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

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

A while back I spent a minute offering a few suggestions of what to say after a concert when the concert was really pretty bad, but the performer is someone you know and you have to say something. In the unfortunate event that you’ve already used up your store of useful phrases, I thought I’d suggest a few more.

The easiest thing to say is a always a simple “Bravo.” But of course it’s a little too easy – and whenever someone has only said “bravo” to me after one of my concerts I’ve always been suspicious.

Bad Old Days

Jan 27, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

In the bad old days of symphony orchestras in this country, music directors were absolute dictators, and orchestra musicians had few protections. If a music director woke up in a bad mood and decided to fire an orchestra musician on the spot, he could… never mind that it might instantly deprive that musician of his livelihood. And some of the most famous conductors, unfortunately, were egotistical tyrants who inspired as much fear as admiration in the members of their orchestras.

Taste vs. Judgement

Jan 24, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

We tend to be reluctant these days to say that one piece of music is better than another or that one composer is better than another. Often this reluctance is a good idea, especially if the ranking serves no useful purpose, and because “better” is sometimes hard to define. But sometimes the reluctance is a mistake, and it’s a mistake based on confusing taste with judgment. You’re perfectly entitled, for example, to prefer the works of Salieri to those of Mozart, if that’s your taste. But if you say that Salieri is a better composer than Mozart, you’re simply wrong.

Philippe Gaubert

Jan 23, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

If you’re a flutist, you almost certainly know the name “Philippe Gaubert.” But if you’re not a flutist, you probably don’t. And yet Philippe Gaubert was one of the most famous and important French musicians of the first half of the twentieth century.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I don’t suppose you have a pair of four-hundred-year-old pliers in your kitchen tool drawer, or a screwdriver made in the 1700s? No, probably not. Tools don’t tend to last that long. The tools of string players, though, are an entirely different story. I’ve played many concerts with a violinist whose violin was made in about 1600 and whose bow probably dates from the late 1700s, and just recently I played with a cellist whose three-hundred-and-forty-five-year-old cello is one of the most remarkable instruments I’ve ever heard.

Old 78s

Jan 21, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Have you by any chance been hanging on to your grandparents’ old 78 rpm records? Carting them around, perhaps, and storing them on shelves or in boxes whenever you’ve moved from place to place? And perhaps thinking or hoping that after a hundred years your carefully preserved recordings of such fabulously famous artists as Enrico Caruso, Nellie Melba, and Mischa Elman must surely be valuable? Well, I’ve got good news and bad news for you. The good news is that you’re fortunate to have lovely relics of an age gone by, and reminders of the efforts of great artists.

Malaria and Music

Jan 20, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

My cousin Stephen and his wife, Kim Lee, are scientists, and they’ve developed a malaria vaccine that may one day save millions of lives. It’s taken them years of intense effort and many disappointments along the way, but the results could one day change the world. And what do I do? I play music… Wars rage and diseases spread, all over the world, and I play music. Sometimes I feel like Nero – fiddling while Rome burns.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

There are many great creative artists, including great composers, who have been mediocre human beings, not to mention any number who have been downright reprehensible human beings, or human beings whose private views we would find reprehensible if only we knew what they were. It’s all less troubling with minor or insignificant artists—if we don’t like who they are, or were, we can comfortably ignore them, and it’s no great loss. But genius complicates things. Should we vow never to look at the works of Picasso again, never to listen to the works of Wagner?

Frets

Jan 16, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The guitar, the lute, and the viola da gamba all have frets. Have you ever wondered why? Well I can tell you this: it’s not so that the players can find the notes. Think about it: violinists and violists do without frets, and even cellists and double bass players, whose strings are as long or longer than those of the guitar, find their notes just fine without frets. But the guitar, the lute, and the members of the viola da gamba family are much less powerful than the members of the modern violin family, and they need help to be heard. That’s where the frets come in.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Have you ever wondered why, when we’re feeling sad, or lonely, or downright miserable, we usually prefer to listen to music that somehow reflects our mood, rather than music that might jar us out of it? Personally, I think it’s because in our darker moods we’re not, in fact, looking to be told that everything’s really just fine in this bright and shiny world and that we’re wrong to be feeling the way we do. We try not to tell our children that their feelings are “wrong,” so why should we tell ourselves such things?

Carolina Music Museum

Jan 14, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

If you like beautiful old keyboard instruments, not to mention beautiful small museums, I strongly recommend that you pay a visit to the Carolina Music Museum, in Greenville South Carolina. The museum is housed in a former Coca Cola bottling plant, and the collection features more than forty English, European, and American harpsichords and pianos dating from 1570 to 1845. They’re all playable, they all have fascinating individual histories, and they’ve all been refurbished and restored to pristine condition by a remarkable man named Thomas Strange.

Brass Magic

Jan 13, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

For those of us who don’t play a brass instrument, watching brass players play always seems a bit like watching a magic show. We hear the French hornists, trumpeters, trombonists, and tuba players playing plenty of different notes, but the number of times they move their fingers—or in the case of trombonists their slides—doesn’t nearly add up to the number of notes.

Figured Bass

Jan 10, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In chamber music from the Baroque period, the written parts for keyboard instruments -- the harpsichord and the organ, for example – often consisted of merely a bass line, with numbers written under the notes. Such a bass line was called a “figured bass,” and the numbers, or figures, indicated which chords the keyboard player was expected to fill in above the bass, while at the same time improvising melodies [or countermelodies] to go along with what the other instruments were playing.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In some ways composers are like chefs – they’re always looking for interesting or even exotic flavors.  Or like painters, experimenting with compelling colors and color combinations.  And percussion instruments, whether alone or in combination, have always been very useful ingredients for adding flavor and color to orchestral compositions.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

By the late 1700s, the piano had replaced the harpsichord as the primary keyboard instrument for solo compositions, concertos, and chamber music. Lovers of Baroque music may not like to hear this, but for most musicians of the time—of the late 1700s, that is—this replacement represented progress. And the reason it represented progress was that the piano offered possibilities for sound production, and sound variation, that the harpsichord couldn’t match. When you press the keys on a harpsichord, you cause strings to be plucked.

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