First Nights

A look at Thomas Forrest Kelly’s Harvard Core course on five musical premieres

Cat-calls and hisses succeeded the playing of the first few bars, and then ensued a battery of screams, countered by a foil of applause. We warred over art (some of us thought it was and some thought it wasn't)....Some forty of the protestants were forced out of the theater but that did not quell the disturbance. The lights in the auditorium were fully turned on but the noise continued, and I remember Mlle. Piltz executing her strange dance of religious hysteria on a stage dimmed by the blazing light in the auditorium, seemingly to the accompaniment of the disjointed ravings of a mob of angry men and women.

So wrote Carl Van Vechten of the pandemoniac premiere of Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps in Paris in May 1913. Today, a performance of this work will scarcely elicit anything more violent than a lusty ovation--maybe. What made that first audience so furious and unruly? Or, as G. de Pawlowski wrote shortly after the premiere, "Where were those slobs brought up?"

Complex questions, these. But as professor of music Thomas Forrest Kelly tells the 450 students gathered in Sanders Theatre for Literature and Arts B-51--his Core course on "First Nights: Five Performance Premieres"--a premiere takes place "as part of a large matrix of cultural experiences; it is best understood as part of its own culture. Not only was it brand new, but it sounded different in those days; the people who came to it came with different ears, so to speak." That first audience, says Kelly, Ph.D '73, "hated the music, they hated the dancing. The dancers stood on stage in impossible positions"--and here Kelly, to a blaring CD, proceeds to imitate the bowlegged, pigeontoed positions of the dancers, followed by a pantomime of the sacrificial maiden, trembling in fear. The students applaud.

Kelly, the new chairman of the music department, is clearly a performer. Indeed, his specialty is early music and historical performance, and he illustrates his energetic lectures with passages on piano or harpsichord; thus far he has also mimed the organ, with furious pedaling, as well as many other instruments and solo voices. As one freshman says, "He sure does put on a show!"

The goal of the show, says Kelly, is to lure these students into sharing his own profound love of European classical music, and particularly the five seminal works offered this semester: Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo, Handel's Messiah, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, and Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps. His idea is to engage the undergraduates' interest by exploring with them how it might have felt to attend the premieres of these works. Not every first performance, not even of a revolutionary piece like Stravinsky's, is received with a near-total breakdown of civility more appropriate, one would think, to Fenway Park than to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

But some first nights have accumulated their own store of legends. One of the best-known is the poignant description (which has many variants) of Beethoven at the first performance of his Ninth Symphony, in May 1824. This one is from violinist Joseph Böhm, who played at that performance:

An illustrious, extremely large audience listened with rapt attention and did not stint with enthusiastic, thundering applause. Beethoven himself conducted, that is, he stood in front of a conductor's stand and threw himself back and forth like a madman. At one moment he stretched to his full height, at the next he crouched down to the floor, he flailed about with his hands and feet as though he wanted to play all the instruments and sing all the chorus parts.... Beethoven was so excited that he saw nothing that was going on about him, he paid no heed whatever to the bursts of applause, which his deafness prevented him from hearing in any case. He had always to be told when it was time to acknowledge the applause, which he did in the most ungracious manner imaginable.

These are the sorts of "vivid, telling details" that Kelly savors and wants to coax out of his students in their own writing. He also requires that they listen diligently on their own and in their sections, where the teaching fellows reinforce techniques and terminologies discussed in Kelly's lectures. The students are further abetted by a fat sourcebook packed with examples of the sorts of anecdotes and observations Kelly wants to see in their papers; by an excellent text, Writing About Music; and above all, by a website bursting with visuals and data, including an encyclopedic glossary rich in sound bites, a treasure for even an experienced music lover.

In the first of their two papers, Kelly asks students to compare their own reaction to the music of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo with that of a listener at the first performance, giving "careful analytical attention to the music," and concentrating on "one or more passages important to [their] argument." The students are daunted, and why wouldn't they be? Kelly has emphasized from the first class that the course "is designed for people with absolutely no previous experience of classical music; all that is needed is ears, rational faculties, and memory."

Now L'Orfeo, composed for the Mantuan court in 1607, may be gorgeous (indeed, Kelly forewarns them that it is probably his favorite of the five works), but to lead off a course for neophytes with a rarely heard opera for connoisseurs and then ask for an analytical paper seems, well, risky. Moreover, the few surviving documents relating to the premiere of L'Orfeo contain a paucity of even important information--like who sang what and how many instrumentalists there were--so any piquant details must be speculative. And scant comfort it is to the students to be told to examine the original score, with its exotic early notation, and to study the libretto, archaic even in translation. Yet by the third week the class seems quite at home with terms like ritornello, recitativo secco, and toccata. And the music has apparently become familiar enough that an observer hears a bit of humming along.

With L'Orfeo behind them, perhaps the class welcomes the relative familiarity of the Handel and the Beethoven? As Kelly says later in his office, "Sure, everyone's heard the 'Ode to Joy' at the end of Beethoven's Ninth--on synthesizers, on kazoos, in commercials--but they probably haven't heard the whole Ninth Symphony. They may know the 'Hallelujah Chorus,' but they still may not know Handel's Messiah."

But gradually they come to appreciate the breadth of these works and--in keeping with the course's theme--they learn to be a discerning audience as well, getting up close and personal with details of performance. For Kelly liberally intersperses live performances, including some by musicians from Boston's Handel and Haydn Society. And because, as Kelly says, a prime objective of the course is "listening to pieces in their original context," the climax of the semester, on the last day of class, is a premiere commissioned specifically for this course.

From the beginning, Kelly makes it clear that those who cannot be present on December 21 should not take the course. The students are required to write their second paper on this premiere, a review, as instructed in the syllabus, "designed to entertain and inform, and that will also be useful to students in a course called 'First Nights' taught at Harvard in 2050."

"I want them to participate in a first performance just like the ones they've been studying," he explains. "Then they have to think, 'How does this piece of music fit into my world, and what is the cultural context in which it is happening?' I hope they will have discovered the important place of classical music in our world, but what is this piece of music all about now, today, at Harvard?"

This year's premiere, subsidized by the Fromm Foundation, is a work composed by David Horne, Ph.D '99, a visiting lecturer. He has written a mini song-cycle entitled "You," based on poems by Emily Dickinson, that features a soprano with flute, piano, and cello.

"I want the class," continues Kelly, "to talk about the performance itself. Was it an effective performance? Moving? Did it need more rehearsal? It will be rehearsed in class, too. But also they should write about who was there, and what kinds of clothes they wore. It's the little, colorful details that make something historical come alive."

A riot, however, will presumably not be necessary.


Janet Tassel, a contributing editor of this magazine, wrote "The 30 Years' War" in the September-October 1999 issue

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