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. 

Ways to Connect

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

From the 1400's to the 1700's, the Italian word viola was the general term for any stringed instrument played with a bow.  Viola da braccio, or “arm viola,” was the generic name for any member of what we now call the modern violin family.  And even though it was always played between the legs, the instrument we now call the cello was first called the basso di viola da braccio, or “bass arm viola.” The word cello, believe it or not, comes from an Italian word meaning “little big viola.”


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

Here are the names of seven composers of Italian opera who were contemporaries of Giuseppe Verdi:

Filippo Marchetti, Errico Petrella, Pietro Antonio Coppola, Luigi Ricci, Federico Ricci, Antonio Cagnoni, and Giovani Pacini. Ever heard of them? Neither had I. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Sic transit gloria mundi – Thus passes worldly glory. Louis Spohr was born in Germany in 1784, and during his lifetime he was one of the most famous musicians in all of Europe, renowned as a great violinist, a distinguished conductor, and an extremely prolific composer. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

If you’d like a remarkable example of the genius of Leonard Bernstein, I  recommend that you listen – or listen again – to the song “Cool,” from West Side Story.


Better Ears

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

Every musician will tell you that there are some musicians who just seem to have better ears than others do. We’re really talking about the brain, rather than the actual organ of hearing, but in any case from the same sounds others hear, some people are able to extract more information, and they’re able both to process and to store that information faster, more accurately, and more efficiently. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

One of the reasons Mozart’s operas seem so profound to us is because they’re so true to life, and perhaps especially true to life’s complexities and contradictions. 


Conducting Changes Over the Years

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

The tools and techniques of conducting have changed a great deal over the centuries. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the people who led musical performances, especially vocal performances, usually simply waved their hands in the air to indicate the shape and speed of melodies – although sometimes they also held a long wooden staff in one hand and marked beats with it. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

One of the common dangers of studying composers’ lives is finding out that some of the people whose music we love and admire turn out to have been very unadmirable human beings. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Here’s a question: Should we really care about the personal lives of the composers we admire? When we don’t know anything about their lives, we certainly don’t care. How many of us know a great deal about Monteverdi, or Palestrina? Or even Bach, or Beethoven? What we care about is the music. 


Ear Training

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

Ears can be trained. Which is why every music school in the world offers ear-training courses. I suppose it should go without saying, but for musicians the ability to recognize fine distinctions among sounds is crucial. And what musicians are trained to do is to recognize very specific kinds of information in sounds, to recognize relationships and patterns and to be able to reproduce them. 


What Will Last?

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

Perhaps you’ve thought about this: Bach and Mozart died over two hundred years ago – – Is there anybody alive today whose music will be played two hundred years from now? It’s a tricky question. 


Bel Canto - Rossini

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

I wonder what today’s voice teachers would think of the composer Gioacchino Rossini’s ideas for a vocal training curriculum. According to Rossini, learning the art of bel canto, or “beautiful singing,” should begin with many months of soundless exercises, starting no later than the age of twelve. 


Practicing

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

When I was a little boy just starting violin lessons, my teacher’s instructions were that I should practice a half hour every day. For a six-year-old this seemed an enormous load. I liked the violin… but a whole half hour, every day? 


Indispensible Three

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

It’s always fun to propose lists of the “ten best” of something – or the ten worst of something, for that matter. But when it comes to thinking about composers of classical music, there’s a word I like better than “best,” and that word is indispensable. And the number I have in mind isn’t ten, but rather three. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I’ve spoken about this before, but the subject seems to come up a lot, so why not go over it again: in America, 99.97 per cent of the people who play the flute for a living call themselves flutists, not flautists. That’s not a scientific number, but I think it’s pretty accurate.


Modern Stuff

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

There are many people who say they love classical music, but not “that modern stuff.” What’s interesting is that some of “that modern stuff” is well over a hundred years old. Sometimes the term “modern” is just a stand-in for “unfamiliar,” and it’s true that some listeners have no appetite or patience for music that’s unfamiliar, and aren’t even willing to give it a try. That may be their loss… but then again we’re all entitled to stick to what we know and love. 


Mesmer

Apr 16, 2018
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

If you explore the history of psychotherapy, you’ll come upon the name Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer was born in Germany in 1734, and it was Mesmer who invented the term “animal magnetism,” which is what he called the mysterious force, or fluid, that flowed through his own body and that he could redirect for therapeutic purposes. 


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The most common tempo markings in music are words like allegro, adagio, and andante. But often composers indicate expression along with tempo, and this is when foreign-language dictionaries can come in handy. I could make a long list of interesting tempo and expression markings, but here are two of my favorites: 


Glass Armonica

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

In May of 1761, Benjamin Franklin was in Cambridge, England, and he heard a man play a performance on musical glasses. They were crystal wine glasses filled with different levels of water, and when the performer rubbed the edges of the glasses, they produced different notes. 


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.


Density of Brilliance

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

A scientist I know was talking about great works of literature the other day, and she said that what characterized them was the “density of brilliance.” What a wonderful phrase. And how perfect, too, for great works of music. In any five minutes—or any two minutes—of a musical masterpiece, we can find a veritable parade of brilliant ideas. What’s interesting is that the brilliant ideas don’t always sound brilliant.


Pages