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First Nights

First Nights: Five Musical Premiers

Thomas Forrest Kelly
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 314
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  • Book Info
    First Nights
    Book Description:

    This lively book takes us back to the first performances of five famous musical compositions: Monteverdi'sOrfeoin 1607, Handel'sMessiah in1742, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in 1824, Berlioz'sSymphonie fantastiquein 1830, and Stravinsky'sSacre du printempsin 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 performMessiahin 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18560-7
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-1)

    Making music is exciting for everyone involved. The visceral experience of participating in a performance—as composer, performer, or listener—gives music a freshness, a novelty, a sense ofnow, that we often lose in the world of recorded music.

    This book is about the first performances of five famous pieces of music: Monteverdi’sOrfeo(1607), Handel’sMessiah(1742), Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824), Berlioz’sSymphonie fantastique(1830), and Stravinsky’sRite of Spring(1913). Thousands of pages have been written about each of these, and each has been performed and recorded innumerable times. They are part of our musical heritage, and...

  5. 1 Claudio Monteverdi, Orfeo: Saturday, February 24, 1607
    (pp. 2-59)

    When Claudio Monteverdi was asked by the elder son of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga to provide a “fable in music” for the local learned academy, he could hardly refuse. Collaborating with the young poet and court secretary Alessandro Striggio as librettist, Monteverdi created the fable ofOrfeo. Its two performances were small local events, but the power ofOrfeo’s drama and the charm of its music have turned it into a timeless classic whose success would have astounded the few dozen Mantuan aristocrats present at the first performance.

    In 1607 the forty-year-old Monteverdi was living in the northern city of Mantua...

  6. 2 George Frideric Handel, Messiah: Tuesday, April 13, 1742, 12 Noon
    (pp. 60-107)

    By 1741 George Frideric Handel had been in London for almost thirty years. Like his earlier patron, the elector of Hanover, who became King George I, Handel never fully mastered the English language, though he was famous for his entertaining stories told in a mixture of German, French, Italian, and English. This linguistic diversity describes his cosmopolitan background: after spending his youth in Germany, studying composition in Italy, and learning the French of international communication, Handel settled in London and with the help of the fashionable elements of the nobility set himself up as a producer of opera. Italian serious...

  7. 3 Ludwig van Beethoven, Ninth Symphony: Friday, May 7, 1824, 7:00 p.m.
    (pp. 108-179)

    Ludwig van Beethoven began planning a concert (or, as he called it, an “Academy”) of his music in the spring of 1824. He had not given a concert for a decade, even though he was now famous: the king of France had awarded him a medal, the Philharmonic Society of London was courting him, and a group of distinguished residents of Vienna had just published an open letter to him entreating him to present his music in Vienna, not abroad.

    Despite his fame, however, Beethoven could not possibly have known that his latest symphony would become perhaps the most famous...

  8. 4 Hector Berlioz, Symphonie fantastique: Sunday, December 5, 1830, 2:00 p.m.
    (pp. 180-255)

    In 1830 Hector Berlioz was twenty-seven years old and already becoming known in the musical world of Paris. Still, it was something of an accomplishment that he had the help of Paris’s leading musicians for the concert that was to include theSymphonic fantastique.Although he did not have the stature of a Beethoven (many would say he still does not), the young, impetuous redhead (his hair must have looked blond to the journalist ofLe Temps) had recently won the coveted Prix de Rome, the highest honor France could bestow on a young composer. The required residency at the...

  9. 5 Igor Stravinsky, Le sacre du printemps: Thursday, May 29, 1913, 8:45 p.m.
    (pp. 256-334)

    The most important single moment in the history of twentieth-century music might well be the first performance of Stravinsky’sLe sacre du printemps. It certainly was one of the loudest unamplified moments. Are there other competing moments? The appearance of Schoenberg’sPierrot lunaire?Debussy’sPelléas et Mélisande?Probably nothing else is so clearly a focal point asLe sacre;no one would disagree that this is a seminal piece whose repercussions in the world of music are still being heard today and will continue into the future. AlthoughLe sacrehas attained a unique place in the musical pantheon, it...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 335-340)

    In these pages we have been acting more as investigators than as art lovers. We have had a close look at five moments when a work of art came into being through performance in search of answers to specific questions: Who listened? Who performed? How much did they rehearse? What did the building look like and how did it sound? Was it a good performance? How was the music played at the premiere different from what we know today? These are interesting questions, and the answers, when they are available, have much to say about the place of music in...

  11. Recommended Recordings
    (pp. 341-348)
    Jen-yen Chen
  12. Further Reading
    (pp. 349-360)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 361-372)
  14. Photo Credits
    (pp. 373-374)
  15. Index
    (pp. 375-387)