First Nights; Five Musical Premiers

First Nights; Five Musical Premiers by Thomas Kelly. Yale University Press, 2001 Paper.

First Nights explores how five famous musical compositions were heard and experienced at their premiers. Thomas Kelly describes the musical culture of the time, the techniques and instruments available, and the concert halls. Modern instruments and orchestration now provide opportunities to performers of these pieces that were not then available. Kelly believes, however, that something of the composer’s creation has been lost.

The premier of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera, L’Orfeo, in 1607 seems part of a distant past but also a familiar present. Monteverdi created L’Orfeo out of the materials at hand in Mantua, then a wealthy town of 40,000 in northern Italy. “A familiar present” because Kelly’s account of the performance resembles the mounting of a local concert in many a medium-sized American city.

George Frederick Handel first performed his Messiah in Dublin in 1742. Dublin was then the second city of the British Empire and building its musical culture. Handel’s beloved oratorio had many features of eighteenth-century opera. But Kelly reminds us that his innovative use of solo voices, chorus, and orchestra took an important step away from opera. The libretto was drawn from the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and the Anglican Prayer Book, rather than Greek mythology. It comes closer to theology than storytelling.

Ludwig Beethoven’s career spanned the years of the French Revolution and Empire. Prior to this cultural upheaval, his patrons and audience had been the landed and administrative elites of the Austrian Empire. By 1824, the year that he premiered the Ninth Symphony, his Viennese audience was mostly bourgeois. Beethoven was now free of the constraints of aristocratic patronage. But that also meant that he had to involve himself more fully in the business of music to make his living

The symphony as a musical form was, previous to Beethoven, shorter and less ambitious. The first movements of Mozart’s and Haydn’s symphonies had been the most important and longest, followed by three shorter pieces. Symphonies were generally performed first, not last, in the evening’s musical program with other works often inserted between the movements. The premier of the Ninth was the first occasion when voice was incorporated into the final movement. The performance of the Ninth confirmed Beethoven’s transformation of the symphonic form over his musical career.

The premier of Hector Berloiz’s Symphonie Fantastique in 1830 was only six years after Beethoven’s Ninth but the differences between the composers and their compositions are large. Berlioz was only 27. He had just won a major prize for composition. That, combined with his own hustle, resulted in his being able to draw talents from prestigious musical organizations in Paris for his premier performance. Berlioz resembles young celebrity performers of our own day. And this premier performance of Symphonie Fantastique would, in some ways, be recognizable to contemporary concert goers. In other ways, it seems like yesteryear.

Kelly’s description of the premier of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score, Le sacre du printemps is unique to a specific cultural time, Paris, 1913. Stravinsky’s fellow Russians were coloring the Parisian cultural world. Their success centered on the Russian impresario, Sergy Diaghilev and the presence in Paris of many Russian composers, choreographers, and dancers. What went wrong at this first night has been much discussed. Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography was controversial, moving Russian dance away from classical ballet gestures and movements. And Stravinsky was carrying orchestral music well along the way toward twentieth-century dissidence. Consequently on this first night the audience responded with boos, cat calls, and laughter, at times drowning out the orchestra.


Audiences have changed since that year, just over a century ago. The bourgeoisie audiences that dominate performances of classical music in the 21st century might at first hearing disregard the new composition, but our response would be polite if unenthusiastic applause. In a sense the audience has been erased, far different from the pro-active audiences of Stravinsky’s Paris.

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