"First Nights" by Thomas Forrest         Kelly

First Nights Five Musical Premieres Thomas Forrest Kelly

Publication date:
10 Sep 2001
Yale University Press
314 pages: 254 x 178mm
86 b-w illus.


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.

"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

"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)

"This is a beautiful book (and, incidentally, a reasonably price one), whether it is approached as a textbook or as enjoyable reading for educational amateurs. . . . First Nights willserve as a fine resource for professors and graduate students and, perhaps more important, as a strong example of a different approach to music appreciation: it is a model of context-based, rather then the more traditional theme-harmony-and-form-based, understanding. I know of no other work that seeks to combine music appreciation, source readings in music history, and program notes in this way, and it is a lively mix indeed."—Jonathan Bellman, Notes

Named a Notable Book for 2000 by the New York Times Book Review

"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