Five Musical Premieres

By Thomas Forrest Kelly

Yale University Press. 2000. $20.

Sad to say, the presence of a new piece of music on a concert program today is more likely to drive away audiences than attract them. But once upon a time, back when classical music was still intellectually and creatively in full flower, new symphonies, operas and oratorios attracted passionate interest and sparked endless cultural debate.

Five years ago, Thomas Forrest Kelly, a professor at Harvard, wrote a rare and wonderful cultural history of five of those works, captured when they were new to the world, filled with the excitement of their first impact. "First Nights: Five Musical Premieres" (Yale University, 2000, $20 paperback) looks at music of Monteverdi, Handel, Beethoven, Berlioz and Stravinsky, using reviews, memoirs, autobiography and a host of other contemporary sources to tell the stories of their initial performances.

Kelly's book draws on his popular lectures at Harvard, and it's accessible to lay readers. Yet it is a serious book, built on primary sources, many of which he includes at the end of each chapter. There's no aspect of musical life that Kelly isn't interested in, so we learn about the size and makeup of orchestras in the age of Berlioz; the price of tickets; the likely arrangement of the musicians at the premiere of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9; the floor plan of the palace where Monteverdi's "Orfeo" was first performed. But it's also a history of people and places, of last-minute changes, outraged audiences, frustrated artists, and five musical works that have stood the test of time despite the often chaotic circumstances of their birth.

Kelly is ultimately interested in how people once listened, and what they heard, before these works became so familiar that it is impossible to imagine our musical universe without them.

-- Philip Kennicott, culture critic