First Nights: Five Musical Premiers

An Exposé Reprint


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 of now, that we often lose in the world of recorded music.

This book is about the first performances of five famous pieces of music: Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), Handel’s Messiah (1742), Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824), Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (1830), and Stravinsky’s Rite 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 our taste is formed in part by our experience of them.

These five pieces, selected from an enormous smorgasbord of choices, have become part of a modern, hybrid musical culture. They are masterpieces that have stood the test of time and that come highly recommended and accompanied by a great deal of historical and critical baggage. If we experience these pieces in the concert hall, they are presented by an organization of high cultural standing, like a symphony orchestra, which has a regular roster of personnel, a fixed season, an ample rehearsal schedule, and a concert series of familiar, well-performed music.

None of the pieces discussed here, however, originated in such a context. Handel was a visitor to Dublin and had to recruit musicians he didn’t know to perform his Messiah in a newly constructed and unfamiliar hall. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was presented in an opera house by a mixture of professional and amateur musicians recruited for this one occasion — and after only two rehearsals. Hector Berlioz had to hire an orchestra for the Symphonie fantastique, and on the day of the concert he was still buying strings for the violas and mutes for the violins. Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps was conducted by a superb musician and played by a pickup orchestra of professional musicians. Although the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was brand-new, there were serious problems fitting the enormous ballet orchestra in the pit, and the uproar in the hall at the

premiere made it impossible to hear most of the music. Such situations are rare in modern musical life.

Sometimes we think of these pieces in relation to a family tree, with a lineage of stylistic predecessors and artistic descendants. Some of us listening to Berlioz may be aware of his position as the first of a long line of composers to use the orchestra as an instrument of color. Perhaps we are tempted to hear in Monteverdi’s Orfeo a precursor of certain operatic marvels that we know followed. And we may know that Wagner greatly admired the Ninth Symphony. But in this book we want to imagine hearing a familiar piece as though it were contemporary, as though what came later had not yet happened. We want to see how others heard music we know. This approach gives any composition, any artifact, added luster, for it unites the rich cultural meaning of the piece in its time with the ageless value it may have acquired afterward. Furthermore, re-experiencing an original musical setting may give us new ideas about the perception of music and the meaning attached to it.

Why choose premieres? Why not examine, say, the last performance of a piece during the composer’s lifetime or a performance of exceptional importance, either with the composer present or at some later time? After all, music is not painting; a first performance is not the “original,” and the ones that follow mere copies. Later performances of a given piece, when audiences and performers have had time to reflect on its

novelty and assimilate its difficulties, might in some ways be better.

Premieres are exciting: they are visceral and new. Our own experience of premieres (usually a new production of an old piece) is frequently full of anticipation and doubt. How will it go? Will the double basses manage the big solo? Will the sopranos sing flat? Will the audience like it? We now use the word premiere as a verb: premiering is the act of bringing something into existence by performing it. This is not an operation limited to musicians, however: it is society in action, bringing into being a new cultural object. The premieres in this book required the participation of a great many people beyond musicians and listeners: writers, censors, instrument makers, floor sweepers, police, chair bearers, prostitutes, milliners, and others who were part of the scene.

Composers — even great composers writing great works — create for people. Aware of a given society’s values and behaviors, they calculate the place of their new composition in its world. How do those involved — the composers, performers, listeners — expect it to sound? Does it sound that way when it’s played? And why or why not?

Each great work has its infancy, when it is new and fresh, when tradition, admiration, and history have not yet affected its shape, when its audience is unencumbered by previous expectations. Its birth is a moment of importance and excitement; its creation is in performance. This is not to belittle

the work of the composer, who, well before the performance, “creates” the work, or the directions for it, on paper. But surely it becomes music only when it is heard.

There is no particular reason that we should privilege these premieres, except perhaps to indulge our own time-travel fantasies. After all, it is our own appreciation that we want to deepen, not that of some long-dead Mantuan. The modern revival of older music, with its attempt to re-create antique performing styles and techniques — a phenomenon often associated with the terms “Early Music,” “authenticity,” or “historical performance” — is unique to our century. Some would call it a reflection of our own fin-de-siècle nostalgia or restlessness. But even though our interest in a wide range of music makes a book like this a reflection of our culture, this volume is not meant as a rallying cry for historical purity.

It’s unlikely, in fact, that we would get much musical enjoyment from one of these first performances — excitement, yes, because of our historical interest, but not deep musical pleasure. Some were probably dreadful: underrehearsed, poorly understood, and distracting because of an unruly audience; they may not have represented the composer’s last, or best, versions of the piece; and the performance style may have been different enough from what we are used to, or what we prefer, to make them grotesque to modern ears. Our interest here is in how they were heard at the time.

I am not suggesting that we ought to reconstruct first performances. Even if we could recover enough information to feel confident about details, the idea itself is problematic. First of all, the performances would probably not be considered “good” — that is, mature, well digested, well rehearsed, precise, and fully expressive. But even if they were, the act of trying to reproduce them would instantly betray us: rather than performing, we would simply be going through somebody else’s motions.

I do believe, however, that some of the best and most exciting musical performances being given today are by performers using old techniques and period instruments. Musicians must somehow make the music and the performance their own — they must add to, not subtract from, a musical text.

I offer some history of performance in this book — background on the performers’ technical abilities, their behavior, their instruments, their training, their place in society, their attitude toward music. Is it possible that the amazing C-flat major scale played by the fourth horn near the end of the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony was actually intended to be played on a hand horn with no valves? The curious dark color of the many notes that must be stopped with the hand in the bell of the instrument would certainly increase the sense of tonal distance. Is it possible that in the double fugue of “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” Beethoven was not just bowing to necessity when he had the trumpets double the voice but skip certain notes — notes

that the trumpet cannot play? Just possibly, the cross-rhythms this produces were helpful in the larger rhythmic profile of a complicated passage. After all, it would have been possible to leave the trumpets out entirely. These may be small details, but they just might make us think that performers and composers have often made beauty out of the materials and techniques at hand.

Although this is not a book about performance practices as such, I do reassess the ideas of unchanging performance standards. I treat every piece of music as an element of its culture, providing classic case studies. This, I hope, will help demonstrate how changing traditions of performance are important to the sound and the effect of music and possibly make an argument for the ultimate impossibility of “authentic performance.”

As important as the study of historical performing techniques is the understanding of historical listening. Instrumental and vocal practices vary with time and place, but so do performance situations, the values placed on music and musicians, the relative importance of novelty and tradition, and the experience that a listener brings to a new piece of music. The listeners who experienced these five pieces did so with ears accustomed to music of their own time. A courtier in Mantua in 1607, familiar with madrigals, solo songs, and instrumental dances, might feel a special joy in seeing how a play cast in the well-known shape of a Greek theater piece uses familiar and

unfamiliar musical styles to heighten and color the drama and bring the humanistic poetry to life in a spectacularly modern fashion. That listener would be struck by the novelty of melding classical mythology, modern poetry, and the sometimes daring music of Monteverdi. Those attributes, however, may not be what strikes the modern listener first.

Each place and time has its particular fashions and conventions, and a listener hearing a new piece fits it into a matrix of existing traditions, experiences, and repertories. Our own traditions, backlogs, and repertories are vastly different from those of the people who heard these pieces when they were new. An attempt to hear them as they were heard then provides each piece with a new and fresh look and sound.

Successive performances add to the history, the understanding, and the baggage of a piece. The later history of a piece, the Rezeptionsgeschichte, as some musicologists like to call it, is a study of its own: it involves a retrospective look at the reciprocal effect of a work of art on its surroundings and the progress (or lack of it) with which the work is received, understood, transmitted, described, admired, or ridiculed over time. This is essential to cultural history, to the understanding of works of art as essential and formative parts of the web of human achievement.

It becomes ever more clear, through the study of reception history, that the work changes: not only the perception of the work — what successive generations, or nations, think about it —

but in a sense the work itself. This is especially evident, of course, for an artwork that requires performance in order to exist. In the case of an enduring musical work, like those in this book, the piece has had every opportunity to change as it travels, through modifications in instruments, patterns of rehearsal, orchestral seating, buildings and their arrangements, and ideas about how music ought to be performed to be beautiful. Only the modern recording media have frozen some of the dynamics of performance, though our varying perceptions of the same recording prove that not even the record has killed performance: perhaps it has only stunned it.

But here we are concerned not with the growth, only with the birth. When these pieces were new, there were no canonical standards for the pieces, no customary tempos, no famous conductor who took the slow movement a little too fast. This is the only performance the piece has ever had, and it is happening now.

The five pieces included here, which represent music making from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, are talismans, tokens, symbols. It’s hard to imagine many other premieres that would evoke as much recognition and fondness in the minds and hearts of modern listeners. These are the benchmarks against which much other music is measured. They are all seen as breaking ground, as planting the seeds of musical ideas that have borne much fruit. That we already have some

sense of where these pieces fit into a continuum makes the material presented here particularly vivid, because the music is about to come to life.

Each of the five pieces has words, either sung (Orfeo, Messiah, Ninth Symphony) or narrated (Symphanie fantastique, Le sacre). And each in its way tells a story. Is this why they rise to the top of our consciousness? We remember the words when we think of the music, and the music makes us think of the words. Who can say “Every valley shall be exalted” without thinking of Handel’s rhythms? Who can hear the guillotine stroke in the Symphonie fantastique without knowing something of the story?

The premieres of these pieces were particularly interesting events, and they are relatively well documented. There is enough variety in their details to give us a panorama of performance conditions and to raise many questions about understanding and interpretation. The circumstances of their performance range from a privately commissioned aristocratic program (Orfeo) to a speculative commercial concert (the Ninth Symphony); and the personalities, from a young upstart composer (Berlioz) to the most famous composer in the world (Beethoven).

These are big pieces requiring a massive group effort. Each premiere is a combination of the usual and the new: usual in that all the performers were used to the problems of making new music, though in a familiar style, and new in that they faced the challenges of combining chorus with orchestra, conjoining music

and dance, confronting taxing new musical techniques, or simply working together in such large numbers. Performances with orchestras, dance companies, and choruses offer us a wide perspective on musical culture and society in a way that the first performance of a piano sonata might not.

Admittedly, I chose these pieces because they are favorites of mine, but they are also excellent candidates for a study of this kind in that the information available about each of them has enabled me to reconstruct a picture of the premiere. There are many works of comparable interest for which this would simply be impossible. The materials are valuable and varied: Beethoven’s conversation books, with priceless daily trivia; Berlioz’s memoirs, literary and revised though they are, combined with the strength of the French press; the uniqueness of Monteverdi’s score for Orfeo and the fortuitous survival of a few letters. Because it is impossible to see a picture in all its details, a certain amount of retouching and infilling of the image is needed. The habits and assumptions of particular times and places therefore provide the background against which the details of an individual piece can be seen.

Each piece presents problems and challenges and yields information in different ways. One would think that Le Sacre du printemps, the most famous musical premiere of them all, would have so much information available as to make its reconstruction simply a matter of assembling the details in a coherent fashion; or that so much had been written about the Ninth Symphony

that there could be nothing further to say. But in the first case, the loss of materials from the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the evanescence of Nijinsky’s choreography, and the cacophony of conflicting memoirs make it difficult to sort out fact from fanciful recollection; and in the case of Beethoven, it is surprising how little interest there seems to have been in the details of performance.

In making the effort to understand what went on, who was there, how the music was rehearsed, who the musicians were, and how much like other performances of its time this particular one was, we are trying to clear our ears, to hear a piece we believe to be important from the perspective of contemporaries. We are visiting another place and time. We may not intend to stay there, but we want to make the journey.

For more information on Professor Thomas Kelly’s book,
please visit Yale University Press.

For ordering information,
please visit Amazon.


Exposé, the annual journal published by the Harvard College Writing Program, features a cross section of writing from the University community. The current issue is being powered by Publishize JS, a digital typography and annotation framework developed by Jeff Nguyen. To learn more about Exposé's print and digital aspects, visit the About page.