It's been twenty years, I think, since I read a book on music.

Not long ago, the Globe ran a feature about the popularity of Professor Kelley's course on First Nights, which regularly attracts 200 or 300 students to Sanders. This is the textbook, a study of the circumstances of the premiere's of L'Orfeo, Messiah, Beethoven's 9th, the Symphonie Fantastique, and Le Sacre du Printemps, and it's very nicely done.

A difficulty here, perhaps unforeseen, is that the historical environment changes radically between Monteverdi and Stravinsky. In some ways the gap is small: Beethoven's premiere was organized a lot like Handel's and faced similar kinds of bureaucratic, financial, and logistical problems. Beethoven's audience (and some of his performers) attended the Berlioz premiere. But we also know Berlioz and Stravinsky (and Diaghilev and Nijinsky) in levels of detail which are opaque to use only a generation or two before. We think we can figure out where Monteverdi's work was performed, but we do know that while Getrude Stein hinted she was at the premiere she (and Alice) actually went on the second night. We know what Diaghilev wore on his hair, and in what seat Stravinsky was sitting before he walked out. Kelley tried to be rigidly parallel in his treatment, but the evidence is intractable.

In a way, too, Le Sacre du Printemps is unfortunate here because its riotous premiere is so famous. Yes, it's the most notorious premiere in history, but that raises unique questions that Kelley can't easily address without unbalancing the book. He hints that anti-semitic politics played an important role, but the hint goes nowhere. He hints at the complex personal relationship between the composer, the dancer, and the impressario, but this too goes nowhere because, in the end, Beethoven and Handel had nothing like this. If Monteverdi did, we'll never know.