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

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.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Anybody who’s been around the music business for any length of time has met performers who are – how can I put this gently – legends in their own minds. Where the ego is large enough, the performer tends to think that the main reason a particular Beethoven sonata, or Tchaikovsky symphony, or  Puccini opera is worth hearing is the brilliance of that performer’s performance; that no one else could possibly bring the work to life so wonderfully.

Poulenc and Money

Feb 17, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

The image of the starving artist may be a romantic one, but it turns out that poverty has not always been a necessary condition for writing great music. Sometimes, in fact, great music has gone along with great wealth. Felix Mendelssohn, for one, came from a very wealthy family, and during his lifetime Johannes Brahms made more money than he could ever use. Closer to our own time, the best example of a wealthy genius may have been Francis Poulenc.

Piano

Feb 14, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

I always enjoy telling the story of how the piano got its name. Piano means “soft,” in Italian, and it seems a little strange that an instrument that can weigh almost a thousand pounds and compete in volume with a symphony orchestra should be called a “soft.” Well we have to start with the piano’s predecessor, the harpsichord, or gravicembalo, in Italian. The strings of a harpsichord are plucked, not struck, and no matter how hard, or how softly, you press the keys, the sound volume stays the same.

Page Turners - Part 2

Feb 13, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Turning pages for pianists is a pretty thankless job—the page turner is usually only noticed when he or she messes up. But for pianists who depend on page turners—and at some point most pianists do, at least those who haven’t switched over to electronic tablets—good, dependable, unobtrusive page turners are worth their weight in gold. They free the pianists from worry and make their lives much easier. Then again… virtually every pianist has a collection of page turner stories that are either funny or horrible or both. Examples?

Page Turners - Part 1

Feb 12, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Have you ever wondered why pianists need page turners? They’re not, after all, the only ones who use both hands to play their instruments. The answer is that piano music goes by too fast: you can only fit half as much music on one page of piano music as you can on one page of music for a non-keyboard instrument. And that’s for the simple reason that in printed piano music, each line of music takes up two lines, one for the left hand one for the right.

Music Teachers

Feb 11, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

It was George Bernard Shaw who famously wrote, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” What Shaw forgot is that teaching is doing. And if you’re looking for a group of people whose unlimited dedication is matched only by their extraordinary skills, I suggest you look no farther than public school music teachers. To me, these teachers are heroes.

Listening to Music

Feb 10, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Different people listen to music in different ways and for different reasons. And the same people listen to music in different ways and for different reasons, depending on when they’re listening. Some people have music on in their homes during meals, some while they’re relaxing, some in the background while they’re working, and some all the time. And some people absolutely can’t work if there’s music on in the background, and only want to hear music when they can pay close attention, whether it’s at home or in a concert hall.

Good Music Lasts

Feb 7, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

These days, with convenient hindsight we take it for granted that good music lasts, that pieces that are well known now will remain well known for years -- perhaps even for centuries to come. But I often wonder what was in the minds of the great composers of centuries past whose music we still love. Composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven knew very well how good they were, and where they stood compared to other composers. They were too good not to have known.

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