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)

Ways to Connect

Vibrato Part 3

Dec 21, 2016

I’ve been talking this week about vibrato, the vibrato that string players use to warm up their sounds, and the vocal vibrato that’s the natural product of healthy singing. All vibrato consists of small oscillations in pitch, but not all vibrato is a blessing.

Vibrato Part 2

Dec 20, 2016

Yesterday I talked about vibrato, the technique that string players use—rocking the fingers of their left hands back and forth to create small oscillations in pitch that result in a warmer, more resonant sound.

Vibrato Part 1

Dec 19, 2016

When violinists play, their left hands always seem to shake. But it’s not because they’re nervous. Violinists, violists, cellists, and double bass players all use a technique called vibrato.


It’s one of the hallmarks of great composers that they’re not limited by the practices of their times. Their imaginations are enriched, but not hemmed in, by the traditions they inherit, and they tend to push boundaries.


The composer Ernest Bloch was born in Switzerland, and after spending time in America, he was thinking of returning to Europe.  But a visit in 1922 to the Library of Congress, in Washington DC, convinced Bloch to stay in this country, and to take American citizenship. He was a famous composer, but Bloch was also one of this country’s most important educators, the founding director of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the first director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.


Imagine, for a moment, Mozart walking down Broadway, in New York City.  It’s not so easy. But Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the librettos for Mozart’s operas Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and Così fan tutte, died a New Yorker.


Sergey Prokofiev was a giant of 20th-century composition. He wrote great symphonies, operas, ballets, concertos, piano sonatas, and chamber music pieces, not to mention Peter and the Wolf.

This week we’ll focus on interesting facts and stories about important musicians. The first interesting item about the French composer Ernest Chausson is his name. The word chausson, in French, means “slipper” – as in the slippers you wear on your feet. But a chausson aux pommes is an apple turnover.


It’s an old question: if you were going to be dropped off on a desert island and you could only take a few recorded pieces of music with you, what would they be? For me, the first piece on the list is easy: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.


Neuroscience

Dec 8, 2016

I’m grateful for advances in neuroscience, and for many reasons glad that every day we know more about how the brain works. But for all the studies of left brains, right brains, and neuron networks, some things will remain mysteries, and there’s no way around it.


Spiccato

Dec 7, 2016

The literal meaning of the Italian word spiccato is similar to that of staccato—“detached,” or “distinct.” In string playing, to play notes spiccato 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. But spiccato involves a controlled bouncing. The bow comes off the string after each note, but the player has to find the balance between making the bow bounce and letting it bounce.


Progress in Music

Dec 6, 2016

For musicians and music teachers, the concept of Progress can be misleading. We can strive in our own ways to emulate the masters who’ve preceded us, but it’s a mistake to think there’s such a thing as being better than those masters.


In fields such as science and technology, or in medicine, we’re used to achievements that represent Progress, progress that is obvious and indisputable. We do things better than we did before. But in the field of music, Progress has at times been a misleading concept.


Strings

Dec 2, 2016

The strings of stringed instruments—violins, violas, cellos, basses, guitars, and harps—may be made of steel, nylon or other synthetics, or of gut. Often the steel, nylon, or gut serves as the core of the string, and around the core is a tight winding of very fine wire—wire of steel, aluminum, or silver.


The Flute, Part 2

Dec 1, 2016

I mentioned yesterday that by the mid-1700's the modern flute, technically called the transverse flute, had to a great extent replaced the recorder.  The replacement wasn’t complete, though: both Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel had continued to write for both instruments. Then again, by the time of Haydn and Mozart, just a few decades later, most orchestras included a pair of flutes, and no recorders. 


The Flute, Part 1

Nov 30, 2016

The flute is one of mankind’s oldest instruments, and in one form or another it’s been known to virtually every culture around the world.  The modern flute used in Western classical music is known technically as a “transverse” flute because the player holds it out to one side and blows across a hole in the side of the instrument. Other flutes, such as the recorder, are “end blown”—the player blows directly into an opening in one end of the instrument.


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. 


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. 


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. 


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.


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. 


Mstislav Rostropovich

Nov 22, 2016

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. 


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. 


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. 


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 curve ball right away, and told myself to stay on it. I wasn’t trying to hit it out of the park, but I got a good part of the bat on it.” 


Today is the birthday of the composer Paul Hindemith, who was born near Frankfurt, Germany, in 1895. Hindemith originally trained as a violinist and violist, and as a young man he enjoyed a very successful performing career. But it was as a composer that he achieved lasting fame, eventually writing hundreds of pieces, from operas to string quartets to songs to sonatas for every conceivable instrument.


The Colors of White

Nov 15, 2016

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

Nov 14, 2016

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. 


No piece of music is ever just “about” any one thing. In Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, Don Giovanni stands beneath Donna Elvira’s window and sings the aria Deh vieni alla finestra, “Come to the window, O my treasure.” It’s a serenade, a love song, and a very beautiful one. But there’s one big problem: it’s a fake.


Aria Part 4

Nov 10, 2016

The da capo aria, which I talked about yesterday, was a form that by 1750 had begun to lose its once enormous popularity. It was a form that was essentially killed by excess. The reign of the da capo aria coincided with the reign of the castrati as the stars of Italian opera.


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