First Nights

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When Beethoven premiered his 9th symphony, the then deaf composer thrashed his body and flailed his arms as part of his conducting. Hector Berlioz was still buying strings for violas and mutes for violins the day his Symphony Fantastique premiered. Igor Stravinsky’s first audience for the Rite of Spring booed and jeered so loud, the music was inaudible, even to the pit musicians.

The Harvard Music professor Thomas Forrest Kelly says famous pieces we know today have a history worth telling. It’s unlikely if you were in the audience for Handel’s Messiah or Monteverdi’s Ofreo, you would get much enjoyment, he says. These first nights were not necessarily best nights. But over hundreds of years, musicians have changed tempos, switched keys, and used modern instruments to create what we now consider the classics of classical music.

Bring down the lights, raise the curtain.
(Hosted by Christopher Lydon)


Thomas Forrest Kelly, Professor of Music at Harvard University, author of First Nights.