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Remembering Miles Hoffman with a 'Musical Turkeys' commentary from 2004

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

It wouldn't be Thanksgiving on MORNING EDITION without longtime classical music commentator Miles Hoffman. Hoffman died earlier this year of leukemia. He was 71 years old. Hoffman had an infectious love of classical music and was fond of dishing up musical puns for his Thanksgiving conversations with MORNING EDITION host Renee Montagne - topics included musical leftovers, Thanksgiving drumsticks, and plucking. Hoffman's commentaries were funny and insightful. They were also warm and comforting just like the best Thanksgiving traditions. Here he is in 2004, talking with Renee about musical turkeys - pieces composers wish they'd never cooked up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RENEE MONTAGNE: First, Miles, happy Thanksgiving.

MILES HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

MONTAGNE: Since we have - as we said, we're on the subject, have all composers, even the geniuses among them, written a turkey or two?

HOFFMAN: Well, I think so. You know, I think one of the ways you judge a composer's stature - how great the composer is - is, in a sense, by the batting average - the ratio of great pieces to turkeys. And among the great composers, that ratio is very, very high.

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF COPLAND'S "FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN")

HOFFMAN: There's an interesting example. A very, very familiar piece to American audiences is Aaron Copland's "Fanfare For The Common Man."

(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF COPLAND'S "FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN")

HOFFMAN: This is a great fanfare. He wrote it in the '40s, and then he incorporated it into his Third Symphony. But he wrote a couple of other fanfares, too, that I think remain in the justly neglected category.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOFFMAN: You know, call it what you want. It's - I don't think that's going to make the Top 10 anytime soon or the Top 40 or the Top 100.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Is there any relationship? Would a composer follow a less good piece with a masterpiece?

HOFFMAN: I think it depends. I think that great composers have just as often followed masterpieces with other masterpieces. But there is, Renee, a very famous example of a great piece following a clunker. Beethoven composed a piece. It's listed as Opus 91, and it's called "Wellington's Victory."

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "WELLINGTON'S VICTORY")

HOFFMAN: It was intended to commemorate Wellington's victory at the Battle of Vitoria in Spain over Napoleon's army. And what did it share the program with, this Opus 91 clunker? It shared the program with Opus 92, which is the seventh symphony of Beethoven, generally acknowledged as just one of the greatest pieces ever written.

MONTAGNE: One might think that a not-so-great work wouldn't be available as a recording.

HOFFMAN: Well, it's available because, first of all, it's a curiosity. If you just listen to the beginning of "Wellington's Victory" - I don't know how long it lasts. There's this sort of inane and insane drumbeat thing that goes on at the beginning. I guess it's supposed to announce the arrival of the soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIENNA PHILHARMONIC PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "WELLINGTON'S VICTORY")

MONTAGNE: Tell me, though - did he, in his day - did he know it? Did he hear it and say, oh, whoa, what have I done?

HOFFMAN: Well, I think so. I mean, he wasn't exactly proud of this piece. As a matter of fact, I've read at least one historical account that says he was disgusted that the public really went for this piece. But I think composers generally know. Some composers are tougher on themselves than others. Some composers have written potboilers and written pieces for commercial purposes, and they just crank them out, and they don't worry about it. Others - very harsh in their self-judgment. I think of Johannes Brahms. His solution was to roast his turkeys, Renee. He just burned them.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: If he - when he wrote a piece that he thought wasn't up to his usual standards, he burned it. And so, many, many pieces by Brahms are lost to posterity because he thought they were turkeys.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about the reverse of that. Are there also sort of truly delectable works that were thought, in their day, to be turkeys?

HOFFMAN: Oh, yeah. That happens a lot and has happened. There was a very famous, very powerful critic in Vienna in the mid-19th century. His name was Eduard Hanslick. And after hearing the Tchaikovsky "Violin Concerto" for the first time, this is what he wrote. He wrote, the violin is no longer played. It is torn asunder. It is beaten black and blue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOFFMAN: We see wild and vulgar faces. We hear curses. We smell bad brandy. Tchaikovsky's "Violin Concerto" brings us, for the first time, the horrid idea that there may be music that stinks in the ear.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter) Ooh.

HOFFMAN: This is - so how's that for a critical...

MONTAGNE: Piece of writing.

HOFFMAN: And - yeah. Tchaikovsky remembered that review word for word for his entire life. But I mean, this is the Tchaikovsky "Violin Concerto," which is a greatly beloved and wonderful piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: How does it go from something that the critics hate or is thought to be awful to something that is - grows to be cherished?

HOFFMAN: Well, that's a very interesting question. First of all, critics can be wrong. And with the Tchaikovsky "Violin Concerto," by the way, the verdict wasn't unanimous, but there was some really strong reaction against it. But what you also have is you have this very interesting working of history where a general consensus over time develops, and it's a consensus that's made from a combination, really, of many experts over time and the opinion of the public. And this consensus, Renee, really is usually quite reliable.

And in fact, throughout history, most of the pieces that we now think of as great pieces - it didn't take too long for them to be recognized, whereas if, you know, a piece has had 75 or 85 years, and it's been around for that long, for three-quarters of a century, and it hasn't caught on, chances are it's not going to catch on, and there's probably a good reason it's not going to catch on.

MONTAGNE: Miles Hoffman is violist and artistic director of the American Chamber Players and author of "The NPR Classical Music Companion."

And Miles, what will you be listening to as you feast on a turkey, I'm guessing?

HOFFMAN: I hope it's turkey. I will mainly be listening to the sound of more stuffing being scooped onto the plate. That's what I'll be - I'll be listening to earthy sounds like that, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Onto your plate.

HOFFMAN: Onto my plate.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: I hope you have a good meal.

MONTAGNE: You too, Miles. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 7")

MARTÍNEZ: That was MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne along with classical music commentator Miles Hoffman, who died earlier this year. Hoffman was 71 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SYMPHONY NO. 7") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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