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

Folk Songs

Dec 17, 2019
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

For at least six hundred years, composers have been borrowing the melodies of folk songs and incorporating them into their compositions. And there’s a good reason: they’re good melodies; they’re melodies that have stood the test of time—that have never lost their hold on people. And even when composers haven’t borrowed actual folk melodies, they’ve often borrowed the style of folk melodies. In 1884 the composer Max Bruch, famous for his beautiful melodies, wrote a letter to his publisher, Fritz Simrock.

Mozart Flute Quartets

Dec 16, 2019
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In a famous letter to his father, Mozart once wrote, “you know I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument I cannot bear.” He was talking about the flute, and the occasion of the letter was a commission Mozart had received to write several flute concertos and quartets for flute and strings. In fairness to Mozart, neither the flutes nor the flutists of his day were terribly reliable, but it’s also possible that Mozart had just been procrastinating, and inventing an excuse to give his father.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Performers are always seeking the most effective and compelling ways to bring a composer’s musical ideas to life. I stress the plural, “ways,” because there’s never just one way. Some musicians sometimes forget this, unfortunately, but the best musicians, and the best teachers never do. When I was a graduate student, the string quartet I played in was working on a Bartók string quartet, and our faculty coach was Robert Mann, founder and first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

When musicians and music scholars prepare performances of works by dead composers, they often get stuck in arguments over determining what the composers’ “original intent” was. And while I certainly recognize the importance of scholarly accuracy and authenticity, and of staying true to the composers’ wishes, I think that sometimes musicians forget that dead composers were once alive.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Composers during the Baroque period wrote plenty of chamber music, especially trio sonatas, and sonatas for such high-voiced instruments as the violin and the flute. But the chamber music repertoire that today’s audiences are most familiar with probably begins with the piano trios and string quartets of Joseph Haydn. After Haydn, the floodgates opened.

Telemann

Dec 10, 2019
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

You could write a book about the life of the German composer Georg Philipp Telemann– and as it turns out,  Telemann himself wrote three – three separate autobiographies. One of the things he wrote about is the time he spent in Poland in his early twenties. He became familiar with Polish and Moravian folk music during this period—he wrote that he experienced it in “all its barbaric beauty”—and he also heard the music of Eastern European gypsies. But he didn’t just listen: he incorporated some of the folk tunes he heard into his own music.

Rostropovich

Dec 9, 2019
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

I had the enormous good fortune as a young man to get to work with the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich, or “Slava,” as everybody called him, was the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra when I played in that ensemble, and with all his other engagements he still somehow made time to give master classes just for members of the orchestra. I learned a tremendous amount from him, and to this day I don’t seem to be able to give a master class myself without quoting Slava at least several times—especially since he could be extremely funny.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In the world of instrumental and vocal teaching, most teachers approach their students with certain basic principles in mind. For me, one of those principles is that whether we’re dealing with individuals or with ensembles, there’s no separating technical goals from musical goals. I don’t believe, in other words, that it makes sense just to learn the notes first and then somehow to “plug in” the music later.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

One of the things I’ve learned as a string teacher is that good habits can often replace a student’s bad habits quickly, because the good habits make playing easier.  But it was Mark Twain, strangely enough, who helped me to realize that the switch can only result from a very conscious and rational process on the student’s part, a process of understanding and acceptance. In his essay “Taming the Bicycle,” Twain wrote, “In order to keep my position, a good many things were required of me, and in every instance the thing required was against nature.

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

The efficient and graceful use of the body is crucial to both sports and musical performance. But there are certainly many mental parallels as well -- and the experiences of athletes can teach us quite a bit about what musicians do. Years ago I read an interview in the Washington Post with a professional baseball player named Charles Johnson. Johnson had hit a three-run homer to win a game, and this is what he said afterward: “I recognized a curveball right away, and told myself to stay on it.

The Colors of White

Dec 3, 2019
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In 2004 the Vatican Museum presented an exhibit called “The Colors of White.” What the exhibit showed, in a nutshell, is that our notion that the beauty of ancient Greek and Roman statues lies in their pure, white form is a relatively modern idea, with no basis in historical fact. Scientists working with electron microscopes discovered vestiges of all sorts of bright paint colors on ancient statues, colors that to modern eyes seem hideously garish, and the curators of the Vatican exhibit commissioned reproductions that were painted with those colors.

David Popper

Dec 2, 2019
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Have you ever heard of a composer named David Popper? If you’re not a cellist, your answer is very likely…“Nope.” But if you are a cellist, your answer is, “Well of course.” There are some composers whose reputations rest almost entirely on their works for one instrument, and who, although they may not have been composers of the first rank, wrote brilliantly for that one instrument. Popper, who was born in Prague, in 1843, is a perfect example.

The Lure of Music

Nov 29, 2019
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

In 1918 the music critic Olin Downes published a book called The Lure of Music. It’s a collection of biographical sketches of famous composers, and it includes listening suggestions, samples of the composers’ works on Columbia records. Most of the composers Downes writes about—people such as Verdi, Chopin, Berlioz, Dvorák—are among the immortals… They were famous then and they’ll always remain famous. But what’s fascinating to me is that I know hardly any of the performers’ names on the recordings. Oscar Seagle, Kathleen Parlow, Hulda Laschanska, Florencio Constantino—ever heard of them?

Heartless Musicians

Nov 28, 2019
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Many years ago I was having dinner with a group of colleagues when the name of a viola player we all knew came up. When I mentioned that this violist had just had his third heart attack, the instantaneous response from an old-timer across the table was, “Really? I didn’t know he had a heart.” As it happens, the heartless violist in question was not a terribly good player, to put it mildly. But we musicians have all known people we’ve found to be thoroughly unpleasant, even cruel, or thoroughly insipid and boring, who walk on stage and play or sing beautifully, movingly.

Opus Numbers

Oct 30, 2019
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.

Pages