A Minute with Miles

News & Music 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

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I’ve been reading about the guitar lately, and here’s what I’ve found: When it comes to the history of the guitar, the only thing that’s certain… is that nothing is certain. Did the early plucked ancestors of the modern guitar make their way to Europe from Asia and the Middle East? Possibly. There are tomb paintings from ancient Egypt, after all, and Hittite stone carvings from over three thousand years ago that show guitar-like instruments, not to mention an actual guitar-like instrument from Egypt that’s 3500 years old.

Arrangement

Dec 7, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

To make an arrangement of a musical composition is to rewrite the composition for a new set of musical forces—to rewrite a wind quintet for string quartet, for example, or to transform a string quartet into a piano trio. In the process of arrangement, a piece may be altered in all sorts of ways, but the original composition always remains recognizable.

A Cappella

Dec 6, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The term a cappella is one of the more familiar Italian terms we run into in the music world. When applied to vocal music, a cappella simply means “without instrumental accompaniment.” But you may find the derivation of the term interesting. The literal meaning of a cappella in Italian is “as in the chapel,” or “in the style of the chapel.”

Composers on Mozart

Dec 5, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Many composers over the years have tried to express in writing what the music of Mozart has meant to them—and to the world. Here are a couple of examples of Mozart appreciation from two 20th century composers who were also wonderful writers. First, from Aaron Copland: “Each time a Mozart work begins…we composers listen with a certain awe and wonder, not unmixed with despair..."


Letters from Mahler

Dec 4, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In the letters of great composers, certain themes come up again and again, especially the composers’ struggles to get their works performed, and the desire—often frustrated—to have those works understood and appreciated. Here’s Gustav Mahler writing in 1906: “For the time being I must rest content with knowing that in a few places there are small circles of art-lovers for whom my work has some meaning, even perhaps some value. The first obstacle to its performance, no matter where, consists in the resources that would have to be employed...


Sergei Rachmaninoff

Dec 1, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Sergei Rachmaninoff was an example of one of the great “types” in the history of classical music: the virtuoso performer who was also an important composer. And indeed he was one of the greatest examples of this type, because both his performing and his composing activities were on the highest level. During his time, in fact, Rachmaninoff was considered by many to be nothing less than the greatest pianist in the world—and if you go online and check out some of the many Rachmaninoff recordings, I think you’ll see why.


Jean Sibelius

Nov 30, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Jean Sibelius was a fascinating man. He was born the year the American Civil War ended and he died in the year of Sputnik. He was a prolific composer—in addition to seven symphonies, many other orchestral works, choral music, music for the stage, and chamber music, he wrote more than a hundred songs—but over the last thirty years of his life he wrote virtually nothing. He was the greatest of Finnish composers, but he was a Swedish Finn: his first language was Swedish, and in fact he didn’t even learn to speak Finnish well until he was a young man.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

There’s very little that’s natural about the physical positions and movements that are required to play most musical instruments, and during the course of practicing and performing, awkward movements may be repeated literally thousands of times a day and millions of times a year, and unnatural positions may be maintained for untold numbers of hours. Muscle strain, tendonitis, nerve damage—all fall in the general category of “overuse” syndromes, and all are unfortunately extremely common among professional musicians.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

There’s no question that good performers are necessary in order to bring musical compositions to life. I play the viola, and I’m always aware that when I’m playing a concert, the quality of my performance is of great importance in bringing the music to life for the people who are in that particular audience. So yes, in the limited sphere of my performances and my audiences, my role is critical, and if I play Mozart well, or Brahms, or Beethoven, I’m playing at least a small part in sustaining a vital and beautiful tradition.


Music That Lasts

Nov 27, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

People often wonder, “Which pieces by contemporary composers will be familiar to classical music lovers fifty… a hundred… two hundred years from now”?  Well, it’s not foolproof, but one pretty good indicator is that if a piece remains unloved after fifty years, or has entirely dropped out of sight, it’s not likely to be in the standard repertoire after a hundred years.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were roughly contemporaries, and as two of the greatest figures in late 19th and early 20th century French music, they tend to be linked in people’s minds. But although they had similar training and came under many of the same influences, their musical styles and techniques were really quite different. And each admired the other’s talents, but that didn’t stop either one of them from criticizing what he saw as the other’s weaknesses.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

It was in November of 1621 that the Pilgrims of the Plymouth colony celebrated the first Thanksgiving. Existence was pretty bare bones in Plymouth in those days, and there certainly wasn’t much going on musically. I find it fascinating to think about that, and then to think about what was going on in Europe at the same time.


Debussy on Bach

Nov 22, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Here are a few words that one great composer wrote about another—and I wonder if you can guess who was writing about whom. Ready? “Once again one finds almost the entire piece is pure musical arabesque…In reworking the arabesque he made it more flexible, more fluid, and despite the fact that [he] always imposed a rigorous discipline on beauty, he imbued it with a wealth of free fantasy so limitless that it still astonishes us…” “We can be sure that [he] scorned harmonic formulas. He preferred the free play of sonorities whose curves…would result in an undreamed of flowering, so that the least of his manuscripts bears an indelible stamp of beauty.”


Timpani 2

Nov 21, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The timpani, or kettledrums were the original percussion instrument of the orchestra. The “kettle” of a kettledrum is called the “bowl,” and is made of copper or brass. The “head” of the drum, the surface that the player strikes, is a piece of Mylar plastic stretched over the rim of the bowl.


Timpani 1

Nov 20, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The timpani, also called kettledrums, have been regular members of the orchestra since about 1700. Their history can be traced back to ancient times in the Middle East, but they first appeared in Europe in the 1400's—they were originally imported from Turkey for use in cavalry bands. Timpani are tuned drums—they play notes, not just booms.  


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Claude Debussy in 1903 wrote about the importance of giving his imagination free rein. Five years later Debussy expanded on the theme in a published interview. “You know,” he said, “People leave their homes to get away from themselves and from their surroundings. I confess that I live only in my surroundings and in myself. I can conceive of no greater pleasure than sitting in my chair at this desk and looking at the walls around me day by day and night after night..."


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Robert Schumann called taking the titles of musical compositions too literally “clumsy.” Schumann’s friend Franz Liszt, on the other hand, coined the term “program music,” and said that when a piece has a program, or story, the musical ideas should clearly reflect the unfolding of the story—although that’s the same Franz Liszt who attached a “program” to his symphonic poem Les Préludes long after he had actually written the music.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Like many 19th-century composers, Robert Schumann often gave his works picturesque titles. Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, for example, a set of pieces for solo piano, includes pieces with titles such as “Pleading Child,” and “Frightening.”  How literally should we take these titles – and perhaps the picturesque titles of other composers’ works? 

Scherzo 2

Nov 14, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Beethoven replaced the minuet in his four-movement pieces with the scherzo. Scherzo means “joke,” in Italian, but in Beethoven’s scherzos you won’t usually find anything that qualifies as out-‘n-out funny. What you usually will find is a certain playfulness, with lots of fast notes, abrupt accents, surprises, and quick changes of musical direction. 


Scherzo 1

Nov 13, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

During the time of Haydn and Mozart, the third movement of a four-movement piece such as a symphony or string quartet was invariably a stylized dance movement called a minuet. By the end of the 1700's, though, Beethoven, in one of his many innovations, had largely replaced the minuet with a movement he called a “scherzo.” 


Syncopation 2

Nov 10, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Syncopation disturbs the regular flow of rhythm and it shifts the emphasis in music from strong beats to weak beats, or to in-between beats. I’d like to stress, though, that syncopation is a general term: there’s no limit to the number or variety of possible syncopated rhythms or syncopated patterns, and no limit to the ways they may be used. 


Syncopation 1

Nov 9, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

There’s an old joke about the husband who’s been out late drinking, and when his wife asks him where he’s been, he latches onto a word he saw on the cover of a book in the window of a music store, and he says that unfortunately he had come down with a case of… syncopation. 


Drumsticks

Nov 8, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Percussion players can vary the sounds of their instruments by using different kinds of drumsticks, or drumsticks with different kinds of heads. Timpani players, for example, use  sticks that range from very soft to very hard. The heads of “normal,” or “regular” timpani sticks are made of felt—hard felt covered with soft felt—but the softest timpani stick heads are made of sponge, and the hardest are made of solid wood. Just imagine the difference in sound between a drum struck with sponge and a drum struck with wood! 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Already during their lifetimes, Antonin Dvorák and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky were among the most famous composers in the world. Their music is extremely sophisticated, the product of highly skilled composers, and their beautiful melodies have always been especially beloved.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Today is November 6th, and it’s the birthday of two important figures in the history of music, one an American composer and bandleader, and the other a Belgian instrument maker.

What Will Last?

Nov 3, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Perhaps you’ve thought about this: Bach and Mozart died over two hundred years ago – – Is there anybody alive today whose music will be played two hundred years from now? It’s a tricky question. 


Bel Canto - Rossini

Nov 2, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I wonder what today’s voice teachers would think of the composer Gioacchino Rossini’s ideas for a vocal training curriculum. According to Rossini, learning the art of bel canto, or “beautiful singing,” should begin with many months of soundless exercises, starting no later than the age of twelve. 


Practicing

Nov 1, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

When I was a little boy just starting violin lessons, my teacher’s instructions were that I should practice a half hour every day. For a six-year-old this seemed an enormous load. I liked the violin… but a whole half hour, every day? 


Indispensible Three

Oct 31, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

It’s always fun to propose lists of the “ten best” of something – or the ten worst of something, for that matter. But when it comes to thinking about composers of classical music, there’s a word I like better than “best,” and that word is indispensable. And the number I have in mind isn’t ten, but rather three. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I’ve spoken about this before, but the subject seems to come up a lot, so why not go over it again: in America, 99.97 per cent of the people who play the flute for a living call themselves flutists, not flautists. That’s not a scientific number, but I think it’s pretty accurate.


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