Those of you who caught John Lahr's fascinating New Yorker article on stage fright (sadly not online) will have noticed that he repeatedly cites Charles Rosen's seminal essay on the subject, "The Aesthetics of Stage Fright:"
The entertainer's journey through fear is the burden and the blessing of performance; it's what invests the enterprise with bravery, even a kind of nobility. "There was no other treatment than the well-worn practice of wearing it--the terror--out," Olivier wrote. The battle takes many strange and creative forms. Some performers drink to give themselves courage; some pop beta-blockers; some meditate or practice various other tension-reducing exercises; some play inspirational videos in their dressing rooms; some, like Charles Rosen, simply see stagefright as an inevitable and appropriate result of a virtuoso's perfectionism. "Stagefright is not merely symbolically but functionally necessary, like the dread of a candidate before an examination or a job interview, both designed essentially as a test of courage," Rosen writes. "Stagefright, like epilepsy, is a divine ailment, a sacred madness....It is a grace that is sufficient in the old Jesuit sense--that is, insufficient by itself but a necessary condition for success."
"The Aesthetics of Stage Fright" is reprinted, along with seventeen other essays on the history of music (see the table of contents for more), in Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New, available from HUP in paperback.
So next time you're up in front of a large group of people and your knees start knocking, just remember what Charles Rosen told you--it's the fear that makes you great.