Sunday, June 26, 2011

Did John Cage write a Second Piano Concerto?

In the introduction to his book Three Questions for Sixty-Five composers Bálint András Varga refers to "John Cage's Second Piano Concerto." When I quoted this in a recent post composer and blogger Daniel Wolf took Varga to task in a comment saying:
'Cage did not write a Second Piano Concerto. He wrote one Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra and a Concert for Piano and Orchestra (note that that's a Concert and not a Concerto), but no work of the title Varga mentions.'
Now in response to Daniel's comment I have received the following spirited defence of Varga's appellation from his editor at the University of Rochester Press Ralph P. Locke:
'I am the founding (and current) editor of the series in which Balint Varga's book appeared (Eastman Studies in Music, published by University of Rochester Press). It was my decision, and I stand by it, to allow Balint to refer casually to Cage's "Second Piano Concerto" in the first of his three questions to the 65 composers. We could hardly change the wording of that question, which he had asked dozens of composers over the course of several decades. I figured he had used the phrase in order to quickly distinguish the Concert for Piano and Orchestra from the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra. Nonetheless, Balint and I made sure that, in the book's index, the correct name of the work would be given in parentheses. The prepared-piano concerto has its own index entry, clearly distinguished from the "second" concerto (or non-concerto). Thus there is no problem "knowing precisely which work of Cage's was the point of reference" (to quote Daniel Wolf's objection).

A nickname or casual reference is not an error: it's simply another kind of usage that has developed (as Pliable notes in referring to a CD of "the Piano Concertos" of Cage [see image above]). Beethoven didn't write a Moonlight Sonata or Chopin a Raindrop Prelude. But musicians and concert programmers develop their own shorthand--however inauthentic or inaccurate--in order to make sure everybody knows which piece they have in mind when they're talking about it or planning on performing it.'
So did Beethoven write a Moonlight Sonata? Did Chopin write a Raindrop Prelude and John Cage a Second Piano Concerto? Well, one thing is certain, Concert for Piano and Orchestra is not a title given by the gods. But here is one that is.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Link to featured Cage Piano Concerto CD here. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said...

Rob Haskins has commented via Facebook - "Interesting post, and, as usual, an eloquent and thoughtful response from dear Ralph P. Locke."

Pliable said...

Email received:


I don't buy the comparison between the "Raindrop Prelude" and the "Cage Second Piano Concerto". Names like "Raindrop Prelude" and "Moonlight Sonata" have been in use for generations. Has anyone ever referred to the "Cage Second Piano Concerto" before this book? Far from being a "shorthand... in order to make sure everybody knows which piece they have in mind", this is a sloppy and imprecise reference that actually obscures what piece is being referred to. It is somewhat like referring to "Death and Transfiguration" as "Strauss's Tone Poem #4".

If the phrase "Cage's Second Piano Concerto" is supposed clarify matters, then why is a clarification - or should we say correction - supplied in the book's index? As for the editorial problem posed by the author having phrased the question imprecisely to sixty-five composers, it would be better dealt with by inserting the correct title of the piece in brackets right in the body of the question, rather than in the index.

all best,

James Primosch

jerome langguth said...

A fascinating debate, but mostly your posts have made me want to read the book (as your posts always do). Glancing at the entry for the book on Amazon, I noticed that John Cage was one of the composers interviewed. Was Cage himself asked this question. If so, did he notice the inaccuracy and comment on it?



Pliable said...

Jay, John Cage was asked the question that contains the controversial reference to the "Second Piano Concerto".

His reply makes no reference to the "casual" title assigned to his work. In a brief (five line) reply Cage simply cites Robert Rauschenberg's white paintings and the first graph sketches of Morton Feldman as important encounters.