Classical Music

Opus Numbers

22 hours ago
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In 1950 a musicologist named Wolfgang Schmieder published an enormous catalogue of J.S. Bach’s works, but Schmieder organized it by category, that is, by type of composition, not by date of composition. The catalogue is known in German as the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or BWV, and that’s why you often see Bach’s works listed in programs with their BWV numbers.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Musicians, like actors, have to deal with something a drama teacher once called the “paradox of integrity.” On the one hand, you have to be completely “in character” when you’re performing—moved yourself by the music in order to make it moving for others, and merged with the music, in a way… almost submerged in it. On the other hand, you have to remember where to put your fingers, and not to make the same mistake tonight you made at the rehearsal yesterday morning, and not to rush in the third movement, the way you did in Chicago last week. But is this really a paradox?

Pronunciation

Nov 18, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Classical music lovers tend to worry about correct pronunciation, so here are a few refreshers that I hope will be helpful. 

In America, people who play the flute call themselves flutists, not flautists, and we who play the viola, which looks like vie-ola, are called violists.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

If you’re allergic to highly technical program notes for classical music concerts, you’re not alone. Most musicians I know find such notes boring and irrelevant, and most non-musicians find them useless, not to mention seriously off-putting. Well, it turns out it’s an old problem, as I discovered when I read a wonderful essay by George Bernard Shaw from 1896.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Walter Pater was an influential 19th-century English author and critic, and in 1870 he wrote a fascinating essay about the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. In one passage that particularly caught my eye, Pater wrote, “If [Botticelli] painted religious incidents, [he] painted them with an undercurrent of original sentiment, which touches you as the real matter of the picture through the veil of its ostensible subject.” 

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Don Drysdale was a great pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but you don’t usually hear his name mentioned without hearing the name of another Dodger, Sandy Koufax. Well, Joseph Lanner was a hugely popular and important composer and orchestra leader in Vienna in the 1820's and 30's, one of the first composers to create a refined version of the Viennese waltz and bring it into the dance hall. But you won’t often see Lanner’s name without also seeing the name Johann Strauss. 

Interpretation

Nov 12, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Composers write pieces, and performers perform them. But for the performers, just about everything the composer writes, with the exception of the notes themselves, is a matter of interpretation. The composer indicates that a passage should be played softly? Fine. But how softly? It should get louder? Okay, but how much louder? Faster, slower? – same thing, it’s a matter of interpretation and personal taste. And tastes and interpretations can change, sometimes from one performance to the next.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

The body length of a full-size violin is about 14 inches, give or take a very small fraction. This is a standard length, and an optimum length, arrived at by trial and error over many years by the great violin makers of history. Violas, on the other hand, have no standard length. For the pitch range and acoustics of the viola there probably is an optimum length, but whatever it is, it’s way too great for the instrument still to be held up and played under the chin.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

The other day, a friend asked me if orchestral musicians really look at the conductor when they’re playing. It’s an interesting question, because after all, how can you look at your music and play all the right notes if you’re also looking up at the person waving the baton? The answer is that you do both, but not always in the same proportion and not always at the same time. There are times—the beginnings of pieces, for example, or at other times when the music starts or stops, or when the tempo changes, when you have to look directly at the conductor.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

I’m guessing you haven’t thought much about this, but one of the things we musicians have to put up with is calluses. Not feeling sympathetic? But what if the calluses are peeling, or bleeding, or have bruises under or around them, or make you look like you’ve been attacked by a vampire? You can probably guess that string players have calluses on the tips of the fingers of their left hands, and you’ve seen the indelible marks on the necks of violinists and violists.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In music, the terms “high” and “low,” as in “high notes” and “low notes,” “high pitched” and “low pitched,” are metaphors. High and low may be used to describe frequencies, or the relative position of printed notes on a musical staff, but printed notes are themselves merely symbols, not sounds, and frequencies and their measurements don’t actually have height. In reality, high notes are not physically higher, not farther from the surface of the earth, than low notes. But in English, high and low are the best terms we’ve been able to come up with to give us mental images of pitch.

Tenors

Nov 5, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

The word “tenor” is from the Latin tenere, “to hold”…and in medieval and Renaissance vocal music, from about 1250 to 1500, the tenor voice was the “holding voice.” It was the voice that held the principal melody, often with long held-out notes, and the voice around which the other voices were composed. The tenor voice, always a male voice, was not necessarily a high voice—or at least not originally. And in fact the meaning of “tenor” actually varied from place to place.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Under the heading “Real Musical Understanding,” here’s something that Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote in 1910:

“…Some teachers lay a great deal of stress upon the necessity for the pupil learning the source of the composer’s inspiration. This is interesting, of course, and may help to stimulate a dull imagination..."

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The French playwright Molière once said, “Anyone can be an honorable man, and yet write verse badly.” Well, no one would dispute that there are many honorable men and women who write music. But if there are such things as “good pieces” or “great pieces,” then there must also be such things as bad pieces. There must be pieces that don’t work very well or don’t work at all, pieces that don’t offer much even to the most open-minded and honorable of music lovers.

Pieces, Not Parts

Nov 2, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

It’s hard to write a good piece of music, a piece whose elements fit together in ways that make sense, a piece that has a beginning, a middle, and an end and that leaves the listener feeling that the time spent listening has been worthwhile. And I don’t know about you, but when I read a review saying that a piece is constructed entirely of “shimmering hazes of sound,” or “a parade of fascinating effects,” or “random rhythmic bursts and captivating colors,” I’m usually pretty sure that it’s a piece I’m not terribly interested in hearing.

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