A Minute with Miles

Classical Stations: Mon-Fri, 6:43 am and 8:43 am

How did the piano get its name? Why can’t you “reach” a crescendo? Who invented opera—and why—and how do you pronounce “Handel”? These and countless other classical music questions are answered on South Carolina Public Radio’s A Minute with Miles. Hosted by longtime NPR commentator Miles Hoffman, the segments inform and entertain as they provide illuminating 60-second flights through the world of classical music. (Photo: Mary Noble Ours)

Ways to Connect

Franz Liszt - Part 2

13 hours ago

Yesterday I mentioned that it was Franz Liszt who invented the solo piano recital, and that the frenzied reactions of Liszt’s audiences became known as “Lisztomania,” or “Liszt fever.” But I don’t want you have the impression that Liszt’s recitals were all virtuoso flash and little substance. Liszt had an enormous repertoire—he certainly played his own showpieces, but he also played pieces by all the great composers of the day and by those he called the “classics,” including many works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.


Franz Liszt - Part 1

May 22, 2017

In 1841 Franz Liszt played three concerts in Paris, and afterward he wrote, “My…solo recitals…are unrivaled concerts, such as I alone can give in Europe at the present moment… Without vanity or self-deception, I think I may say that an effect so striking, so complete, so irresistible had never before been produced by an instrumentalist in Paris.” Well, if it’s true it ain’t braggin’, and by all accounts it was true.


Debussy the Pianist

May 19, 2017

Many great composers have also been great pianists, genuine virtuosos who in addition to composing led successful careers as performers. One gifted composer/pianist who did NOT have a big performing career was Claude Debussy. He did often perform his own works, but he tended to get nervous, and he didn’t enjoy playing in public. And yet by all accounts Debussy was a wonderful pianist, especially noted for his remarkable “touch” at the keyboard.


Mozart's Optimism

May 18, 2017

It’s hard to find a classical music lover who doesn’t love the music of Mozart. It’s when we try to describe why we love Mozart that things can get complicated. We’re describing something indisputably real—our love of Mozart—but unless we stick to strictly technical analyses, we have to use words that will necessarily be both subjective and metaphorical. My own words? I keep coming back to two: humanity and optimism.


Beethoven's Shadow

May 17, 2017

For convenience sake, the 19 th century is usually known as the era of Romanticism in classical music. This is not necessarily wrong, but it certainly does lump a great number of composers of very different styles into one broad category. Another way to view the 19 th century is simply as the era of Beethoven. And that’s because after Beethoven, all composers were seen and evaluated in Beethoven’s light, or rather in his enormous shadow.


In 1838, ten years after the death of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann traveled to Vienna, and while he was there he paid a visit to the graves of Schubert and Beethoven. On a whim, Schumann decided to call on Schubert’s brother, Ferdinand, who was living in Vienna, and this turned out to be perhaps the most fortuitous social call in the history of music.


Density of Brilliance

May 15, 2017

A scientist I know was talking about great works of literature the other day, and she said that what characterized them was the “density of brilliance.” What a wonderful phrase. And how perfect, too, for great works of music. In any five minutes—or any two minutes—of a musical masterpiece, we can find a veritable parade of brilliant ideas. What’s interesting is that the brilliant ideas don’t always sound brilliant.


Prima Donna

May 12, 2017

Of the many musical terms that have made their way into general usage, one of the most colorful—and useful—is Prima donna.  These days the term gets applied to anyone with an oversized ego—man or woman—but in Italian it simply means “first lady,” and it’s been in use since the 1600's as the title for the singer of an opera’s principal female role. By the 1700's the term was already associated with the artistic and commercial cult of the glamorous leading lady—a cult that met with little protest from the leading ladies themselves—and some prima donnas demanded to be called prima donna assoluta, “absolute leading lady.” 


I’d like to read you part of an interesting job application letter. It was originally in French:

“My Lord, As I had the honor of playing before Your Royal Highness… and as I observed that You took some pleasure in the small talent that heaven has given me for music, and [as] You honoured me with a command to send You some pieces of my composition, I now…take the liberty of presenting [you] with the present concertos… humbly praying You not to judge their imperfections by the severity of the fine and delicate taste that every one knows You to have for music …”


Musicians' Nightmares

May 10, 2017

I can’t say for sure, but I would guess that most people have had what might be called recurring anxiety dreams… the kinds of dreams in which you find yourself in public with no clothes on, or about to take a test in a subject you’ve never studied. People’s anxiety dreams tend to be tailored to their particular personalities, circumstances, and experiences, and often to their particular professions. 


Master Classes

May 9, 2017

master class is a public lesson. A distinguished teacher—that would be the master—works with a student on a piece of music, but the teacher isn’t the student’s regular teacher, and instead of the lesson taking place in a private studio, it takes place in front of an audience. It’s a kind of double performance—the student is performing for the audience, but so is the teacher. And the idea is that whatever the teacher has to offer will be of value to both the student and the observers. 


Gabriel Faure

May 8, 2017

Gabriel Fauré is often referred to as one of the greatest  French composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But I wonder if that description goes far enough. It’s certainly true that his contributions to French music, especially in the areas of chamber music, piano music, and music for the voice -- are remarkable. But they’re remarkable because they’re wonderful music, not because they’re French. 


J.S. Bach composed his St. Matthew Passion in 1727. But for the better part of a century after that, the piece essentially disappeared, unknown to all but a few specialists. One of those specialists was the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, who was the music teacher of a boy named Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was only about fourteen when his grandmother gave him a copy of the full score of the St. Matthew Passion – a score she had borrowed from Zelter…. 


I find it fascinating that many of the greatest composers of the 19th century—composers such as Berlioz, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Brahms, Dvorák, and Tchaikovsky—knew one another, and in many cases had very friendly personal and musical relationships. Schumann, for example, wrote his piano quintet for his wife, Clara, a great piano virtuoso…and Clara played the first public performance of the piece. 


In 1950 a musicologist named Wolfgang Schmieder published an enormous catalogue of J.S. Bach’s works, but Schmieder organized it by category, that is, by type of composition, not by date of composition. The catalogue is known in German as the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or BWV, and that’s why you often see Bach’s works listed in programs with their BWV numbers. 


Concert Etiquette

May 2, 2017

Concert etiquette. It’s really just a matter of common sense and good manners. If you think you may be at risk of a coughing or sneezing fit, sit on the end of a row, not in the middle. If you’re bringing a child to the concert and the child tends to fidget, sit in the back, not the front. Don’t take pictures or make videos if you’ve been asked not to or if you may be blocking somebody else’s view, and don’t use a flash even if you haven’t been asked not to. 


Do you find traveling glamorous? Sitting around in airports, waiting in lines, carrying luggage, eating in unfamiliar places, sleeping in unfamiliar beds? Well imagine doing that for about ten months a year, and imagine doing it alone, while having to prove, over and over again every single week, that you’re one of the best in the world at what you do.


Paradox of Integrity

Apr 28, 2017

Musicians, like actors, have to deal with something a drama teacher once called the “paradox of integrity.” On the one hand, you have to be completely “in character” when you’re performing—moved yourself by the music in order to make it moving for others, and merged with the music, in a way… almost submerged in it. 


Conflict

Apr 27, 2017

I won’t mention any names, but many years ago there was a great string quartet that was famous for its members not getting along. People joked that it was a tragedy for this quartet if they showed up in a town that only had three hotels. I don’t know if we can blame this particular quartet, but one theory that took hold was that the best results for chamber music groups are produced by conflict, and the resolution of conflict. 


Pronunciation

Apr 26, 2017

Classical music lovers tend to worry about correct pronunciation, so here are a few refreshers that I hope will be helpful.

In America, people who play the flute call themselves flutists, not flautists, and we who play the viola, which looks like vie-ola, are called violists.

Handel’s Messiah was written by Handel, not Hondle, and though you can say Haendel if you’re feeling German, Handel himself changed it to Handel, so I’d stick with that. 


If you’re allergic to highly technical program notes for classical music concerts, you’re not alone. Most musicians I know find such notes boring and irrelevant, and most non-musicians find them useless, not to mention seriously off-putting. Well, it turns out it’s an old problem, as I discovered when I read a wonderful essay by George Bernard Shaw from 1896. 


Walter Pater was an influential 19th-century English author and critic, and in 1870 he wrote a fascinating essay about the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. In one passage that particularly caught my eye, Pater wrote, “If [Botticelli] painted religious incidents, [he] painted them with an undercurrent of original sentiment, which touches you as the real matter of the picture through the veil of its ostensible subject.” 


Interpretation

Apr 21, 2017

Composers write pieces, and performers perform them. But for the performers, just about everything the composer writes, with the exception of the notes themselves, is a matter of interpretation. The composer indicates that a passage should be played softly? Fine. But how softly? It should get louder? Okay, but how much louder? Faster, slower? – same thing, it’s a matter of interpretation and personal taste. 


The body length of a full-size violin is about 14 inches, give or take a very small fraction. This is a standard length, and an optimum length, arrived at by trial and error over many years by the great violin makers of history. Violas, on the other hand, have no standard length. For the pitch range and acoustics of the viola there probably is an optimum length, but whatever it is, it’s way too great for the instrument still to be held up and played under the chin. 


Looking at Conductors

Apr 19, 2017

The other day, a friend asked me if orchestral musicians really look at the conductor when they’re playing. It’s an interesting question, because after all, how can you look at your music and play all the right notes if you’re also looking up at the person waving the baton? The answer is that you do both, but not always in the same proportion and not always at the same time. There are times—the beginnings of pieces, for example, or at other times when the music starts or stops, or when the tempo changes, when you have to look directly at the conductor. 


I’m guessing you haven’t thought much about this, but one of the things we musicians have to put up with is calluses. Not feeling sympathetic? But what if the calluses are peeling, or bleeding, or have bruises under or around them, or make you look like you’ve been attacked by a vampire? You can probably guess that string players have calluses on the tips of the fingers of their left hands, and you’ve seen the indelible marks on the necks of violinists and violists. 


In music, the terms “high” and “low,” as in “high notes” and “low notes,” “high pitched” and “low pitched,” are metaphors. High and low may be used to describe frequencies, or the relative position of printed notes on a musical staff, but printed notes are themselves merely symbols, not sounds, and frequencies and their measurements don’t actually have height. In reality, high notes are not physically higher, not farther from the surface of the earth, than low notes. 


Tenors

Apr 14, 2017

The word “tenor” is from the Latin tenere, “to hold”…and in medieval and Renaissance vocal music, from about 1250 to 1500, the tenor voice was the “holding voice.” It was the voice that held the principal melody, often with long held-out notes, and the voice around which the other voices were composed. The tenor voice, always a male voice, was not necessarily a high voice—or at least not originally.


Under the heading “Real Musical Understanding,” here’s something that Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote in 1910:

“…Some teachers lay a great deal of stress upon the necessity for the pupil learning the source of the composer’s inspiration. This is interesting, of course, and may help to stimulate a dull imagination..."


Don Drysdale was a great pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but you don’t usually hear his name mentioned without hearing the name of another Dodger, Sandy Koufax. Well, Joseph Lanner was a hugely popular and important composer and orchestra leader in Vienna in the 1820's and 30's, one of the first composers to create a refined version of the Viennese waltz and bring it into the dance hall. But you won’t often see Lanner’s name without also seeing the name Johann Strauss. 


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