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

Pizzicato

Feb 13, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

There are many musical terms that get translated into several languages, depending on the native language of the composer who’s using the terms. The Italian term Allegro, for example, might appear as “Lively,” in English, or “Vif,” in French, or “Lebhaft,” in German. But there’s one musical term that for some reason you’ll only ever see…or hear…in the original Italian, and that’s Pizzicato. Pizzicato is the Italian word for “plucked.” To play pizzicato on a stringed instrument means to make the notes sound by plucking the strings with the fingers, rather than by using the bow. 


Program Music

Feb 12, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

“Program music” is instrumental music that attempts to tell a story, paint a scene or picture, or convey impressions of a character, place, or event. But no matter how sonically descriptive, music is always open to a range of interpretations—sometimes far removed from the composer’s intentions—and no two people will ever hear the same work in exactly the same way. I’ll go further: in most cases, without descriptive titles we wouldn’t have the first foggiest clue of what an instrumental piece was supposed to be “about.” And what does “about” even mean, when it comes to music?


Hayes and Olivier

Feb 9, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Your strange job as a performing artist—musician, actor, or dancer—is to immerse yourself completely in the work of art you’re performing—to lose yourself, in a sense—and yet at all times to remain aware of precisely what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. It’s not easy, and sometimes the process—which is complicated to begin with—becomes downright mysterious. I once heard the actress Helen Hayes tell a story about Sir Laurence Olivier. She was performing in a play with Olivier, and one night he give a performance that was absolutely staggering—especially brilliant even for him. 


Finales

Feb 8, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in classical music, the final movements of instrumental pieces—the finales—were almost always in fast tempos, and they usually ended loud, and emphatically. No matter where the rest of the piece had taken us, the finale was meant to provide a resolution, a sense that we’d just heard a complete work of art, a satisfyingly complete narrative, with a beginning, a middle, and—in no uncertain terms—an end.  There was a kind of affirmative philosophy underlying the composer’s work, and a projection of certainty: I know what I meant to say, I’ve said it, and there’s value in my having said it. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Outdoor concerts can be delightful, especially when the music and the natural surroundings make a perfect mix. Then again, when you’re playing outdoors, things sometimes happen that wouldn’t ever happen in the   concert hall—and I’m not just talking about thunderstorms. I’m thinking of a concert I played many years ago at a festival in France. The setting was beautiful—we were in a valley in the Alps—and the music was Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. What could be better? The performance received an unexpected interruption, however, when a Labrador retriever puppy decided to run up on stage and say hello to all the musicians, wiggling his cute little hind quarters at the audience the whole time. 


Repeats in Music

Feb 6, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Composers often call for repeats, in their music, for whole sections of their pieces to be played twice. And the question is: what’s the point? One answer is that the repeat helps the listener remember the musical material. But more important, I think, is that the second time through a section always has different meaning, and meanings, precisely because we’ve already heard it once. A return—no matter if it’s to a person, a place, or an experience—always feels very different from a first meeting. 


The Harp

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

If you have a chance to attend an orchestra concert anytime soon and one of the pieces on the program calls for a harp, make sure to watch the harpist’s feet. They’ll be busy. The modern concert harp has forty seven strings, but it also has seven foot pedals, each of which controls one set of strings for each note of the scale. The A pedal, for example, controls all the A strings on the harp, and can change their length so that they sound A-natural or A-sharp or A-flat. As they play, harpists have to set and reset their pedals constantly—and quickly—to prepare for the notes that are coming up.


Prima Donna

Feb 2, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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.” 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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

Jan 31, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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

Jan 30, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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

Jan 29, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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…. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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

Jan 23, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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

Jan 19, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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

Jan 18, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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

Jan 17, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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

Jan 12, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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

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.


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