First Nights


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Five Musical Premieres

Thomas Forrest Kelly

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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.

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 America.

A selection of Readers’ Subsciption

"In his discussions of the premieres of five of the most significant musical works of the past four centuries, Kelly considers the composer, the cultural milieu, the production, and the reviews of each. . . . Aided by a wealth of pictures and documents, Kelly limns these five epoch-making debuts in engrossing detail."—Booklist

"Reading about prominent longtime visitors such as Verdi and Wagner and the places they lived, can stir fresh interest in musical figures so historic they often seem frozen in familiar patterns and prejudices. The actions of past and present concert halls, opera houses, theaters, conservatories, churches, libraries, museums, and cemeteries having to do with music and music-makers through the centuries. Armchair travelers will most definitely find something interesting here."—Allen Hughes, Chamber Music

"A splendid complement to beginning courses and a delightful read for general audiences. An essential purchase."—Choice

"[This is] a book that invites us to ‘clear our ears’ and try to imagine five important pieces of music in the birth pangs of first performance."—Nina C. Ayoub, Chronicle of Higher Education

"There’s much more to First Nights thanthe title might lead you to believe. Thomas Forrest Kelly’s impressive new book is an account of the premiered of five important musical compositions. But its scope is greater: It includes not only a chronicle of the preparation, performance and aftermath of each premiere, but sets each one in its social and musical milieu. At the end the reader has some sense of what it was like to be alive at the time and a member of the audience."—Olin Chism, Dallas Morning News

"A unique and extremely attractive account of the premieres of five musical masterpieces spanning from 1607 to 1913. . . . Kelly paints a vivid and fascinating picture of each premiere by combining information taken from a number of sources, including letters, archival documents, and observations of the music itself. This should appeal to all music lovers."—Library Journal (starred review)

"An engrossing book. . . . A thoroughly researched account of the first performances of five famous pieces. . . . The author puts each of these masterworks into a comprehensive perspective, historical, sociological, and artistic, and then presents all known documents, including related correspondence and reviews. When the reader is done, he has an elevated sense of how a specific work represents its composer, how the piece came to be written, how that creative artist was affected by his society, and how that society and ultimately the whole world was affected by the composer."—Almos T. Werner, Music Associates of America

"[A] smart and lively book. . . . The result is a delightful, even playful book. . . . In the process of clearing our ears, Kelly makes some sharp and important points about the relationship of a work of art to the society around it, about the historically contingent nature of how we listen, and about the fatuousness at the heart of any notion of authentic performance."—Jeremy Eichler, New Republic

"All are works that had a profound effect on first hearing that largely continues to the present day. Kelly illuminates these small slices of history by describing details on the preparation for the performances, the actual event, and the critical aftermath."—The Beethoven Journal

"First Nights isa brilliant essay in synthesis, continuously alert to those extramusical pressures, exerted by everything from snobbery and bureaucracy to sex and ambition, that added their burdens of stress to the birth of these musical masterpieces. . . . With its abundant portfolios of documents and sensitively chosen illustrations, this is the kind of book that has us crying, 'Oh, that we were there!'"—Jonathan Keates, The New York Times Book Review

"First Nights presentsa mass of technical information in an unusually accessible way. The book is always enjoyable."—Judith Weir, Times Literary Supplement

"Kelly . . . is something of a rarity—an academic who can tell a good story. . . . Kelly’s inclusion of relevant documents—letters, newspaper clippings, long-ago interviews, ticket counts—and the list of recommended recordings help make First Nights abook that should prove engrossing to general reader and specialist alike."—Tim Page, Washington Post Book World

"This will be a very nice book to present to the young music or opera buff in one’s life, though there is much for the mature reader too, as Mr. Kelley portrays the changing world of music-making on a large scale—and the evolving social roles and status of the composers from dependency on patrons to being independent producers of their concerts and beyond. . . . [An] enjoyable book."—Colin Walters, Washington Times

"Kelly’s engaging, fast-paced narrative makes music, an ineffable art, come alive for the general reader. This is a book that anyone with an interest in the arts can read and enjoy."—Craig Wright

Named a Notable Book for 2000 by the New York Times Book Review
ISBN: 9780300091052
Publication Date: September 10, 2001
314 pages, 7 x 10
86 b/w illus.