A Minute with Miles

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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The Violin Family

May 10, 2019
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

May 9, 2019
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

May 8, 2019
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

May 7, 2019
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

May 6, 2019
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

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.

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 mentioned a few pieces of music I’d like to have with me if I were marooned on a desert island. Today I thought I’d list a few pieces I would definitely not want along. I’m assuming my island would be surrounded by water, so right away Debussy’s La Mer would be out—great piece, but it would be superfluous, to put it mildly, and probably pretty annoying, under the circumstances.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

It’s an old question: if you were going to be dropped off on a desert island and you could only take a few recorded pieces of music with you, what would they be? For me, the first piece on the list is easy: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.


Neuroscience

Apr 29, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I’m grateful for advances in neuroscience, and for many reasons glad that every day we know more about how the brain works. But for all the studies of left brains, right brains, and neuron networks, some things will remain mysteries, and there’s no way around it.


Spiccato

Apr 26, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The literal meaning of the Italian word spiccato is similar to that of staccato—“detached,” or “distinct.” In string playing, to play notes spiccato means to play them with a bouncing bow. With its stiff but flexible stick and tightened horsehair, the bow is like a long spring, so it wants to bounce. But spiccato involves a controlled bouncing. The bow comes off the string after each note, but the player has to find the balance between making the bow bounce and letting it bounce.


Strings

Apr 25, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The strings of stringed instruments—violins, violas, cellos, basses, guitars, and harps—may be made of steel, nylon or other synthetics, or of gut. Often the steel, nylon, or gut serves as the core of the string, and around the core is a tight winding of very fine wire—wire of steel, aluminum, or silver.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

It’s one of the hallmarks of great composers that they’re not limited by the practices of their times. Their imaginations are enriched, but not hemmed in, by the traditions they inherit, and they tend to push boundaries.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The composer Ernest Bloch was born in Switzerland, and after spending time in America, he was thinking of returning to Europe.  But a visit in 1922 to the Library of Congress, in Washington DC, convinced Bloch to stay in this country, and to take American citizenship. He was a famous composer, but Bloch was also one of this country’s most important educators, the founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the first director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Imagine, for a moment, Mozart walking down Broadway, in New York City.  It’s not so easy. But Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the librettos for Mozart’s operas Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and Così fan tutte, died a New Yorker.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Sergey Prokofiev was a giant of 20th-century composition. He wrote great symphonies, operas, ballets, concertos, piano sonatas, and chamber music pieces, not to mention Peter and the Wolf.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

This week we’ll focus on interesting facts and stories about important musicians. The first interesting item about the French composer Ernest Chausson is his name. The word chausson, in French, means “slipper” – as in the slippers you wear on your feet. But a chausson aux pommes is an apple turnover.


Progress in Music

Apr 17, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

For musicians and music teachers, the concept of Progress can be misleading. We can strive in our own ways to emulate the masters who’ve preceded us, but it’s a mistake to think there’s such a thing as being better than those masters.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In fields such as science and technology, or in medicine, we’re used to achievements that represent Progress, progress that is obvious and indisputable. We do things better than we did before. But in the field of music, Progress has at times been a misleading concept.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

No piece of music is ever just “about” any one thing. In Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, Don Giovanni stands beneath Donna Elvira’s window and sings the aria Deh vieni alla finestra, “Come to the window, O my treasure.” It’s a serenade, a love song, and a very beautiful one. But there’s one big problem: it’s a fake.


The Flute, Part 1

Apr 11, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The flute is one of mankind’s oldest instruments, and in one form or another it’s been known to virtually every culture around the world.  The modern flute used in Western classical music is known technically as a “transverse” flute because the player holds it out to one side and blows across a hole in the side of the instrument. Other flutes, such as the recorder, are “end blown”—the player blows directly into an opening in one end of the instrument.


Aria Part 4

Apr 10, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The da capo aria, which I talked about yesterday, was a form that by 1750 had begun to lose its once enormous popularity. It was a form that was essentially killed by excess. The reign of the da capo aria coincided with the reign of the castrati as the stars of Italian opera.


Aria Part 3

Apr 9, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

For about a hundred years, roughly from 1650 to 1750, the principal type of aria in opera, and also in the oratorios and cantatas of such composers as Bach and Handel, was the da capo aria.


Aria Part 2

Apr 8, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The aria - a musical form that’s a kind of song, but more elaborate and vocally demanding than the pieces we usually call songs. The development of opera in Italy in the 1600's is what brought the aria to glory.


Aria Part 1

Apr 5, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Arias are the pieces for solo voice with instrumental accompaniment that are found in operas, oratorios, and cantatas. They’re songs, in a sense, but they tend to be more musically elaborate and vocally demanding than the kinds of pieces we usually call songs.


Acoustics Part 5

Apr 4, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Acoustics is the science of sound, but the word also refers to the qualities of a room—the qualities that determine and describe how things sound in that room. 

Acoustics Part 4

Apr 3, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

When discussing acoustics it’s important to remember that there’s no absolute standard, and that different kinds of music may be better served by different acoustics. A piece for solo cello, for example, might sound wonderful in the richly reverberant acoustics of a cathedral, while a string quartet or piano in the same space would sound like mush.

Acoustics Part 3

Apr 2, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

More today, about acoustics. Absolutely everything in the design and construction of a room, or concert hall, contributes to its acoustics… from the shape and size of the room, to the building and finishing materials, to the seating configuration and height of the stage, to the seemingly minor decorative details.

Acoustics Part 2

Apr 1, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

We’re talking about acoustics this week. Acoustics is the science of sound, but the word has another meaning, as well. When we ask about the acoustics of a concert hall, or of any room, we’re asking about qualities, about how things sound in that room.

Acoustics Part 1

Mar 29, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Acoustics is the science of sound. More specifically, it’s the branch of physics that deals with sound waves and their properties—how sound waves are generated, how they behave in various circumstances, how they interact.

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