Composers

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Musical child prodigies have always fascinated the public. Far more rare than the child prodigy performer, though, is the child prodigy composer. The first name that comes to many people’s minds when they think of child composers is Mozart, and it’s true that Mozart started writing music at the age of four or five. But of all Mozart’s great pieces, very few were written before his twentieth birthday. Felix Mendelssohn, on the other hand, composed works when he was fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen that are still considered masterpieces, and that far surpass anything Mozart wrote when he was a teenager. 

Bach Cello Suites

May 14, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

A word today about the solo cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach. The melodies to which we’re most accustomed in the music of such composers as Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert, usually feature easily identifiable beginnings, middles, and ends.


Antonio Vivaldi

May 11, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Antonio Vivaldi’s life story could easily be the subject of a novel.  Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678 and at the age of 25 he was ordained as a priest.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Fame, they say, is fleeting. I recently came across a piece of music by a German composer named Johann Friedrich Fasch. Ever heard of him? I hadn’t.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

If you’ve seen the movie Amadeus, or the play it was based on, you may have gotten the impression that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was some sort of giggling idiot who just happened to be really good at writing music. Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

When it comes to Spanish composers of the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries, the three most important names are certainly Isaac Albeniz, Enrique Granados, and Manuel de Falla – all composers who brilliantly integrated Spanish folk influences into the Western classical tradition. All three were great pianists, and Albeniz and Granados in particular had important careers as solo performers.


Bach - Better

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

A colleague and I were listening to a Bach violin concerto on the radio some years back. After a while my colleague said, “You know, there are a thousand Baroque violin concertos. Why is it that this one is just…better?” Johann Sebastian Bach wrote sonatas, concertos, suites, preludes and fugues, overtures, oratorios, and cantatas—music in all the major forms of the Baroque era, with the exception of opera.


Debussy the Pianist

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

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.


Franz Liszt - Part 2

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

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

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

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.


Mozart's Optimism

Apr 4, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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

Apr 3, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

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.


Debussy the Writer

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

Claude Debussy was a great composer, but like many other famous composers, he was also a wonderful writer. He wrote countless articles of music criticism, and his writing was clever, funny, insightful, highly opinionated, and often wickedly caustic. He wrote some of his articles under the pseudonym Monsieur Croche, which in French means “Mr. Eighth Note,” but whether writing as Monsieur Croche or himself, he was never shy about saying what he thought. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

We’re always fascinated by abilities that are far beyond the realm of our experiences, or even of our imaginations. Some people can hold their breath for 10 minutes, some can jump four feet off the ground, some can memorize the digits of pi out to thousands of places. And some musicians—actually many musicians, although I’m not one of them—can hear any note and tell you what that note is. It’s called having “perfect pitch.” 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The mathematician Mark Kac once tried to describe the extraordinary genius of the physicist Richard Feynman “There are two kinds of geniuses,” Kac wrote. “The ‘ordinary’ and the ‘magicians.’ An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. It is different with the magicians… the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible.”  


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

A few more words today about Johann Sebastian Bach, whose birthday was yesterday. Bach wrote enormous quantities of  profoundly moving sacred music. But the hallmark of Bach’s music, whether sacred or secular, is that it’s Always passionate.  


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Today is the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. The essayist Lewis Thomas, musing on the question of what signals earthlings ought to broadcast to outer space in case alien life forms were listening, wrote, “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable to put on the best possible face at the beginning of such an acquaintance. Any species capable of producing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach cannot be all bad.” 


Bellini and Melody

Mar 20, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Vincenzo Bellini—the composer of Norma, La Sonnambula, and I Puritani, to name a few of his best-known operas—is famous for the beauty of his melodies, but also for his ability to use melody to define character, express passion, and advance dramatic action. And he had nothing but disdain for what he called the “ridiculous rules” that some people thought composers should be obliged to follow when setting poetry to music.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Mozart, they say, could compose music while he was playing billiards. Rossini wrote that he had once composed an overture while standing in the water fishing and listening to his fishing partner discuss Spanish finance. Prokofiev and other composers were known to carry notebooks with them so that they could jot down musical ideas that came to them on long walks, while Aaron Copland, when asked once how he found the inspiration for his music, said that the secret to inspiration was to sit down and work. 


Rossini on Singers

Mar 15, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In The Barber of Seville and his many other operas, Gioacchino Rossini gave singers plenty of opportunities to show off their talents.  But in a letter he wrote in 1851, Rossini made it clear that he didn’t have much patience for the cult of the great singer, or for singers whose pretensions got the better of them.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Much of what we know about the great composers we’ve learned from their letters. It’s true that occasionally—and with some composers more than others—the music they’ve written seems somehow to reflect what was going on in their lives at the time. But more often than not the music gives no clue. It’s in their letters, much more than in their music, that we get a window into the composers’ private thoughts, and into the joys and struggles of their personal lives. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In a famous letter to his father, Mozart once wrote, “you know I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument I cannot bear.” He was talking about the flute, and the occasion of the letter was a commission Mozart had received to write several flute concertos and quartets for flute and strings. In fairness to Mozart, neither the flutes nor the flutists of his day were terribly reliable, but it’s also possible that Mozart had just been procrastinating, and inventing an excuse to give his father. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

When musicians and music scholars prepare performances of works by dead composers, they often get stuck in arguments over determining what the composers’ “original intent” was. And while I certainly recognize the importance of scholarly accuracy and authenticity, and of staying true to the composers’ wishes, I think that sometimes musicians forget that dead composers were once alive. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Composers during the Baroque period wrote plenty of chamber music, especially trio sonatas, and sonatas for such high-voiced instruments as the violin and the flute. But the chamber music repertoire that today’s audiences are most familiar with probably begins with the piano trios and string quartets of Joseph Haydn. After Haydn, the floodgates opened. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

You could write a book about the life of the German composer Georg Philipp Telemann– and as it turns out,  Telemann himself wrote three – three separate autobiographies. One of the things he wrote about is the time he spent in Poland in his early twenties. He became familiar with Polish and Moravian folk music during this period—he wrote that he experienced it in “all its barbaric beauty”—and he also heard the music of Eastern European gypsies. 


David Popper

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

Have you ever heard of a composer named David Popper? If you’re not a cellist, your answer is very likely…“Nope.” But if you are a cellist, your answer is, “Well of course.” There are some composers whose reputations rest almost entirely on their works for one instrument, and who, although they may not have been composers of the first rank, wrote brilliantly for that one instrument. Popper, who was born in Prague, in 1843, is a perfect example. 


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 …”


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…. 


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