A Minute with Miles

Classical Stations: Mon-Fri, 6:43 am and 8:43 am

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. (Photo: Mary Noble Ours)

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Paradox of Integrity

9 hours ago

Musicians, like actors, have to deal with something a drama teacher once called the “paradox of integrity.” On the one hand, you have to be completely “in character” when you’re performing—moved yourself by the music in order to make it moving for others, and merged with the music, in a way… almost submerged in it. 


Conflict

Apr 27, 2017

I won’t mention any names, but many years ago there was a great string quartet that was famous for its members not getting along. People joked that it was a tragedy for this quartet if they showed up in a town that only had three hotels. I don’t know if we can blame this particular quartet, but one theory that took hold was that the best results for chamber music groups are produced by conflict, and the resolution of conflict. 


Pronunciation

Apr 26, 2017

Classical music lovers tend to worry about correct pronunciation, so here are a few refreshers that I hope will be helpful.

In America, people who play the flute call themselves flutists, not flautists, and we who play the viola, which looks like vie-ola, are called violists.

Handel’s Messiah was written by Handel, not Hondle, and though you can say Haendel if you’re feeling German, Handel himself changed it to Handel, so I’d stick with that. 


If you’re allergic to highly technical program notes for classical music concerts, you’re not alone. Most musicians I know find such notes boring and irrelevant, and most non-musicians find them useless, not to mention seriously off-putting. Well, it turns out it’s an old problem, as I discovered when I read a wonderful essay by George Bernard Shaw from 1896. 


Walter Pater was an influential 19th-century English author and critic, and in 1870 he wrote a fascinating essay about the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. In one passage that particularly caught my eye, Pater wrote, “If [Botticelli] painted religious incidents, [he] painted them with an undercurrent of original sentiment, which touches you as the real matter of the picture through the veil of its ostensible subject.” 


Interpretation

Apr 21, 2017

Composers write pieces, and performers perform them. But for the performers, just about everything the composer writes, with the exception of the notes themselves, is a matter of interpretation. The composer indicates that a passage should be played softly? Fine. But how softly? It should get louder? Okay, but how much louder? Faster, slower? – same thing, it’s a matter of interpretation and personal taste. 


The body length of a full-size violin is about 14 inches, give or take a very small fraction. This is a standard length, and an optimum length, arrived at by trial and error over many years by the great violin makers of history. Violas, on the other hand, have no standard length. For the pitch range and acoustics of the viola there probably is an optimum length, but whatever it is, it’s way too great for the instrument still to be held up and played under the chin. 


Looking at Conductors

Apr 19, 2017

The other day, a friend asked me if orchestral musicians really look at the conductor when they’re playing. It’s an interesting question, because after all, how can you look at your music and play all the right notes if you’re also looking up at the person waving the baton? The answer is that you do both, but not always in the same proportion and not always at the same time. There are times—the beginnings of pieces, for example, or at other times when the music starts or stops, or when the tempo changes, when you have to look directly at the conductor. 


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. 


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. 


Tenors

Apr 14, 2017

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.


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

“…Some teachers lay a great deal of stress upon the necessity for the pupil learning the source of the composer’s inspiration. This is interesting, of course, and may help to stimulate a dull imagination..."


Don Drysdale was a great pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but you don’t usually hear his name mentioned without hearing the name of another Dodger, Sandy Koufax. Well, Joseph Lanner was a hugely popular and important composer and orchestra leader in Vienna in the 1820's and 30's, one of the first composers to create a refined version of the Viennese waltz and bring it into the dance hall. But you won’t often see Lanner’s name without also seeing the name Johann Strauss. 


I was looking at a list, the other day, of composers who were born on today’s date, April 11, or who died on April 11. One birthday name I recognized immediately: Alberto Ginastera. And yes, that’s how he himself pronounced his name. His father was Catalan, and Gee-nastera is the Catalan pronunciation. Ginastera was undoubtedly the most important Argentinean composer of the twentieth century. 


The French playwright Molière once said, “Anyone can be an honorable man, and yet write verse badly.” Well, no one would dispute that there are many honorable men and women who write music. But if there are such things as “good pieces” or “great pieces,” then there must also be such things as bad pieces. There must be pieces that don’t work very well or don’t work at all, pieces that don’t offer much even to the most open-minded and honorable of music lovers.


Pieces not Parts

Apr 7, 2017

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 6, 2017

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.

Dvorak on Spirituals

Apr 5, 2017

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 Sprirtuals:

“I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies...

Soothing Music

Apr 4, 2017

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.  


Copland on Composing

Apr 3, 2017

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

Mar 31, 2017

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

Mar 30, 2017

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 contrasting movements with such names as Allegro, Andante, and Adagio.


Berlioz on Music

Mar 29, 2017

These are the words of Hector Berlioz:

“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.


Guillaume Lekeu

Mar 28, 2017

We know that Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn all died way too young. Mozart at thirty-five, Schubert at thirty-one, Mendelssohn at thirty-eight. But all three left us many masterpieces, and luckily we can concentrate on what was, rather than on what might have been. 


Emmanuel Chabrier

Mar 27, 2017

Emmanuel Chabrier is another of those musicians who were at the center of the musical and cultural lives of their countries and their times, but whose own creative contributions have largely faded from view. Other than España, the Rhapsody for Orchestra, most of Chabrier’s works are likely to be unfamiliar to today’s listeners, especially outside of France.


Isaac Nathan

Mar 24, 2017

Isaac Nathan was an English Jew, born in Canterbury, in 1790, and he originally trained to be a cantor. Early on though, he switched paths and became, among other things, a voice teacher and composer. In London he wrote the music for several successful musical comedies, but his greatest success came as the composer of a collection of songs called “Hebrew Melodies.” 


Stradivarius

Mar 23, 2017

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.

Staccato

Mar 22, 2017

The literal meaning of the Italian word staccato is similar to that of staccato—“detached,” or “distinct.” In string playing, to play notes staccato means to play them with a bouncing bow. With its stiff but flexible stick and tightened horsehair, the bow is like a long spring, so it wants to bounce.


Bach's Birthday

Mar 21, 2017

If I told you about a letter from a famous composer to his employers, a letter in which the composer complained that he needed a higher salary because he’d been making less money freelancing playing the organ at funerals, because there hadn’t been nearly enough disease going around – could you guess who the composer was? 


The Song Cycle

Mar 20, 2017

A song cycle is a set of songs whose texts—often by a single poet—are linked by a common subject, mood, or story. Though the songs of the cycle are all individual entities, they’re designed to be heard together.  And if the marriage of music and poetry in the song represents a 19th century Romantic ideal, the song cycle carries that ideal even further, allowing for an expanded range of expression, a deeper exploration of the individual psyche.

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