Composers Datebook®

John Cage at Woodstock

Composers Datebook for August 29, 2019


On today's date in 1952, at the aptly named Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, pianist David Tudor premiered two new works by the American composer John Cage.

The first, titled "Water Music," was scored for a "prepared piano" — a piano into whose metal strings various items had been inserted to alter its sound — plus a duck call and transistor radio. For the second work, Tudor simply closed the lid of the piano, set a stopwatch for the length of the work's four sections — 4 minutes and 33 seconds to be exact — and then sat quietly on the piano bench. The composition consisted of whatever sounds occurred in that amount of time at that particular moment in time, including any breathing, coughing or snickering from the audience.

Some likened the piece to the all-white canvases of the avant-garde painter Robert Rauschenberg, on which accidental aspects of dust or bumps in the canvas created an arbitrary texture. Others thought it an outrageous affront at worst, or a bad joke at best. Whatever else one might think of it, as pianist David Tudor put it, "Cage's 4:33 is one of the most intense listening experiences one can have."

Cage once said: "I'm interested in making sounds that I don't understand," and insisted that random, unplanned sounds were as welcome to his ears as those he organized himself, as in this Cage piece for prepared piano titled "Mysterious Adventure."

Music Played in Today's Program

John Cage (1912-1992) Nos. 5 and 12, fr Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano Robert Miller, p. New World 80203

On This Day


  • 1920 - Virtuoso jazz saxophonist and "Be-bop" innovator, Charlie Parker, in Kansas City;

  • 1936 - French composer and conductor Gilbert Amy, in Paris;


  • 1661 - French composer Louis Couperin, in Paris; His brother, Charles Couperin (1638-1679) was also a composer, as was his nephew - the famous François Couperin (1668-1733), nicknamed "Le Grand."

  • 1972 - French composer and conductor, René Leibowitz, age 59, in Paris;


  • 1720 - Handel: oratorio, "Esther," at Canons, county seat of the Duke of Chandos (Gregorian date: Sept. 9);

  • 1853 - Josef Strauss: "The First and the Last" Waltz (his first composition), at Unger's Casino in Hernals (Austria) by the Johann Strauss Orchestra, conducted by the composer (who had taken over the family orchestra for a time due to the sickness of his older brother, Johann Strauss, Jr.);

  • 1882 - Brahms: Piano Trio in C, Op. 97, at a private home in Bad Ischl; Brahms played a practical joke on the audience by introducing the trio as having been composed by his friend, the composer and pianist Ignaz Brull, who was also in Bad Ischl at the time; The official premiere of the Trio occurred in Frankfurt on December 29 that year, with a violinist named Heermann and a cellist name Müller, with Brahms at the pianist;

  • 1952 - John Cage "4:33," for any instrument, in Woodstock, N.Y.;

  • 1981 - Stephen Paulus: "Courtship Songs" for flute, oboe, cello and piano, in St. Paul, Minn.;

  • 1995 - Kaija Saariaho: "Graal Théàtre" for violin and orchestra, in London by the BBC Symphony, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen with Gidon Kremer the soloist;

  • 2000 - Wolfgang Rihm: "Deus Passus (after St. Luke)," at the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart, by the Gächinger Kantorei and Stuttgart Bach Collegium, conducted by Helmut Rilling; This work was one of four passion settings commissioned by the International Bach Academy to honor the 250th anniversary of Bach's death in the year 2000 (see also: Sept 1, 5 & 8).

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®