Classical Music

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Musicians tend to tell lots of stories about funny things that have happened on stage during concerts. Often the stories are about disasters or near-disasters, and to be honest, they usually seem much funnier later on than the events themselves felt when they were actually happening. But one of the funniest stories I know isn’t about a disaster. It was told to me by the former second violinist of a very famous string quartet. The quartet had played a concert one night, had been up very late, and had had to make a long drive to play a concert the next night, with no time to rest.

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.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

When it comes to Spanish composers of the late 19th and early 20th 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. Both those men, in fact, continued the long tradition of the composer/virtuosos who enriched the solo piano repertoire by writing pieces to showcase their own spectacular talents.

Why is Bach Better?

Jul 2, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Some years back colleague and I were listening to a Bach violin concerto on the radio. 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. But Bach himself didn’t invent any of the forms he used.

Debussy the Pianist

Jul 1, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Many great composers have also been great pianists, genu-in 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, Pt. 2

Jun 30, 2020
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. And by all accounts he played these pieces wonderfully.

Franz Liszt, Pt. 1

Jun 29, 2020
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 unrivalled 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

Jun 26, 2020
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

Jun 25, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

For convenience sake, the 19th 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 19th 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. Seen by the public, and seen by themselves. Imagine the courage it took to write a symphony after hearing Beethoven’s symphonies!

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

Jun 23, 2020
A Minute with Miles
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. Sometimes they just sound… right. Absolutely right. And even inevitable. But they weren’t inevitable.

A Minute with Miles
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. Some composers compose at the piano and some compose at their desks, and some do both.

Rossini on Singers

Jun 19, 2020
A Minute with Miles
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.

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