First Nights: Five Musical Premieres

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9780300077742: First Nights: Five Musical Premieres

This lively book takes us back to the first performances of five famous musical compositions: Monteverdi's Orfeo in 1607, Handel's Messiah in 1742, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in 1824, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique in 1830, and Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps in 1913. Thomas Forrest Kelly sets the scene for each of these premieres, describing the cities in which they took place, the concert halls, audiences, conductors, and musicians, the sound of the music when it was first performed (often with instruments now extinct), and the popular and critical responses. He explores how performance styles and conditions have changed over the centuries and what music can reveal about the societies that produce it. Kelly tells us, for example, that Handel recruited musicians he didn't know to perform Messiah in a newly built hall in Dublin; that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was performed with a mixture of professional and amateur musicians after only three rehearsals; and that Berlioz was still buying strings for the violas and mutes for the violins on the day his symphony was first played. Kelly's narrative, which is enhanced by extracts from contemporary letters, press reports, account books, and other sources, as well as by a rich selection of illustrations, gives us a fresh appreciation of these five masterworks, encouraging us to sort out our own late twentieth-century expectations from what is inherent in the music.

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A successful expansion of his lecture series at Harvard, Thomas Kelly's First Nights chronicles the events leading to the first performances of five enduring masterpieces. He places Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo, Handel's venerable Messiah, symphonies by Beethoven and Berlioz, and the Stravinsky ballet The Rite of Spring in the respective contexts of the cities, musical cultures, and performance venues in which they were first heard. Kelly builds his chapters through an accumulation of minute but not trivial detail. The first Euridice in L'Orfeo was a castrato priest; the oppression of Catholics in Handel's Dublin was shocking; the legendary catcalls at The Rite of Spring's premiere began before the curtain went up.

As Kelly gathers these pieces of the puzzle together, we become desperate to find out what will happen, completely forgetting that we already know how the music ultimately triumphed over time. Along the way, there is hilarious information about the audiences (Handel's would not have been out of place at a rodeo, though Monteverdi's was unusually well informed) and reactions from the performers (conductor Pierre Monteux apparently always hated the Rite). There are also many factoids about how the music must have sounded. (Did you know that the first performance of Beethoven's Ninth included a piano?)

Kelly has provocative ideas about performance practice, suggesting that it is really a matter of how adaptable musicians need to be; he feels that musical works themselves, not just our perceptions of them, change over time. A great deal of First Nights is devoted to documents about the works, and the discography is helpfully annotated by Jen-Yen Chen. The book is unusually well designed, and no knowledge of score reading is necessary. --William R. Braun

About the Author:

Thomas Forrest Kelly is professor of music at Harvard University. He has served as president of Early Music America, as a regular commentator for National Public Radio, and as a columnist for the magazine Early Music Magazine.

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