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

Looking at Conductors

Jan 10, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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

Jan 5, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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..."


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The French playwright Molière once said, “Anyone can be an honorable man, and yet write verse badly.” Well, no one would dispute that there are many honorable men and women who write music. But if there are such things as “good pieces” or “great pieces,” then there must also be such things as bad pieces. There must be pieces that don’t work very well or don’t work at all, pieces that don’t offer much even to the most open-minded and honorable of music lovers.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Today is the second of January, and on this date in 1881, the Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate was in Paris to play the premiere of the Violin Concerto No. 3 by Camille Saint-Saëns.


Pieces not Parts

Jan 1, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

It’s hard to write a good piece of music, a piece whose elements fit together in ways that make sense, a piece that has a beginning, a middle, and an end and that leaves the listener feeling that the time spent listening has been worthwhile. And I don’t know about you, but when I read a review saying that a piece is constructed entirely of “shimmering hazes of sound,” or “a parade of fascinating effects,” or “random rhythmic bursts and captivating colors,” I’m usually pretty sure that it’s a piece I’m not terribly interested in hearing.

Casals' Birthday

Dec 29, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Today we celebrate the birthday of Pablo Casals. Casals, called Pau Casals in his native Catalan language, was born on December 29, 1876, and he lived for almost a century, dying in 1973.


Time and Meaning

Dec 28, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In music, time passes. But it mustn’t be without purpose or reasons: without . . . meaning. And that’s the point: Music can give meaning to time. If all the interwoven elements in a piece of music mean something—if they remind, reflect, comfort, inspire, or excite—then by definition the time it takes for them to do all that will mean something too.

Dvorak on Spirituals

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

The composer Ernest Bloch once wrote that it’s only by plunging one’s roots to the depths of one’s own people that one finds the common ground of all people. Antonin Dvorák expressed a similar sentiment, and here’s the advice that he gave to American composers at the beginning of the 20th century, after he had been introduced to African American Sprirtuals:

“I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies...

Soothing Music

Dec 26, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

When “classical” public radio stations surveyed their audiences some years back, the most common answer to the question, “Why do you listen to classical music,” was, “Because it’s soothing.” Now think of Beethoven for a moment, the man whose very name defines “classical music” for many people.  He wrote music that sends the soul soaring, that plumbs the depths of human despair, that shatters silence with violent assaults.  


Christmas Carols

Dec 25, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Nobody knows for certain where the word “carol” comes from.  It may come from the Latin, “chorus,” by way of the Greek “khoros,” and both words have to do with dancing in a circle, probably while singing.


Puccini's Birthday

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

Today is December 22, and on this day in 1858 Giacomo Puccini was born. Even a partial list of Puccini’s works reads like an “Opera’s Greatest Hits” list: La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, Turandot.


Copland on Composing

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

It’s often—not always, but often—interesting to read what composers have written about composing—especially if they’re good writers. Aaron Copland was an excellent writer, although by all accounts a very reserved man, one who kept his personal feelings hidden.


Knowing Enough

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

Are you one of those classical music lovers who apologize for not knowing enough? Do you worry that your love of classical music somehow doesn’t count as much as the love of experts? Here’s what I think. I think human beings like to know things, and it’s fine – in fact it’s wonderful – for audiences to be musically knowledgeable and experienced, if only because in music as in all the arts – and as in football and cooking, for that matter – with added knowledge and experience come added levels of appreciation. 


Partita

Dec 19, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The little snippet of music you just heard, our “theme music,” is from the first movement, the Prelude, of the Partita Number 3 in E Major for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach wrote a set of six large works for solo violin – three sonatas and three partitas. The sonatas are constructed of contrasting movements with such names as Allegro, Andante, and Adagio.


Berlioz on Music

Dec 18, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

These are the words of Hector Berlioz:

“Music…embraces at once the real and the ideal… By suspending the rhythm that gives it movement and life, it can assume the aspect of death. With the play of harmonic means at its disposal, it might confine itself…to being a pleasant diversion for the mind; or, in its melodic sport, limit itself to tickling the ear.


Isaac Nathan

Dec 15, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Isaac Nathan was an English Jew, born in Canterbury, in 1790, and he originally trained to be a cantor. Early on though, he switched paths and became, among other things, a voice teacher and composer. 


Stradivarius

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

Several centuries ago, it was common for violin makers to print their names in Latin on the paper labels they glued in their instruments. That’s what the great Italian violin maker Antonio Stradivari did, and that’s why an instrument made by Stradivari is known as a Stradivarius.

Staccato

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

The literal meaning of the Italian word staccato is similar to that of staccato—“detached,” or “distinct.” In string playing, to play notes staccato means to play them with a bouncing bow. With its stiff but flexible stick and tightened horsehair, the bow is like a long spring, so it wants to bounce.


The Song Cycle

Dec 12, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

A song cycle is a set of songs whose texts—often by a single poet—are linked by a common subject, mood, or story. Though the songs of the cycle are all individual entities, they’re designed to be heard together.  And if the marriage of music and poetry in the song represents a 19th century Romantic ideal, the song cycle carries that ideal even further, allowing for an expanded range of expression, a deeper exploration of the individual psyche.

Musical Borrowing

Dec 11, 2017
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

For centuries, composers of classical music have been borrowing and adapting ideas and styles from popular music. Renaissance composers, for example, based Roman Catholic masses on popular tunes. Later composers made liberal use of folk tunes and folk styles of all kinds, and modern composers have borrowed freely from jazz and blues, among many other popular styles.

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.


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