The best Judges allowed it to be the most finished piece of Musick,’ glowed The Dublin Journal in 1742. ‘Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crouded Audience.’
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That ‘most finished piece of Musick’ was Handel’s Messiah, whose first-night audience thrilled to its rousing Hallelujahs in the same way as they do today. But not all great works have enjoyed the same fortune. Drunk conductors, knock-kneed dancers, greedy diners – all these and more have turned premieres into a nightmares. Bizet’s Carmen offended polite society. Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius was too difficult. Bernstein’s Candide wasn’t funny enough.
It seems composers just can’t win. Or can they? Sometimes it just takes time and patience – every one of the 15 works here was a flop on its first night, only to go on to huge success. It seems that if you want to get ahead, you have to suffer a little first.
1. Bizet Carmen
Paris’s Opéra-Comique, which commissioned Carmen, specialised in staging lightly moralistic works. But what they got from Bizet was an opera about promiscuous cigarette girls who liked a fight. Audiences were outraged and the opera was a disaster. The French composer died believing he’d written a dud. Tchaikovsky predicted it would one day be the most popular opera in the world, but then he knew a thing or two about flops…
Recommended recording of Bizet Carmen: Elina Garanča, Roberto Alagna, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus/Yannick Nézet-Séguin; dir. Richard Eyre (New York, 2010)
2. Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1
If you count a premiere as also being the first play-through of a work, then few can have gone as badly as Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The ink was still wet when the composer showed the score to Nikolai Rubinstein. Tchaikovsky was hoping the pianist would give the first performance so rattled through the first movement to demonstrate it. At the end, the silence was deafening, as Tchaikovsky recollected: ‘Not a single word! Rubenstein was amassing his storm.’ Indeed he was. He declared the concerto ‘worthless and unplayable’.
Recommended recording of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1: Peter Katin (piano); New Symphony Orch of London/Cundell; *LPO/Boult
Find out more about Tchaikovsky and his works here
3. Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1
Brahms had long wanted to compose a symphony but decided to keep his powder dry and write a quasi-symphonic piano concerto instead. It was a big deal for the young composer, who laboured over the score of his First Piano Concerto. To ensure no slips, he decided to perform it at the premiere in Hanover. The new work had a cool reception so he tried again a few days later in Leipzig but, as he recalled later, ‘Three pairs of hands attempted to applaud but were quickly stopped by unmistakable hissing all around.’
Recommended recordings of Brahms Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2: Rudolf Buchbinder (piano); Vienna Philharmonic/Zubin
4. Rachmaninov Symphony No. 1
Rachmaninov threw his heart and soul into his First Symphony. But the premiere was conducted by a man whose very surname suggested one glass might never have been enough. Glazunov was drunk as he mounted the podium. His arms rose and fell with the music but there was no feeling. Composer César Cui, who was in the audience, said Rachmaninov’s symphony, ‘would have brought ecstasy to the inhabitants of hell’. Rachmaninov, meanwhile, hid in a stairwell with his hands over his ears.
Recommended recording of Rachmaninov Symphony No. 1: St Petersburg PO/Mariss Jansons
Find out more about Rachmaninov and his works here
5. Beethoven Fidelio
Where most composers were happy to make music a politics-free zone, Beethoven banged on about freedom and justice, never mind who was listening. Take Fidelio, his only opera. It’s a story about one woman’s love triumphing over political brutality. So where did Beethoven have its premiere? In a city (Vienna) that was under military occupation. And who was the audience? The people doing the occupying (French military officers). Add to that the German libretto and, needless to say, it didn’t go down a storm.
Recommended recording of Beethoven Fidelio: Otto Klemperer
Read more of our reviews of the latest Beethoven recordings here
Find out more about Beethoven and his work here
6. Rossini Barber of Seville
Scrabbling around for his next opera plot in 1815, the ever-industrious Rossini alighted on the first of a trilogy of plays concerning Figaro, a barber. ‘Great,’ he thought; ‘I’ll call my new opera The Barber of Seville.’ But fellow Italian Giovanni Paisiello had already written an opera based on the same play – and given it the same title. When the premiere of Rossini’s version came around, Paisiello planted his supporters among the audience. At a pre-arranged moment they began booing and chanting Paisiello’s name. A great idea, except that they couldn’t afford to be there every night. The next performance was a rip-roaring success.
Recommended recording of Rossini The Barber of Seville: Alan Opie, Della Jones, Bruce Ford, Andrew Shore, Peter Rose; Chorus & Orchestra of ENO/Gabriele Bellini [in English]
Read more of our reviews of the latest Rossini recordings here
7. Elgar Dream of Gerontius
Inspired by Elgar’s interest in the new and complex music of Wagner, The Dream of Gerontius was technically and musically beyond the Birmingham Festival Choir. It didn’t help that its chorus master died suddenly during rehearsals and that his replacement wasn’t up to the job, or that the conductor, Hans Richter, was ill-prepared. The premiere was a disaster. Nor were Elgar’s problems over. The work’s Catholic sentiments offended the Protestant church, whose leaders demanded changes to the text before it could be performed in their cathedrals.
Recommended recording of Elgar Dream of Gerontius: Richard Lewis (tenor), Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), Kim Borg (bass); Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, Ambrosian Singers, Hallé Orchestra & Choir/John Barbirolli
Find out more about Elgar and his works here
8. Musorgsky A Night on Bare Mountain
Musorgsky had devoted 14 frantic days to Night on Bare Mountain – as one of the first tone poems ever written by a Russian composer, it was an important milestone for Russian music. Musorgsky presented the completed work to fellow composer Balakirev, the man he had chosen to wield the baton at its premiere. Unfortunately Balakirev was less than impressed, citing grave shortcomings in the score, and refused to go near it.
Best recording of Musorgsky A Night on Bare Mountain: Sa Chen
9. Strauss The Blue Danube
No other piece of music better illustrates the ‘flop to hit’ reversal than Johann Strauss II’s By the Beautiful Blue Danube. Here’s a waltz everybody knows, but the audience at its premiere did not entirely go with the flow. The work was intended to boost Viennese morale after Austria’s defeat at the hands of Prussia in the Seven Weeks’ War. And so it might have, had ‘humorous’ lyrics intended to make light of Austria’s problems not then been added. The first-night crowd hated them and the piece received just one encore making it, in Strauss’s terms, a disaster.
Recommended recording: J Strauss II: The Blue Danube & Famous Viennese Waltzes Wiener Philharmoniker, Bavarian State Orchestra, Karl Böhm, Carlos Kleiber
10. Stravinsky Rite of Spring
As with The Blue Danube, The Rite of Spring’s legendary first-night upset may not have been entirely of the music’s making. According to Stravinsky ‘the storm broke’ only when the stage curtain opened to reveal the ‘group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down’. He was referring to the dancers of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, and by ‘storm’, he meant catcalls, whistling and fistfights. The conductor, Pierre Monteux, recalled that, ‘Everything available was tossed in our direction’. Diaghilev’s verdict on the night: ‘Exactly what I wanted.’
Recommended recording of Stravinsky Rite of Spring: Junge Deutsche Philharmonie/Péter Eötvös
Find out more about Stravinsky and his works here
11. Tchaikovsky Swan Lake
At its debut, Swan Lake waddled onto stage with all the grace of the proverbial ugly duckling. As with the Rite of Spring 40 years later, the music was ahead of its time and the dancers unused to such an inventive score. Word leaked out ahead of the premiere that they were struggling and so easier pieces were slipped in. Perhaps the press smelled a rat, because they were unimpressed. By the time the ballet dropped out of the repertoire, one third of Tchaikovsky’s score had been replaced.
Recommended recording of Tchaikovsky Swan Lake: State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia ‘Evgeny Svetlanov’/Vladimir Jurowski (Pentatone)
Find out more about Tchaikovsky and his works here
12. Verdi La traviata
Where today we may raise a eyebrow at the sight of an older and amply proportioned soprano in the role of the youthful and consumptive Violetta, the Venetian first-night audience booed. Later, the audience turned on the baritone and tenor for what they saw as below-par performances. ‘Was the fault mine or the singers’?’ asked Verdi after the performance. Not his, I think it’s safe to say.
Recommended recording of Verdi La Traviata: Natalie Dessay, Charles Castronovo, Ludovic Tézier; LSO/Louis Langrée; Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Mikk Üleoja; dir Jean-François
Find out more about Verdi and his works here
13. Bellini Norma
At least the La traviata audience told Verdi what they thought of it. In contrast, the audience at the premiere of Bellini’s Norma did and said the worst thing possible – nothing. Not a boo or a clap. ‘Fiasco! Fiasco! Solemn fiasco!’ wailed Bellini. The composer cast around for explanations: the singers were tired, some sections of the opera didn’t work… He also noted the presence in the audience of a rival camp out to make trouble.
Recommended recording of Bellini Norma: Renata Scotto, Tatiana Troyanos, Giuseppe Giacomini, Paul Plishka, Ann Murray, Paul CrookAmbrosian Opera Chorus, National PO/James Levine
14. Bernstein Candide
As with Strauss’s Blue Danube, words were nearly the undoing of Candide. The libretto was penned by dramatist Lillian Hellman, whose idea the operetta was in the first place, but at the premiere some critics found her efforts too serious and the Broadway production was a flop, running for just two months. Subsequent producers, however, could see its potential, and one by one set about rescuing it, with Bernstein himself rolling up his sleeves and setting to.
Recommended recording of Bernstein Candide:London Symphony Chorus & London Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein
Find out more about Bernstein and his works here
15. Wagner Tannhaüser
When members of a dining club start jeering at your new opera because you’ve disrupted their schedule, you know you’ve got a problem. This is what the Jockey-Club de Paris did during the first Act of Wagner’s Tannhaüser at its premiere. Napoleon III (above) had pointed out that the Paris Opéra liked to feature a ballet within its productions. Since Wagner hadn’t written one, he set about doing so, but for dramatic reasons placed in it Act I rather than Act II, as was the custom. This meant the bon viveurs of the Jockey-Club had to postpone their meal to be present at the start of the opera, rather than slipping in for the ballet later on.
Recommended recording of Wagner Tannhäuser: Robert Gambill, Camilla Nylund, (dvd)
Find out more about Wagner and his works here
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Top illustration by David Lyttleton