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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Letters from Mahler

Mar 10, 2017

In the letters of great composers, certain themes come up again and again, especially the composers’ struggles to get their works performed, and the desire—often frustrated—to have those works understood and appreciated. Here’s Gustav Mahler writing in 1906: “For the time being I must rest content with knowing that in a few places there are small circles of art-lovers for whom my work has some meaning, even perhaps some value. The first obstacle to its performance, no matter where, consists in the resources that would have to be employed...


Sergei Rachmaninoff

Mar 9, 2017

Sergei Rachmaninoff was an example of one of the great “types” in the history of classical music: the virtuoso performer who was also an important composer. And indeed he was one of the greatest examples of this type, because both his performing and his composing activities were on the highest level. During his time, in fact, Rachmaninoff was considered by many to be nothing less than the greatest pianist in the world—and if you go online and check out some of the many Rachmaninoff recordings, I think you’ll see why.


Jean Sibelius

Mar 8, 2017

Jean Sibelius was a fascinating man. He was born the year the American Civil War ended and he died in the year of Sputnik. He was a prolific composer—in addition to seven symphonies, many other orchestral works, choral music, music for the stage, and chamber music, he wrote more than a hundred songs—but over the last thirty years of his life he wrote virtually nothing. He was the greatest of Finnish composers, but he was a Swedish Finn: his first language was Swedish, and in fact he didn’t even learn to speak Finnish well until he was a young man.


There’s very little that’s natural about the physical positions and movements that are required to play most musical instruments, and during the course of practicing and performing, awkward movements may be repeated literally thousands of times a day and millions of times a year, and unnatural positions may be maintained for untold numbers of hours. Muscle strain, tendonitis, nerve damage—all fall in the general category of “overuse” syndromes, and all are unfortunately extremely common among professional musicians.


There’s no question that good performers are necessary in order to bring musical compositions to life. I play the viola, and I’m always aware that when I’m playing a concert, the quality of my performance is of great importance in bringing the music to life for the people who are in that particular audience. So yes, in the limited sphere of my performances and my audiences, my role is critical, and if I play Mozart well, or Brahms, or Beethoven, I’m playing at least a small part in sustaining a vital and beautiful tradition.


Music That Lasts

Mar 3, 2017

People often wonder, “Which pieces by contemporary composers will be familiar to classical music lovers fifty… a hundred… two hundred years from now”?  Well, it’s not foolproof, but one pretty good indicator is that if a piece remains unloved after fifty years, or has entirely dropped out of sight, it’s not likely to be in the standard repertoire after a hundred years.


Debussy on Bach

Mar 2, 2017

Here are a few words that one great composer wrote about another—and I wonder if you can guess who was writing about whom. Ready? “Once again one finds almost the entire piece is pure musical arabesque…In reworking the arabesque he made it more flexible, more fluid, and despite the fact that [he] always imposed a rigorous discipline on beauty, he imbued it with a wealth of free fantasy so limitless that it still astonishes us…” “We can be sure that [he] scorned harmonic formulas. He preferred the free play of sonorities whose curves…would result in an undreamed of flowering, so that the least of his manuscripts bears an indelible stamp of beauty.”


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.


Timpani 2

Feb 28, 2017

The timpani, or kettledrums were the original percussion instrument of the orchestra. 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 1

Feb 27, 2017

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 1400's—they were originally imported from Turkey for use in cavalry bands. Timpani are tuned drums—they play notes, not just booms.  


Maurice Ravel

Feb 24, 2017

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. Ravel once said, “In my opinion the joie de vivre expressed in dance goes much deeper than the puritanism of César Franck.”


Claude Debussy in 1903 wrote 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..."


Today is the birthday of George Washington, so I thought I’d talk about… Alexander Reinagle. And in case this doesn’t seem like the most obvious choice to you, I’ll explain. Reinagle was a keyboard player and composer who was born in England in 1756 but who came to America in 1786, landing first in New York and then moving to Philadelphia.


Robert Schumann called taking the titles of musical compositions too literally “clumsy.” 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.


Like many 19th-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? 

Debussy the Writer

Feb 17, 2017

Claude Debussy was a great composer, but like many other famous composers, he was also a wonderful writer. He wrote countless articles of music criticism, and his writing was clever, funny, insightful, highly opinionated, and often wickedly caustic. He wrote some of his articles under the pseudonym Monsieur Croche, which in French means “Mr. Eighth Note,” but whether writing as Monsieur Croche or himself, he was never shy about saying what he thought. 


Needless Comparisons

Feb 16, 2017

I heard two remarkably gifted young musicians play the other day. One was a nineteen-year-old pianist and one a sixteen-year-old violinist. And it was pretty humbling, because when I was nineteen I wasn’t nearly as accomplished as either the nineteen-year-old or the sixteen-year-old. But I didn’t quit when I was nineteen, or even when I was in my early twenties and only too well aware that I was still far from a finished product… and eventually I was able to make a career as a professional musician. 


Today is the birthday of the French composer Georges Auric, who was born on February 15, 1899. Auric was one of a group of avant-garde composers in Paris known as “Les Six,” or “The Six,” a group that also included Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc. The image of the romantic artist, tragic and solitary, had absolutely no appeal for Auric, and he wrote a number of works in collaboration with the other members of Les Six.  


U.S. Marine Band

Feb 14, 2017

Some years ago I had the privilege of appearing as viola soloist with the United States Marine Band, “the Presidents Own,” and I can tell you it was a great experience. Like the members of the other premier service bands, the bands of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard, the Marine Band players are graduates of some of the nation’s top conservatories, and they’re terrific musicians. And they include great string players, too, not just winds, brass, and percussion. 


We’re always fascinated by abilities that are far beyond the realm of our experiences, or even of our imaginations. Some people can hold their breath for 10 minutes, some can jump four feet off the ground, some can memorize the digits of pi out to thousands of places. And some musicians—actually many musicians, although I’m not one of them—can hear any note and tell you what that note is. It’s called having “perfect pitch.” 


The mathematician Mark Kac once tried to describe the extraordinary genius of the physicist Richard Feynman “There are two kinds of geniuses,” Kac wrote. “The ‘ordinary’ and the ‘magicians.’ An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. It is different with the magicians… the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible.”  


Bellini and Melody

Feb 9, 2017

Vincenzo Bellini—the composer of Norma, La Sonnambula, and I Puritani, to name a few of his best-known operas—is famous for the beauty of his melodies, but also for his ability to use melody to define character, express passion, and advance dramatic action. And he had nothing but disdain for what he called the “ridiculous rules” that some people thought composers should be obliged to follow when setting poetry to music.


It occurs to me, when considering the history of music, that the endlessly recurring and often bitter fights over musical styles and trends have actually been quite productive, if only because they’ve acted as spurs for composers in supposedly opposing camps to produce their best work. And then, of course, it turns out that later generations usually have no trouble enjoying all the styles in question, and the old disputes, even though productive, just seem silly to them.


Mozart, they say, could compose music while he was playing billiards. Rossini wrote that he had once composed an overture while standing in the water fishing and listening to his fishing partner discuss Spanish finance. Prokofiev and other composers were known to carry notebooks with them so that they could jot down musical ideas that came to them on long walks, while Aaron Copland, when asked once how he found the inspiration for his music, said that the secret to inspiration was to sit down and work. 


Rossini on Singers

Feb 6, 2017

In The Barber of Seville and his many other operas, Gioacchino Rossini gave singers plenty of opportunities to show off their talents.  But in a letter he wrote in 1851, Rossini made it clear that he didn’t have much patience for the cult of the great singer, or for singers whose pretensions got the better of them.


I hope you’ll join me today in celebrating the birthday of Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809. By the time he was fourteen he had composed four operas, twelve sparkling string symphonies, and various other pieces, and by the time he was seventeen he had composed masterpieces of chamber music and orchestral music that will be played for as long as music is played anywhere. 


Orchestra Metals

Feb 2, 2017

Today, I thought we’d take a metallurgical tour of the orchestra. The bars, for example, of glockenspiels and celestas are made of steel. So are some of the strings of stringed instruments, and almost all strings are wound with very fine wire made of steel, silver, or aluminum. The bodies of timpani are made of copper, and brass instruments are made of… well, brass, which is an alloy of copper and zinc. 


Much of what we know about the great composers we’ve learned from their letters. It’s true that occasionally—and with some composers more than others—the music they’ve written seems somehow to reflect what was going on in their lives at the time. But more often than not the music gives no clue. It’s in their letters, much more than in their music, that we get a window into the composers’ private thoughts, and into the joys and struggles of their personal lives. 


Lefty Violinists

Jan 31, 2017

Have you ever seen a lefty violinist? I’ve heard of a few, but in my whole life I’ve only met one string player who holds the bow in the left hand and the instrument in the right. I don’t  really know how the tradition of playing “righty” got started, but it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. Why can’t lefties just reverse the strings and play the way they like? Well, it’s not that simple. 


I’m always fascinated by the stories of musicians who were famous and terribly important in their own time but whose reputations at some point dip or dim or even disappear—sometimes for no obvious reason.  Today is the birthday of the Charles Martin Loeffler. Are you familiar with his music? He was born on January 30, 1861, and he had a distinguished career as both a violinist and composer. 


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