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

Pieces not Parts

Apr 7, 2017

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.

Time and Meaning

Apr 6, 2017

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

Apr 5, 2017

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

Apr 4, 2017

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.  

Copland on Composing

Apr 3, 2017

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

Mar 31, 2017

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. 


Mar 30, 2017

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

Mar 29, 2017

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.

Guillaume Lekeu

Mar 28, 2017

We know that Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn all died way too young. Mozart at thirty-five, Schubert at thirty-one, Mendelssohn at thirty-eight. But all three left us many masterpieces, and luckily we can concentrate on what was, rather than on what might have been. 

Emmanuel Chabrier

Mar 27, 2017

Emmanuel Chabrier is another of those musicians who were at the center of the musical and cultural lives of their countries and their times, but whose own creative contributions have largely faded from view. Other than España, the Rhapsody for Orchestra, most of Chabrier’s works are likely to be unfamiliar to today’s listeners, especially outside of France.

Isaac Nathan

Mar 24, 2017

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. In London he wrote the music for several successful musical comedies, but his greatest success came as the composer of a collection of songs called “Hebrew Melodies.” 


Mar 23, 2017

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.


Mar 22, 2017

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.

Bach's Birthday

Mar 21, 2017

If I told you about a letter from a famous composer to his employers, a letter in which the composer complained that he needed a higher salary because he’d been making less money freelancing playing the organ at funerals, because there hadn’t been nearly enough disease going around – could you guess who the composer was? 

The Song Cycle

Mar 20, 2017

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

Mar 17, 2017

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.

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.


Mar 15, 2017

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

Mar 14, 2017

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

Mar 13, 2017

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

Mar 10, 2017

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

Mar 9, 2017

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

Mar 8, 2017

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.

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.

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

Mar 3, 2017

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.

Debussy on Bach

Mar 2, 2017

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.”

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.

Timpani 2

Feb 28, 2017

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

Feb 27, 2017

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.