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.

Will in the World; How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.

Will in the World; How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt.  W.W. Norton, 2005, paper.


A young man from the provinces arrived in London in the early 1590s, having perhaps first joined a theater troop touring his home county. Within two years he had written his three Henry VI plays and become a successful actor/playwright.


William Shakespeare was then in his late 20s. He hailed form Stratford on Avon in Warickshire. His father, John Shakespeare, had been a successful glove merchant, dabbling illegally in the wool trade and money lending. He was an alderman for many years and the town’s mayor. About the time that Will might have gone off to Oxford or Cambridge, his father’s fortunes crumbled. Shakespeare, instead, took up the low trade of acting.


Shakespeare scholars differ over the facts of the bard’s life. Stephen Greenblatt is more speculative than are most. His wonderful book, Will in the World, argues that Shakespeare incorporated his life’s experiences into his poetry and plays. Hence something of those experiences can be known from his writing. It is also possible to reconstruct portions of Shakespeare’s life from the better-known lives of his contemporaries.


For example, the reason for Shakespeare’s leaving his home town, his wife, and a young family for London. Much has been made of Will’s having to leave because of a youthful prank that went array. The sport of deer poaching, believed to have been Will’s transgression, was a symbolic act intended to challenge authority. Deer parks were sanctuaries for the England’s diminishing wildlife. They were also private hunting preserves. Shakespeare fled town to avoid persecution by the owner of the deer park, Sir Thomas Lucy, who was also the county’s justice of the peace.


Or so tradition has it. Greenblatt has a more frightening explanation. Shakespeare’s father was likely to have been a secret Roman Catholic who had maintained his allegiances to the old church, even though outwardly conforming to Henry VIII’s Anglicanism. This was a dangerous double life, made more so by a clandestine network of Roman Catholic priests, many of them suicidal, whose mission was to keep the faithful, faithful.


Will was probably educated in Stratford’s free grammar school by closeted Catholic schoolmasters. And Greenblatt speculates that he may have spent his ‘lost years’ between 1584 and 1591 in Lancashire as a tutor in the homes of Catholic gentry. And Sir Thomas Lucy, it turns out, had a reputation for hounding out reclusive Catholics.


Lucy eventually got his comeuppance for badgering young Will about poaching. Shakespeare transformed him into Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Residual Catholic loyalties, however, were not something that one even hinted at. Certainly not on a London stage.


Greenblatt’s notion about the Catholic loyalties of father and perhaps son is based on disputed scraps of evidence. And hints that Greenblatt finds from a close reading of, Hamlet. Shakespeare returned to Stratford in 1596 to attend his son, Hamnet’s, funeral. The service read over the dead child was that allowed by the new Anglican prayer book. But these few words may have been insufficient comfort for the mourning. To satisfy the grandfather, Shakespeare may have found some priest to perform the old Roman Catholic rite. Was Shakespeare still brooding over his son’s death when he created the ghost of Hamlet’s father?


Greenblatt pays attention to the entertainment business in Tudor and Stuart London. Shakespeare enjoyed the patronage of the powerful and the favor of both Elizabeth and her successor, James I. He worked hard, avoiding the disorderly life common to his rival playwrights. He wrote about two plays a year, which drew daily crowds to the Globe Theater, which packed in 1500 per show. He made money, owned shares in the Globe, invested in rural and urban property. Stephen Greenblatt’s life of Shakespeare is a success story.





Eye of the Beholder; Johannes Vermeer, Anthoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing

Eye of the Beholder; Johannes Vermeer, Anthoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing by Laura Snyder. W.W. Norton, 2015.

Johannes Vermeer and Anthoni van Leeuwenhoek were born within days of each other in 1632, and their births were registered in the same local church in the Dutch city of Delft. As adults both of them, Vermeer the painter and Leeuwenhoek the lens-grinder and device-maker, would experiment with the new technology of lenses as an aid to seeing. There is no evidence that they knew each other, though the author, Laura Snyder, makes a strong case for its probability; Delft was then a city of 24,000.

Delft, Amsterdam, and the rest of Holland had been made wealthy by the shift in European trade and economic power from the Mediterranean and Italy to the North Sea and the nations on its edge. The Dutch trading empire included posts and in some cases settlement colonies in Africa, South America, North America (New Amsterdam), South Asia, and the East Indies (present-day Indonesia.) Delft was a manufacturing town known for its, beer, tapestries, and china (Delftware).

Given the wealth of the city, it was a reliable market for the paintings of Vermeer and other local and regional artists. Probate records suggest that by the mid-seventeenth century there were as many as 50,000 paintings in Delft homes. The author argues that well-decorated interior spaces may have been the result of the strong Calvinist admonitions against the public display of wealth.

Because of this demand for art, there were Delft firms which supplied the materials and served the artists in various ways. Vermeer often bought canvases that were stretched and prepared, his oil paints already mixed. Vermeer’s father was an art dealer, and Vermeer took over his father’s business after the latter’s death in 1652.

In the absence of a capitalist structure, the art community was organized into – and regulated by – a strong guild organization. Vermeer joined St. Luke’s Guild and served as its head for several terms. The guild included oil and water colorists, glass blowers, tapestry makers, embroiders, engravers, sculptors, booksellers, map makers, and art dealers.

The degree to which Vermeer used viewing devices to lay out his paintings and in particular to obtain their photographic realism is the subject of some controversy. Snyder contends that Vermeer used a camera obscura. The devise could be as large as a room or as small as a box. With its lenses, the artist could obtain projections on a sheet of paper or a canvas placed at various distances from the devise. The camera obscura projected an image true to the color and other attributes of the subject and also a three-dimensional representation that could then be traced.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s family was from the same socio-economic class as Vermeer’s. He, like Vermeer, had had an apprenticeship in Amsterdam. His father was a draper, someone who oversaw the manufacture and sale of fabrics. A steady income as a city employee allowed Leeuwenhoek to pursue a second livelihood/hobby, his blowing and grinding of lenses and their incorporation into microscopes. He was also a biologist and a believer in the importance of observation, which the microscope now facilitated.

He used his own body as a field of study, viewing with the new device his blood, teeth plaque, and semen. He discovered that water taken from Delft’s canal, when observed under his microscope, housed a world of here-to-for unseen, single-celled animals.

Human reproduction was not fully understood in Leeuwenhoek’s time. Most thought that the sperm only activated, rather than fertilized, the female egg. Leeuwenhoek, on the other hand, promoted the notion that the sperm, when viewed in a powerful enough microscope, would reveal a small organism that eventually became a fetus; the female egg providing only its nourishment.

He explored the mammalian eye’s physiology and how it functions as a light receiver by dissecting and viewing cows’ eyes obtained from a local butcher.

The Royal Society of London was then the premier organization for naturalist, and Leeuwenhoek began a correspondence with the organization to communicate his observations, but also to establish a priority for the results of his peering into nature. Natural history at this time was strongly influence by Francis Bacon and particularly his insistence on openness and replicability. Leeuwenhoek, aware of other claimants to being ‘the first’, was reluctant to part with his ‘secrets.’ His relations with the Royal Society were further complicated by three Anglo-Dutch Wars between 1652 and 1678.

I found most interesting Snyder’s account of Vermeer’s depiction of shadows. At first glance shadows appear to be uniformly brown or black – dark. But there are subtle colors within that darkness, blue, even yellow, used to replicate how the eye sees the varying intensities of light striking the shadow.

Laura Snyder has written a well-integrated history of science and a description of the lively art world of the seventeenth century. She mentions and it would have been interesting had she explored further the comparable impact on painting of photography in the nineteenth century and electronics in the twentieth.