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.

Ways to Connect

Master Classes

May 7, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

master class is a public lesson. A distinguished teacher—that would be the master—works with a student on a piece of music, but the teacher isn’t the student’s regular teacher, and instead of the lesson taking place in a private studio, it takes place in front of an audience. It’s a kind of double performance—the student is performing for the audience, but so is the teacher. And the idea is that whatever the teacher has to offer will be of value to both the student and the observers.

Gabriel Fauré

May 6, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Gabriel Fauré is often referred to as one of the greatest  French composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But I wonder if that description goes far enough. It’s certainly true that his contributions to French music, especially in the areas of chamber music, piano music, and music for the voice -- are remarkable. But they’re remarkable because they’re wonderful music, not because they’re French.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

J.S. Bach composed his St. Matthew Passion in 1727. But for the better part of a century after that, the piece essentially disappeared, unknown to all but a few specialists. One of those specialists was the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, who was the music teacher of a boy named Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was only about fourteen when his grandmother gave him a copy of the full score of the St. Matthew Passion – a score she had borrowed from Zelter….

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

I find it fascinating that many of the greatest composers of the 19th century—composers such as Berlioz, Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Brahms, Dvorák, and Tchaikovsky—knew one another, and in many cases had very friendly personal and musical relationships. Schumann, for example, wrote his piano quintet for his wife, Clara, a great piano virtuoso…and Clara played the first public performance of the piece. But the very first performance of the piece was at a party for friends, and the pianist for that performance was Felix Mendelssohn.

Opus Numbers

May 1, 2020
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.

Concert Etiquette

Apr 30, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Concert etiquette. It’s really just a matter of common sense and good manners. If you think you may be at risk of a coughing or sneezing fit, sit on the end of a row, not in the middle. If you’re bringing a child to the concert and the child tends to fidget, sit in the back, not the front. Don’t take pictures or make videos if you’ve been asked not to or if you may be blocking somebody else’s view, and don’t use a flash even if you haven’t been asked not to.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Do you find traveling glamorous? Sitting around in airports, waiting in lines, carrying luggage, eating in unfamiliar places, sleeping in unfamiliar beds? Well imagine doing that for about ten months a year, and imagine doing it alone, while having to prove, over and over again every single week, that you’re one of the best in the world at what you do. And when you’ve imagined all that, and added in lots more hours spent alone practicing, you’ve imagined the glamorous life of a touring soloist.

Paradox of Integrity

Apr 28, 2020
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?

Conflict

Apr 27, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

I won’t mention any names, but many years ago there was a great string quartet that was famous for its members not getting along. People joked that it was a tragedy for this quartet if they showed up in a town that only had three hotels. I don’t know if we can blame this particular quartet, but one theory that took hold was that the best results for chamber music groups are produced by conflict, and the resolution of conflict. I would like to on record as saying that I think this theory is a bunch of hooey.

Pronunciation

Apr 24, 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.

Original Sentiment

Apr 22, 2020
A Minute with Miles
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.” When I read this, I thought immediately of J.S. Bach.

Interpretation

Apr 21, 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.

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