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Doing Historical Research in Music: Reception History

What's a reception history?

It's a history of a work's performances, and how audiences "received" (reacted) to it, from the composer's own time to the present day.

See the article "Reception" in Oxford Music Online (available on our "Databases" page).

A reception history can include:

The premiere. Many works now considered masterpieces were poorly received at their premieres.

Revivals. A composer and his/her works may fall out of fashion during certain time periods, and be re-discovered in others. Such revivals of interest are also part of a work's reception history.

Interpretation. Performers', critics', and scholars' interpretations of a work change over time, often reflecting social and aesthetic trends of their own period.

Research tools

Oxford Music Online

Available on our "Databases" page. Composers' entries typically include a brief reception history.


Biographies of the composer

These, of course, provide in-depth context. Don't forget that scholarly biographies have indexes at the back. You can use the index to quickly locate discussion of a specific work within the book.


Other books on the composer

Other reception histories can be located in the Library's catalog or WorldCat using the following subject heading:

  • [Composer's name] -- Appreciation.

Research guides on individual composers have been published in series. Look for these series in the Library's catalog or WorldCat:

  • Cambridge Music Handbooks
  • Garland Composer Resource Manuals
  • Composer Resource Manuals
  • Music Research and Information Guides


Contemporary reviews

Early reviews are important primary sources for a work's reception history. You can use the following online databases and print indexes to find reviews that appeared in nineteenth and early twentieth-century journals

Available on our "Databases" page:

  • RIPM
  • Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers
  • ProQuest Historical Newspapers  (U.S)
  • American Periodicals Series Online 1740-1900  (popular magazines)
  • Readers Guide Retrospective  (U.S., 1890-1982)

Tips for searching reviews in online databases

There are also books that are collections of early reviews. One example is Nicholas Slonimsky's Lexikon of musical invective. Similar collections can be found in the Library's catalog or WorldCat using the subject heading "Musical criticism."

Subject Guide

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Leslie McCall
Office: 251 ZSR Library
Phone: 336-758-5474