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

Calluses

Apr 16, 2020
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

Apr 14, 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
Mary Noble Ours

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

Pieces, Not Parts

Apr 10, 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.

Time and Meaning

Apr 9, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In music, time passes. But it mustn’t be without purpose or reasons: without . . . meaning. And that’s the point: Music can give meaning to time. If all the interwoven elements in a piece of music mean something—if they remind, reflect, comfort, inspire, or excite—then by definition the time it takes for them to do all that will mean something too. When I played in the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., years ago, I used to have a little joke.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

The composer Ernest Bloch once wrote that it’s only by plunging one’s roots to the depths of one’s own people that one finds the common ground of all people. Antonin Dvorák expressed a similar sentiment, and here’s the advice that he gave to American composers at the beginning of the 20th century, after he had been introduced to African American Folk Songs:

"Soothing" Music

Apr 7, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

When “classical” public radio stations surveyed their audiences some years back, the most common answer to the question, “Why do you listen to classical music,” was, “Because it’s soothing.” Now think of Beethoven for a moment, the man whose very name defines “classical music” for many people.  He wrote music that sends the soul soaring, that plumbs the depths of human despair, that shatters silence with violent assaults.  Beethoven’s Fifth, for example, is many things, but… soothing?

Copland on Composing

Apr 6, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

It’s often - not always, but often - interesting to read what composers have written about composing—especially if they’re good writers. Aaron Copland was an excellent writer, although by all accounts a very reserved man, one who kept his personal feelings hidden.

Knowing Enough

Apr 3, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Are you one of those classical music lovers who apologize for not knowing enough? Do you worry that your love of classical music somehow doesn’t count as much as the love of experts? Here’s what I think. I think human beings like to know things, and it’s fine – in fact it’s wonderful – for audiences to be musically knowledgeable and experienced, if only because in music as in all the arts – and as in football and cooking, for that matter – with added knowledge and experience come added levels of appreciation.

Partita

Apr 2, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

The little snippet of music you just heard, our “theme music,” is from the first movement, the Prelude, of the Partita Number 3 in E Major for solo violin by Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach wrote a set of six large works for solo violin – three sonatas and three partitas. The sonatas are constructed of constrasting movements with such names as Allegro, Andante, and Adagio. But “partita” is a synonym for “suite,” and the Baroque suite, which is to say the suite in the time of Bach, consists of a set of dance movements.

Berlioz on Music

Apr 1, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

“Music…embraces at once the real and the ideal… By suspending the rhythm that gives it movement and life, it can assume the aspect of death. With the play of harmonic means at its disposal, it might confine itself…to being a pleasant diversion for the mind; or, in its melodic sport, limit itself to tickling the ear.

Stradivarius

Mar 31, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Several centuries ago, it was common for violin makers to print their names in Latin on the paper labels they glued in their instruments. That’s what the great Italian violin maker Antonio Stradivari did, and that’s why an instrument made by Stradivari is known as a Stradivarius. Stradivari was born around 1644, and he died ninety-three years later, in 1737. He learned his craft as an apprentice to Nicolò Amati, and it was Amati’s grandfather, Andrea Amati, working back in the 1500s, who’s thought to have perfected the form of the modern violin.

Staccato

Mar 30, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Staccato is the Italian word for “separated,” or “detached.” Staccato notes are notes that are not sustained for their full rhythmic value: they come to a short stop, which separates them from notes that follow. They also usually have a clean, sharply articulated start. The opposite of staccato is legato, which means “connected.” Composers often specifically indicate that notes or passages should be played staccato, and they do so by placing dots, dashes, or little wedges over the notes in question.

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.

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