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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Composers on Mozart

Mar 20, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Many composers over the years have tried to express in writing what the music of Mozart has meant to them—and to the world. Here are a couple of examples of Mozart appreciation from two 20th-century composers who were also wonderful writers. First, from Aaron Copland: “Each time a Mozart work begins…we composers listen with a certain awe and wonder, not unmixed with despair.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In the letters of great composers, certain themes come up again and again, especially the composers’ struggles to get their works performed, and the desire—often frustrated—to have those works understood and appreciated. Here’s Gustav Mahler writing in 1906: “For the time being I must rest content with knowing that in a few places there are small circles of art-lovers for whom my work has some meaning, even perhaps some value. The first obstacle to its performance, no matter where, consists in the resources that would have to be employed.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Mar 18, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Sergei Rachmaninoff was an example of one of the great “types” in the history of classical music: the virtuoso performer who was also an important composer. And indeed he was one of the greatest examples of this type, because both his performing and his composing activities were on the highest level. During his time, in fact, Rachmaninoff was considered by many to be nothing less than the greatest pianist in the world—and if you go to YouTube and check out some of the many Rachmaninoff recordings, I think you’ll see why.

Sibelius

Mar 17, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Jean Sibelius was a fascinating man. He was born the year the American Civil War ended and he died in the year of Sputnik. He was a prolific composer—in addition to seven symphonies, many other orchestral works, choral music, music for the stage, and chamber music, he wrote more than a hundred songs—but over the last thirty years of his life he wrote virtually nothing. He was the greatest of Finnish composers, but he was a Swedish Finn: his first language was Swedish, and in fact he didn’t even learn to speak Finnish well until he was a young man.

Musicians' Injuries

Mar 16, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

There’s very little that’s natural about the physical positions and movements that are required to play most musical instruments, and during the course of practicing and performing, awkward movements may be repeated literally thousands of times a day and millions of times a year, and unnatural positions may be maintained for untold numbers of hours. Muscle strain, tendinitis, nerve damage—all fall in the general category of “overuse” syndromes, and all are unfortunately extremely common among professional musicians.

Performer Vs. Creator

Mar 13, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

There’s no question that good performers are necessary in order to bring musical compositions to life. I play the viola, and I’m always aware that when I’m playing a concert, the quality of my performance is of great importance in bringing the music to life for the people who are in that particular audience. So yes, in the limited sphere of my performances and my audiences, my role is critical, and if I play Mozart well, or Brahms, or Beethoven, I’m playing at least a small part in sustaining a vital and beautiful tradition.

Music That Will Last

Mar 12, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

People often wonder, “Which pieces by contemporary composers will be familiar to classical music lovers fifty… a hundred… two hundred years from now”?  Well, it’s not foolproof, but one pretty good indicator is that if a piece remains unloved after fifty years, or has entirely dropped out of sight, it’s not likely to be in the standard repertoire after a hundred years.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Here are a few words that one great composer wrote about another—and I wonder if you can guess who was writing about whom. Ready? “Once again one finds almost the entire piece is pure musical arabesque…In reworking the arabesque he made it more flexible, more fluid, and despite the fact that [he] always imposed a rigorous discipline on beauty, he imbued it with a wealth of free fantasy so limitless that it still astonishes us…” “We can be sure that [he] scorned harmonic formulas.

Debussy and Ravel

Mar 10, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel were roughly contemporaries, and as two of the greatest figures in late 19th and early 20th-century French music, they tend to be linked in people’s minds. But although they had similar training and came under many of the same influences, their musical styles and techniques were really quite different. And each admired the other’s talents, but that didn’t stop either one of them from criticizing what he saw as the other’s weaknesses.

Maurice Ravel

Mar 9, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

A famous music critic once referred to the French composer Maurice Ravel as “this most conscious, most naturally artificial of composers.” And in fact Ravel specifically said that he wasn’t seeking “profundity” in the music he wrote. He was merely seeking…perfection—some sort of technical perfection in composition, as he defined it, with “absolute beauty” as the guidepost and goal. But here’s the problem: I’m not sure we should completely believe him.

The Timpani, Pt. 1

Mar 5, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

The timpani, also called kettledrums, have been regular members of the orchestra since about 1700. Their history can be traced back to ancient times in the Middle East, but they first appeared in Europe in the 1400s—they were originally imported from Turkey for use in cavalry bands. Timpani are tuned drums—they play notes, not just booms.  Up until the early 1800s, they were generally used in pairs, in the orchestra, one note to each drum, and their role was usually just to team up with trumpets to provide festive or martial effects.

The Timpani, Pt. 2

Mar 5, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

More today about the timpani, or kettledrums. The “kettle” of a kettledrum is called the “bowl,” and is made of copper or brass. The “head” of the drum, the surface that the player strikes, is a piece of Mylar plastic stretched over the rim of the bowl. Timpani heads were originally made of calfskin, but calfskin is very sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity, and it’s expensive, so although some players still prefer the sound of calfskin heads, these days most players stick with plastic.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Yesterday I quoted the composer Claude Debussy, writing in 1903 about the importance of giving his imagination free rein. Five years later Debussy expanded on the theme in a published interview. “You know,” he said, “People leave their homes to get away from themselves and from their surroundings. I confess that I live only in my surroundings and in myself. I can conceive of no greater pleasure than sitting in my chair at this desk and looking at the walls around me day by day and night after night. In these pictures I do not see what you do.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Yesterday I spoke about picturesque titles of musical compositions, and I quoted Robert Schumann on what he called the “clumsiness” of taking those titles too literally. Schumann’s friend Franz Liszt, on the other hand, coined the term “program music,” and said that when a piece has a program, or story, the musical ideas should clearly reflect the unfolding of the story—although that’s the same Franz Liszt who attached a “program” to his symphonic poem Les Préludes long after he had actually written the music.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Like many19th-century composers, Robert Schumann often gave his works picturesque titles. Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, for example, a set of pieces for solo piano, includes pieces with titles such as “Pleading Child,” and “Frightening.” How literally should we take these titles – and perhaps the picturesque titles of other composers’ works? Well here’s what Schumann himself wrote: “I have seldom come across anything more clumsy and shortsighted than what [the critic] Rellstab wrote about my Scenes from Childhood.

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