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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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.

Scherzo, Part 2

Feb 28, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Yesterday I talked about how Beethoven replaced the minuet in his four-movement pieces with the scherzo. Scherzo means “joke,” in Italian, but in Beethoven’s scherzos you won’t usually find anything that qualifies as out-‘n-out funny. What you usually will find is a certain playfulness, with lots of fast notes, abrupt accents, surprises, and quick changes of musical direction.

Scherzo, Part 1

Feb 27, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

During the time of Haydn and Mozart, the third movement of a four-movement piece such as a symphony or string quartet was invariably a stylized dance movement called a minuet. By the end of the 1700s, though, Beethoven, in one of his many innovations, had largely replaced the minuet with a movement he called a “scherzo.” The word scherzo, which means “joke,” in Italian, had appeared in music as early as the 1600s, but it was Beethoven who gave the scherzo its modern character, and established a permanent place for it.

Synchopation, Part 2

Feb 26, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Yesterday I talked about syncopation, how it disturbs the regular flow of rhythm, how it shifts the emphasis in music from strong beats to weak beats, or to in-between beats. I’d like to stress, though, that syncopation is a general term: there’s no limit to the number or variety of possible syncopated rhythms or syncopated patterns, and no limit to the ways they may be used.

Synchopation, Part 1

Feb 25, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

There’s an old joke about the husband who’s been out late drinking, and when his wife asks him where he’s been, he latches onto a word he saw on the cover of a book in the window of a music store, and he says that unfortunately he had come down with a case of… syncopation.  His wife is suspicious, and after consulting the dictionary, she says, “Hmph. Just as I thought.

Drumsticks

Feb 24, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Percussion players can vary the sounds of their instruments by using different kinds of drumsticks, or drumsticks with different kinds of heads. Timpani players, for example, use sticks that range from very soft to very hard. The heads of “normal,” or “regular” timpani sticks are made of felt—hard felt covered with soft felt—but the softest timpani stick heads are made of sponge, and the hardest are made of solid wood. Just imagine the difference in sound between a drum struck with sponge and a drum struck with wood!

Vidula, Fidula

Feb 21, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Fiddle is an older word than violin – there were instruments called fiddles long before violins. Violino, which is Italian for “violin,” is the diminutive form of viola, which until the 1700s was the generic term for any bowed string instrument.  The word viola itself came from the Old French viole, which came from the Provençal viula, which came from the Medieval Latin vidula. I used to think, as others did, that the word fiddle also came from vidula.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

One of the things I love most about the field of classical music is the way it brings together people from so many different countries. Throughout my career I’ve worked with musicians from the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Israel, Sweden, Finland, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Canada, France, Italy, Austria, and Germany. And I’m probably forgetting a few. Needless to say, the governments of all these countries haven’t always gotten along so well, to put it mildly.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

I came across a collection of the letters of Arturo Toscanini recently, and in thē introduction the editor writes, “A whole psychology textbook could be written about Toscanini and anger.” Well all I can say is that if there had been such a book, Toscanini should have read it. He may have been a great conductor, but he was also an ill-tempered tyrant. Because in his day conductors had absolute power over their orchestras, Toscanini never had to control his temper the way most people have to in civilized society.

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