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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Density of Brilliance

Oct 11, 2019
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. Sometimes they just sound… right. Absolutely right. And even inevitable. But they weren’t inevitable.

What Will Last

Oct 10, 2019
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. 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
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

Oct 8, 2019
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? 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?

Indispensible Three

Oct 7, 2019
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. Which three composers are indispensable to any account of those who have made the greatest contributions to the living repertoire of classical music? And not as a matter of personal taste, but as a matter of judgment.

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, 99.9 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

Oct 3, 2019
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. I think that more often, though, what people mean by “modern stuff” is simply music that doesn’t seem to make sense.

Mesmer

Oct 2, 2019
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. 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
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: 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

Sep 30, 2019
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. 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

Sep 27, 2019
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
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.

Figured Bass

Sep 25, 2019
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/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
SC Public Radio/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
SC Public Radio/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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