical point of view, Bartók was one of the most accomplished composers ever to put pencil to paper. No, what truly makes Bartók a composer for the twenty-first century is the degree to which his music represents a synthesis nearly global in scope. His is a compositional language of purposeful diversity integrated into a singular and singularly personal musical language. Bartok’s music offers a model for one of the most pressing issues-slash-questions facing composers today: in an increasingly global culture, in which “diversity” and “variety” are not just buzzwords but real cultural descriptors, how might a composer go about incorporating and reconciling some aspects of that diversity into an integrated and personalized musical language? …
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“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.
Chubby Checker (born Ernest Evans; October 3, 1941) circa 1961
Now, here and there and every now and then, someone gets very lucky and actually scores a career and, as a result, can give up their day gig. Such fine people are the subjects of today’s post. Let us begin, then, with our date-appropriate example.
On September 19, 1960 – 62 years ago today – Chubby Checker (born Ernest Evans; October 3, 1941) went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart with his performance of the rhythm & blues song The Twist.
(For our information, on October 11, 2012, the Chubster set a “world record” in DeLand Florida. That’s when and where he sang The Twist to a crowd of some 4,000 people, who twisted along with him, breaking the previous Guinness World Record for most people twisting at once.
One wonders what the record might be for the most people doing the boogaloo?)
Young Ernest Evans was lucky enough to score what was his first major hit some 5 months before his nineteenth birthday. As a result, he was able to quit his day gig: that of a chicken plucker for a firm called “Fresh Farm Poultry”, which was located at the Italian Produce Market (or the South 9th Street Curb Market) in South Philadelphia. (For our information, though born in Spring Gully, South Carolina, Evans/Checker grew up in the projects of South Philly.)
(A great story. The naturally outgoing young Evans entertained customers at the poultry market with his singing even as he shucked ‘n’ plucked. It was his boss at the market – someone known today only as “Tony A.”, who nicknamed him “Chubby.” But even more important was the owner of “Fresh Farm Poultry”, a man named Henry Holt. Holt was so taken with Chubby and his talent that he arranged for him to make a private recording with Dick Clark, the host of Philadelphia’s own American Bandstand. It was Dick Clark’s first wife Barbara – née Mallery – that completed Chubby’s stage name. She asked him what his name was, and he replied:
“Well, my friends call me ‘Chubby.’”
“As he had just completed a Fats Domino impression, she smiled and said, ‘As in Checker?’ That little play on words [‘chubby’ describing a degree of fatness and ‘checkers’ being, like ‘dominoes’ a tabletop game] got an instant laugh, and stuck: from then on, Evans would use the name ‘Chubby Checker.’”)
To the point: after July of 1960, Earnest Evans/Chubby Checker never had to pluck another chicken (at least not for money!).
I have done some research and have discovered that Chubby Checker’s day gig was not even close to being the worst among certain popular musicians of note.…
Music History Monday: Robert and Clara, Sittin’ in a Tree…
Robert (1810-1856) and Clara Schumann (née Wieck, 1819-1896) in 1847
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, energy, and creative spirit like a lamprey does the innards of a trout. And yet our babies make us immortal as virtually nothing else can. The books we write, the paintings we paint, the buildings we design, and the symphonies we compose shrink to utter insignificance when compared to the life we create.
And then there are first marriages.
A typical first marriage made problematic by the youth of the bride and groom
By their nature, most first marriages are between two relatively young people, people whose lack of life experience should, in fact, disqualify them entirely from making a decision as important as getting married. But if young people didn’t get married, most babies would not be made. Which would be problematic for the survival of our species.
For better or for worse, getting married (and perpetuating the species) is not a priority for everyone, particularly for artists, who by the nature of their calling must be selfish with their time and energy. For example, the number of major composers who never married is a substantial one; whatever their domestic aspirations were vis-à-vis a mate, their needs for unrestricted independence and freedom from any external commitment precluded anything so imprisoning as a walk down the aisle. Such unmarried composers include Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), George Frederick Handel (1685-1759), Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Giacomo Rossini (1792-1868), Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and George Gershwin (1898-1937).
(We’d observe that collectively, that’s a helluva fine gene pool never to have been passed on.)
Jean and Aino Sibelius; they were married for 65 years!
Now: all of this is not to say that composers don’t marry. In fact, a few notable composers would seem to have had solid first marriages, although we’d point out that they were “solid” because their wives took care of everything, allowing their composer/husbands absolute freedom to do their thing. Among such first and only marriages were those of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Cécile Mendelssohn (née Jeanrenaud, 1817-1853); Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) and Carolina von Weber (née Brandt,
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) circa 1913
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 context for the fire that is, along with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the subject of today’s post.
Petrograd/Saint Petersburg on March 8, 1917: the Russian Revolution begins
Petrograd/St. Petersburg in 1917
For the residents of what was then the capital city of the Russian Empire, Petrograd (better known as “St. Petersburg”), the year 1917 was a dangerous, passionate, heady, exhilarating, and ultimately tragic year.
In was in March of 1917 that the horrific and ongoing sins of the Russian government under Tzar Nicholas II finally and forever came home to roost. At war since July 1914, the Tsarist government had shown itself to be utterly inept and corrupt, incapable of supplying adequate arms and food to its soldiers who died by the millions, often forcing peasant conscripts into battle against the Austrian/German enemy without rifles. On March 8, 1917, food riots broke out in Petrograd. Troops were called out, but they refused to fire on the rioters. Instead, by the hundreds, they themselves mutinied and joined the rioters.
It was anarchy.
Seven days later – on March 15, 1917 – Tsar Nicholas abdicated his throne, bringing to an end 304 years of Romanov family rule.
The New York Times, March 16, 1917
On March 17, 1917, two days after Nicholas’ abdication, Russia became a republic ruled by a temporary, or “Provisional” Government. Sadly (and not for the last time), Russia’s brief flirtation with a republican government was not to last. The Provisional Government was, from day one, fatally flawed: it was far too moderate and far too closely associated with the Tsarist regime to be taken seriously by such far-left Marxist Socialist parties as the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks, and the Social Revolutionists.
On April 16, 1917, Vladimir Lenin (born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, 1870-1924) and his Bolshevik homies rode into town. Lenin had been in “exile” in Zurich, Switzerland. In what turned out to be a foreign policy triumph, the German government facilitated Lenin’s return to Russia, believing that his presence in Saint Petersburg (then the capital of the Russian Empire) would further destabilize Russia and help bring the war in the East to its conclusion. Which is exactly what happened.
Promising the soldiers, peasants, and workers “peace, land,
Music History Monday: Bird
Charlie Parker (1920-1955) performing at the Three Deuces in New York City in 1947
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
The New York Post, August 29, 1977
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 arrested for the attempted heist, but this is incorrect.)
As I think we all know (or should know, at least), Elvis died while sitting on the toilet of his mansion in Memphis – “Graceland” – on Tuesday, August 16. He was laid to rest at Memphis’ Forest Hill Cemetery in a huge, flower-strewn mausoleum two days later, on August 18, 1977.
On August 29, 11 days after Presley’s interment, the following appeared in The New York Times:
“Early this morning three men entered the cemetery over a back wall and made their way toward the white marble mausoleum. The men apparently became suspicious and turned to leave, the police said. They were then arrested. No charges were filed immediately against the men, and the police refused to identify them.”
The men had broken into the cemetery – presumably – to steal Elvis Presley’s corpse.
We should all be struck by two bits of information in that brief report in The New York Times. One, that the “men apparently became suspicious and turned to leave.” Suspicious of what, we rightly ask? And two, why weren’t they charged or identified? (FYI: they were never identified.)
These questions were not answered definitively until 2002, 25 years after the purported grave-robbery-gone-wrong had occurred.
Here’s the story!
Immediately after Elvis’ death, his family requested that he be allowed to be buried on the grounds of his “Graceland” estate. But the Memphis Board of Health said no. Whispered inquiries were made; money changed hands; and a Shelby County Deputy named Bill Talley was hired by the Presley family to stage a fake corpse-snatch. The hoax achieved precisely what it was intended to achieve: it convinced Shelby County officials and the Memphis Board of Health that the body of Elvis Presley and, for that matter, the corpse of his mother Gladys be moved to Graceland for security reasons.
On Oct. 3, 1977, Elvis’ and his mother’s coffins were moved to Graceland. Two years later, Elvis’ father Vernon died and was buried next to his wife and son. The so-called “meditation garden” where the family rests today is an absolutely must-see on any visit to Graceland.…
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Claude Debussy (1862-1918) in 1902
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 moment.
Our Game Plan
Here’s how we are going to approach our celebration of Debussy and his remarkable music. Today’s Music History Monday post will be dedicated to understanding the anti-German origins of his distinctly French musical revolution and we’ll start to get know Debussy as a person. In tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, we will pick up from where we leave off today and then we’ll tackle Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (of 1894) and his 12 Études for piano (of 1915), for which I will recommend recordings.
France and Germany: uneasy neighbors
According to the musicologist Arthur Locke writing in the Musical Quarterly in April 1920:
“German tendencies both in music and literature strongly affected the course of the romantic movement in France.”
Merci, Professor Locke; I needed someone else to say that because, for your average Francophile, it is heresy to even imply that the French turned to German models for anything! But it is true that for the first 70 years of the nineteenth century, many French composers looked to Germany for their inspiration. For example, the French Romantic Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) bemoaned the state of music and opera in France and Italy and looked to Germany for his inspiration. And it’s no overstatement to say that in the 1850s and 1860s, young French composers were as addicted to the music dramas of Richard Wagner as they were to claret, cigarettes, and to arguing with one another.
But that all changed in 1870, a year that would haunt Europe well into the twentieth century.
1870 was the year that the issue and conflict that would upend Europe for the next 75 years began. The issue was the unification of Germany, and the conflict was the Franco-Prussian War between France and Germany.…
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Robert Greenberg Great Courses on Sale Now
Dr. Greenberg is always highly entertaining and informative. He’s a master at putting music in context and making it part of a larger story. It’s a podcast that I listen to as soon as it shows up in my feed.
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!