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. 

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Debussy on Bach

Aug 30, 2018
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.”


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.


Maurice Ravel

Aug 28, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

A famous music critic once referred to the French composer Maurice Ravel as “this most conscious, most naturally artificial of composers.” And in fact Ravel specifically said that he wasn’t seeking “profundity” in the music he wrote. He was merely seeking…perfection—some sort of technical perfection in composition, as he defined it, with “absolute beauty” as the guidepost and goal. But here’s the problem: I’m not sure we should completely believe him. Ravel once said, “In my opinion the joie de vivre expressed in dance goes much deeper than the puritanism of César Franck.”


Timpani 2

Aug 27, 2018
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

Aug 24, 2018
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

Aug 20, 2018
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

Aug 17, 2018
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

Aug 16, 2018
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

Aug 15, 2018
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. 


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.

The Waltz

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

When the dance known as the waltz first became popular in Europe in the late 1700's and early 1800's, it was considered by many observers to be the ultimate in lewdness and licentiousness, a corrupter of youth.

The Clarinet

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

The clarinet was the last of the principal woodwind instruments to join the orchestra. The modern clarinet evolved from earlier forms in the early 1700's—later than the modern oboe, bassoon, and flute—and it wasn’t until late in the century that orchestral composers included the clarinet in their scores with any regularity.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The harpsichord, the keyboard workhorse of the Baroque period, is an instrument with a problem:  varying the touch on the keys has absolutely no effect on volume or tone quality.  Depress a key gently or pound on it, it doesn’t matter — the note will sound the same. 

Atonal Music

Aug 7, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Atonal music is music that isn’t written in a key, music that doesn’t follow the traditional rules of harmony. But although the term “atonal” tells us what a piece isn’t, it doesn’t tell us what it is. Many different styles and musical languages, whether harsh or lush, cool or intense, simple or complex can be described as atonal.

Serenade

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

Serenade is one of those musical terms that has meant many different things at many different times. The term itself comes from the Italian sereno, which is from the Latin serenus, which means “serene.”


Sonata

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

The word sonata comes from the Italian sonare, an old form of suonare, which means “to sound,” or “to play,” as in “to play an instrument.” And indeed a sonata is always an instrumental piece—and since about 1750 the term has usually referred to pieces that are written either for solo piano or for piano and one other instrument.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

 Atonality and dissonance are often linked in listeners’ minds, but they’re not the same thing. Dissonance, from the Latin words for “sounding” and “apart,” is the simultaneous sounding of two or more notes to produce a clashing, or unpleasant effect. Its opposite is consonance, a pleasing sound, a “sounding together.”

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Chamber music rehearsals are very different from orchestra rehearsals. In an orchestra rehearsal, it’s the conductor’s job to make the overall musical decisions and to ensure that the members of the orchestra carry them out.


Women's Voices

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

In operatic singing, there are three principal voice types for women. From high to low, they are soprano, mezzo-soprano—mezzo meaning “middle” in Italian—and contralto.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Have you ever wondered how the violin came to play such an important role in the history of classical music? Well, it starts with singing. The invention of opera, in late 16th century Florence, marks the beginning of the Baroque period in music, and with it the rise to supremacy of the musical style known as “melody and accompaniment.”


The Violin Family

Jul 27, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The members of the modern violin family are the violin, viola, cello, and double bass. These instruments are descendants of various kinds of medieval fiddles—fiddle, by the way, being an older word than violin—and the medieval fiddles themselves were bowed stringed instruments that were originally imported to Europe from the Middle East.


The Oboe

Jul 26, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The modern oboe most likely originated in France in the 1600's. The word oboe, which is the instrument’s name in both English and Italian, comes from the French name, hautbois, meaning “high wood,” or “loud wood.” Oboes are usually made of African blackwood, which is sometimes called grenadilla.


Vibrato Part 3

Jul 25, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I’ve been talking this week about vibrato, the vibrato that string players use to warm up their sounds, and the vocal vibrato that’s the natural product of healthy singing. All vibrato consists of small oscillations in pitch, but not all vibrato is a blessing.

Vibrato Part 2

Jul 24, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Yesterday I talked about vibrato, the technique that string players use—rocking the fingers of their left hands back and forth to create small oscillations in pitch that result in a warmer, more resonant sound.

Vibrato Part 1

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

When violinists play, their left hands always seem to shake. But it’s not because they’re nervous. Violinists, violists, cellists, and double bass players all use a technique called vibrato.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

A word of advice today for non-musicians reading program notes in concert programs: If the program notes are heavy on technical analysis and are loaded with terms like modulation, inversion, augmentation, diatonic intervals, chromatic progression, modified sonata form, what have you… ignore them.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Yesterday I listed several pieces of music that would definitely not be the pieces I’d want to be limited to if I were stranded on a desert island.  And I’m afraid I can’t resist adding to the list today, especially since I’ve had a few excellent suggestions from friends. Handel’s Water Music, for example.

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