Cage: The Seasons

The Seasons

BORN: September 5, 1912. Los Angeles
DIED: August 12, 1992. New York City

COMPOSED: Cage composed The Seasons between January and April 1947, on commission from the Ballet Society. The score is dedicated to Lincoln Kirstein

WORLD PREMIERE: The ballet, with choreography by Merce Cunningham and scenery and costumes by Isamu Noguchi, was presented at the Ziegfeld Theatre, New York, on May 13, 1947, with Leon Barzin conducting the Ballet Society Orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—October 1986. Charles Wuorinen conducted, during the Symphony’s New and Unusual Music Festival. MOST RECENT—May 2015. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (doubling E-flat and bass clarinets, respectively), 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, tenor trombone, bass trombone, timpani, xylophone, cymbals, tam-tam, bass drum, harp, piano (doubling celesta), glockenspiel, and strings

DURATION: About 15 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Dance Magazine’s reviewer called it “a horror.” Dance News, on the other hand, found it “a generally pleasant piece, purposely fragmentary but unintentionally, one supposes, aimless.” Both were reacting to the 1947 premiere of The Seasons, one of John Cage’s and Merce Cunningham’s early collaborations. The contradictory responses typify the genuine bafflement that so often greeted the avant-garde experiments of these two truly original men.

Cage and Cunningham met in 1938, at the Cornish Institute in Seattle. Cage had studied with the pianist Richard Buhlig and with the composers Adolph Weiss, Henry Cowell, and Arnold Schoenberg, and had traveled to Europe to study art and music. (Cage recalls those lessons in his book, Silence: “After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, ‘In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.’ I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, ‘In that case I will devote myself to beating my head against that wall.’”)

By 1943 Cage and Cunningham were in New York. The choreographer had established himself as a leading dancer with the Martha Graham company, but at the composer’s urging left to work on his own. Cage wrote music for him, mainly pieces for percussion or prepared piano, and when Cunningham established his own company Cage became its music director. They were clearly soulmates. As Cage described it, Cunningham “has, since 1944, developed his own school of dancing and choreography, the continuity of which no longer relies on linear movements, be they narrative or psychological, nor does it rely on a movement towards and away from a climax. As in abstract painting, it is assumed that an element (a movement, a sound, a change of light) is in and of itself expressive; what it communicates is in large part determined by the observer himself. It is assumed that the dance supports itself and does not need support from the music. The two arts take place in a common place and time, but each art expresses this Space-Time in its own way. The result is an activity of interpenetrations in time and space, not counterpoints, nor controlled relationships, but flexibilities as are known from the mobiles of Alexander Calder . . . .”

For his own part Cage was working with the notion that music comprises four components: structure, method, material, and form. “I thought that three of the four components could be improvised, form, material, and method, and that three could be organized, structure, method, and material. And the two in the middle, material and method, could be either organized or improvised.” Structure for him was principally rhythmic, as opposed to his teacher Schoenberg’s reliance on the structure of pitches. Cage used rhythmic patterns as an organizing principle; the resulting music had a certain static quality, lacking traditional climaxes.

THE MUSIC  In the mid-1940s Cage became interested in Eastern philosophy. Sonatas and Interludes (for piano, 1946-48) aims to portray the “permanent emotions” of Indian tradition in music. The music for The Seasons is another coming to terms with Indian thought. According to Cage, it is “an attempt to express the traditional Indian view of the seasons as quiescence (winter), creation (spring), preservation (summer), and destruction (fall). It concludes with the Prelude to Winter with which it begins. The rhythmic structure is 2, 2, 1, 3, 2, 4, 1, 3, 1 . . . . The sounds are a gamut (variously orchestrated) of single tones, intervals, and aggregates.” Fully notated, the score presents a world close to nature: Sounds are shimmering, gurgling, twittering, occasionally threatening, but mostly gentle. Movement is slow and relaxed, the passage of time barely perceptible.

Susan Feder

This note originally appeared in the program book of the American Composers Orchestra and is used by kind permission. Copyright © 1985/2015 by Susan Feder. Currently Program Officer in the Arts and Cultural Heritage Program of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Susan Feder edited the SFS program book from 1979 to 1981.

More About the Music
Recordings: Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Orchestra (ECM)

Reading: Silence and Empty Words, by John Cage (both Wesleyan)  |  Conversing with Cage, by Richard Kostelanetz (Limelight)  |  Musicage: Cage Muses on Words Art Music: John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack (Wesleyan/University Press of New England)  |  For the Birds: John Cage in Conversation with Daniel Charles (Marion Boyars)  |  Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage, by Kenneth Silverman (Knopf)  |  The Roaring Silence: John Cage—A Life, by David Revill (Arcade)  |  John Cage (ex)plain(ed), by Richard Kostelanetz (Schirmer) 

Online: For more on John Cage, visit

(March 2017)