Tuesday, June 21, 2011

John Cage's Opinions

The following paragraphs were written for the SILENCE discussion group, an on-line, ongoing conversion about many aspects of John Cage’s music and writings. I am an infrequent reader and contributor, but I couldn’t resist jumping in on the recent discussion about Cage’s opinions about Beethoven, Mozart, jazz, politics, etc. Many people have participated in the discussion, which began as riffs on an article by Marjorie Perloff entitled “Constructed Anarchy” and a post called “Cage’s Prejudices.” (This latter might better be entitled “Cage’s Opinions,” since that’s what it’s really about. People use the word “prejudice” very loosely these days.) I thought I would post this here and see what response I might get from a very different readership.

“This is a very brief response to the fascinating thread developing about the Perloff article, anarchy, etc., etc. I have many thoughts and memories of all of these things, but I am practicing under deadline and have to get back to it. I will just say a couple of things.

“Artists' tastes say a lot about them, above and beyond the obvious, and even Cage's apparently glib statements about his likes and dislikes are at least provocative, sometimes very important.

“About Beethoven: I first encountered John's dislike of Beethoven as a graduate student at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1966. He visited Charles Hamm's class in American music, and most of what he said was about Beethoven. He compared Beethoven and Delacroix and talked about emerging radical individualism in the nineteenth century and how it was not going to solve the problems of the world in the middle of the twentieth century. He admitted that a pianist friend of his had played for him the late Beethoven bagatelles and he found them ‘quite lively.’ Notice that he stopped short of saying he liked them, but in the context he was clearly enjoying his memory of the pieces, if not the pieces themselves. After the better part of an hour of Cage bashing Beethoven, he was challenged by another graduate student, an excellent clarinettist named Doug DiBianco (quite skilled in performing new music I might add, and no Philistine). Doug practically exploded in rage and frustration. I quote: ‘But Beethoven was a great composer, and you're not.’ To quote John's response: ‘Yes, but he wanted to be.’

“Sorry to oversimplify such a rich and remarkable hour, but this thread is inspiring me to recollect and try to make sense of the many opinions I heard from John Cage over the years.

“His praise of Mozart, at least in my presence, was always a byproduct of his comparison of Mozart and Bach. John didn't like Bach much (though my impression was he liked Bach more than Beethoven). The reason was that scales in Bach (by which Cage meant extensive motion in the same direction) were always the same, i.e. diatonic. In Mozart, however, there are many more kinds of ‘scales.’ Not just diatonic, but chromatic, and arpeggios too, which are rare in Bach but common in Mozart. While this is of course an oversimplification of what goes on in the work of a couple of great composers, because the source of the oversimplification is a third great composer, it's worth looking into. It turns out John is more or less correct. And if your real purpose in all of this is to write a great masterpiece, in this case HPSCHD, oversimplifications are quite adequate to the task.

“In my presence John always spoke of Satie in reverential terms. He said of ‘Vexations,’ for example, that it was a great religious work, ‘as great as any of the Passions.’ (Another quote. John's choice of words was always vivid, and many of his sentences are burned indelibly into my brain.)

“Already I have written about twice as much here as I really have time to write this evening. I must say, however, that the readers of SILENCE (the discussion group, not the book) should be aware, if you are not already, that Cage is hardly the only major composer to dislike Beethoven. Except for a handful of pieces, Chopin disliked Beethoven intensely, and vastly preferred Mozart. (Mozart and Bach seem to have been the greatest composers, in Chopin's mind.) Chopin thought Beethoven noisy, crude and ‘expressive’ to a fault, not far from what Cage thought, it seems to me. Debussy had a similar dislike for Beethoven, for similar reasons. The only piece by Beethoven that Debussy really liked seems to have been the Ninth Symphony.

“I enjoy telling my students that there are three major composers who disliked Beethoven: Chopin, Debussy and Cage. I am collecting composers who dislike Beethoven, and I can add to the list my good friend Carver Blanchard. Carver thinks Beethoven is the most overrated composer who ever lived. I, by contrast, think Beethoven is the greatest composer who ever lived. You can imagine our discussions on this point.

“BTW, My claim that Beethoven is the ‘greatest composer’ is intended in the same spirit as Anthony Thommasini's list of ‘ten greatest’ composers. Not to be taken too seriously, but if one has to make a list, and one has to order it in magnitude of ‘greatness,’ Beethoven is #1 on my list, as he's #3 on Tommasini's. I also think that Cage, Chopin and Debussy (and Satie and Mozart for that matter) are ‘great,’ wherever they may appear on one's Top Ten list. Whatever ‘greatness’ may consist of. Now it's REALLY time to practice Duckworth...”


  1. Hi Neely,

    Doesn't it really come down to individual pieces (and sometimes even just moments in pieces)? A composer's name can sometimes be pretty reliable, like a brand name, but all interesting composers have uneven catalogues, with great, good, indifferent and awful side-by-side, which is pretty much what one would expect of musicians willing to take risks. Josquin, Monteverdi, Mozart, Berlioz, Ives & Cage are certainly reliable name brands for me, but all wonderfully uneven.

  2. Into my ninth decade, I'm less violent in my musical dislikes and more interested in what a composer was actually trying to say. Music is a form of conversation--one can stutter, forget one's train of thought, get angry, bombastic, sentimental and still, in Charles Ives words, "walk up the mountainside to view the firmament".