The Arts

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. Exhibit A in this category is usually Richard Wagner, an egomaniac and anti-semite, among other things, but a man who wrote lots of exquisitely beautiful music. What are we to make of such jarring disjunctions? Should we throw out the music with the maniac? I don’t have the answer.

Composers' Lives

Feb 25, 2021
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. But still, we’re curious, especially about composers whose work has meant a great deal to us, work that has enriched our lives.

Ear Training

Feb 24, 2021
A Minute with Miles
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. They do this through practice and memorization. The distance in pitch between any two notes, for example, is called an interval.

What Will Last

Feb 23, 2021
A Minute with Miles
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. There are contemporary composers whose music I like and admire, but I certainly wouldn’t bet my life on predicting their immortality. When it comes to the great composers of the past, we’re lucky: history has done the winnowing for us.

A Minute with Miles
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

Feb 19, 2021
A Minute with Miles
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? Usually I would start, and then run to my mother every five minutes asking, “Is it a half hour yet?” And even later, when I started on the road to a career in music, practicing remained a duty, something I knew I had to do even if I would rather have been doing something else.  And now?

A Minute with Miles
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, 99.9 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. In any case, I’ve never heard any American flute playing colleague refer to herself as anything but a flutist, so please don’t ever worry about sounding uncultured or unsophisticated if that’s the term you use. And where does the word “flautist” come from, anyway?

Modern Music

Feb 16, 2021
A Minute with Miles
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. I think that more often, though, what people mean by “modern stuff” is simply music that doesn’t seem to make sense.

Mesmer

Feb 15, 2021
A Minute with Miles
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. Before you laugh, you should know that Mesmer had many therapeutic successes and many disciples, and for a period in his life he was rich and famous. And it’s from Mesmer’s name that we get the word “mesmerize.” What does this have to do with music?

A Minute with Miles
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: Rasendes Zeitmass, Wild, Tonschönheit is nebensache: Racing tempo, Wild, Beauty of tone is irrelevant. That’s Paul Hindemith’s marking for the fourth movement of his Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 25, No. 1.

Glass Armonica

Feb 11, 2021
A Minute with Miles
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. Franklin was entranced by the sound, and he invented a mechanical version of the musical glasses that he called the glass armonica – that’s harmonica without the H. Franklin’s instrument consisted of a set of glass bowls mounted in a trough on a spindle.

Galilei

Feb 10, 2021
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Galileo, whose full name was Galileo Galilei, was one of the great figures in the history of science. What may surprise you is that Galileo’s father, Vincenzo Galilei, was one of the great figures in the history of Western music. The elder Galilei was a lutenist, singer, and composer, but most importantly he was a theorist. In a book called Dialogue of Ancient and Modern Music, published in 1581, he laid out the theory of what came to be known as monody, the style of music that features a solo vocal line with instrumental accompaniment.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In chamber music from the Baroque period, the written parts for keyboard instruments -- the harpsichord and the organ, for example – often consisted of merely a bass line, with numbers written under the notes. Such a bass line was called a “figured bass,” and the numbers, or figures, indicated which chords the keyboard player was expected to fill in above the bass, while at the same time improvising melodies [or countermelodies] to go along with what the other instruments were playing.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In some ways composers are like chefs – they’re always looking for interesting or even exotic flavors.  Or like painters, experimenting with compelling colors and color combinations.  And percussion instruments, whether alone or in combination, have always been very useful ingredients for adding flavor and color to orchestral compositions.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

By the late 1700s, the piano had replaced the harpsichord as the primary keyboard instrument for solo compositions, concertos, and chamber music. Lovers of Baroque music may not like to hear this, but for most musicians of the time—of the late 1700s, that is—this replacement represented progress. And the reason it represented progress was that the piano offered possibilities for sound production, and sound variation, that the harpsichord couldn’t match. When you press the keys on a harpsichord, you cause strings to be plucked.

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