These notes should be used alongside your notes from lessons, your anthology, and the relevant bits of the following books:

Bowman and Terry: A2 Music – A student’s guide (One Copy in the Music office)
John Cage:     For the Birds
Paul Griffiths:    Modern Music
James Pritchett: The Music of John Cage

These revision notes will give you a summary of some of the important information about the structure of the pieces and the ideas which underlie them.  As you read the notes, make sure you have the anthology with you so you can look up the relevant points in the score.  If possible, listen to a recording of the pieces to reinforce your awareness of the aural impression of details of the score.

Pages 166-7 of the Anthology reproduce Cage’s instructions on the preparation of the piano.  Some things to note:

*     The precision of the instructions – everything is fixed in advance by the composer

*     The variety of materials used leads to variety of timbre (e.g. metal – nasal, rubber – drum-like).

*     Some notes have just one object inserted, meaning that the original pitch is still audible from the third string – some notes have two objects, giving more of an unpitched sound

*     Very few bass notes are prepared – just the lowest 3 Ds

*     A small number of notes in the upper half of the piano’s range are also left unprepared.  As you listen to the pieces, note where these come – some of them are significant.

Listen to each Sonata carefully with the score, and make notes in as much detail as you can about what sounds are prominent – try to describe them in ways you will remember (e.g. ‘gong’, ‘bongo’, ‘bell’, etc).

Cage later claimed that the Sonatas and Interludes were one of the few ‘directly expressive’ works he had written (see For the Birds).  He never said exactly which Sonata was supposed to express which emotion, by he did say that he was influenced by the Hindu aesthetic theory of Rasa, which he learnt from the writer Coomaraswamy.  The main points of his theory are as follows:

*  There are nine ‘permanent emotional states’

*  Four of these are ‘light’: the erotic, the heroic, the wondrous, and the comic

*  Four are dark: the odious, the furious, the pathetic, and the terrible

* The ninth, the tranquil, results when a state of balance is achieved between all the others

* The task of a work of art is to depict the nine permanent emotional states in the correct balance to achieve tranquility

Schoenberg had taught Cage that music gained its structure from harmony (or tonality).  Cage rebelled against this and structured many of his works from the 1940s according to duration.  (N.B. he was not yet writing ‘Open’ works where the structure was indeterminate – that came in the 1950s and afterwards).   

The durational structure of Sonatas and Interludes is rigidly predetermined and uses nested proportions (sometimes described as ‘fractal structure’, or as ‘micro-macro rhythmic structure’).  This means that:

*  The number of semibreves in each phrase follows a fixed numerical sequence.  E.G. in Sonata No. 1 each phrase follows the pattern 1 ¼, ¾, 1 ¼, ¾, 1 ½, 1 ½.

*  Each phrase has a double bar at the end in the score (to make it easier to recognize where they come!)

*  The same numerical sequence determines the number of phrases in each sonata.

*  The repeats are an integral part of the structure.

*  Each sonata has a different numerical sequence.  No. 2’s is 1 ½, 1 ½, 2 3/8, 2 3/8.  No. 3’s is 1, 1, 3 ¼, 3 ¼.  These are arbitrary (i.e. Cage made them up off the top of his head – they don’t seem to mean anything or come from anywhere).

*  Cage used this type of nested rhythmic structure in other pieces from the 1940s, but not in quite so complex a way – other pieces use whole numbers rather than fractions.

Make sure you learn the numerical sequence governing the proportions of each sonata – an accurate description of the rhythmic organization of a sonata will get you at least two marks, provided it is relevant to the question!

 Other points of interest concerning rhythm:

*  Cage, following Schoenberg, distinguished between ‘structure’ and ‘method’.  For him, ‘Structure’ was determined prior to the act of composition.  In other words, he had to work out how the piece was broken up into sections, and how long each section was to last.  For the Sonatas and Interludes, this is achieved precisely by the use of nested proportions.  ‘Method’ was the process of deciding what to put in the structure – in other words, which note should go where.

*  Classical Indian music is based around recurring rhythmic cycles or Tala.  Like Cage’s rhythms, these are often irregular.  There is also a parallel with Cage in that rhythm is more important than harmony in determining structure.

Superficially, Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes have little in common with the Western tradition of the instrumental Sonata.  The term ‘Sonata’ originated in the 17th century and originally meant a piece that was played, rather than one that was sung (a ‘Cantata’).  Gradually, however, the term Sonata acquired other connotations, especially that of a serious and substantial work in several movements.  It also became associated with Classical Sonata Form, with its implications of structural logic and drama derived from the treatment of keys and themes.  However, there are some limited parallels between Cage’s Sonatas and earlier examples of the genre.

* Some early 18th century composers (especially Domenico Scarlatti) wrote single-movement Sonatas for keyboard, which were of moderate length and always in binary form.

* Cage’s avowed aim of expressing emotion fits with the nineteenth-century (Romantic) view of the purpose of a Sonata, as well as the Baroque period (the ‘Doctrine of the Affections’).

* In some of Cage’s sonatas you can arguably detect some of the dramatic changes of character or mood that are essential to classical sonata form, with its contrast between themes and keys (e.g. very distinct characters of Bars 1-8, 9-12 and 13-18 of Sonata No. 1)

* The complex rhythmic structures Cage uses give them an academic quality which might qualify them to belong to a structurally heav

Developing variation was the phrase Schoenberg used to describe the unification of a musical composition by taking a simple melodic idea and repeating it, with change and modification throughout the piece.  In Schoenberg’s view, the more complex and subtle the process of variation was, the more advanced was the composer.  Naturally, his own 12-note compositional techniques were the logical conclusion and the most advanced manifestation of the techniques of Developing Variation used in earlier music.  We might therefore expect Cage to avoid it, since it seems to be incompatible with his own views of how music should be composed.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, development of short melodic and rhythmic kernels seems to be an important part of his ‘method’ in Sonatas 2 and 3, and can be found, although less prominently in No. 1.  Here are a few illustrations of this, to look up in your score:  

Sonata No. 1

Bar 1.  F# - F natural over G major triad (repeated bar 3)

Bar 18-19.  Retrograde of Bar 1 creates an effect of recapitulation

Sonata No. 2

LH bars 2-3.  4-quaver motif spanning a minor 3rd.  Repeated after crotchet rest

LH bar 21-2.  Similar figure, starts on middle note but still spans a minor 3rd with crotchet rest in the middle

LH bars 24-6.  Different development but still based on the same figure

RH bar 4.  Double acciaccatura figure between E flat and C

RH Bar 11-12.  E flat-C interval prominent, although no grace notes this time

RH bar 15.  E flat-C interval starts off new section

RH bar 18-22.  Repeated double acciaccaturas between Eb and C

RH end bar 4-bar 5.  Melody based around C-E flat-G-A

RH bar 10-13.  Melody uses the same pitches, just adding an A flat at the end

RH bar 28.  Semiquaver passage uses a figure based around the same group of notes, but adding an F natural

Sonata No. 3

RH bar 3 plus upbeat.  Opening motif starting with 4 demisemiquavers on anacrusis

RH bars 5-6 plus upbeat.  Opening motif repeated twice, but with minor rhythmic changes to the end, so it fits differently with the repeated note in the bass

RH bar 17 plus upbeat.  Uses anacrusis demisemiquavers to introduce new phrase

RH bars 13-15.  Crotchet melody uses the same sequence of notes as opening motif,  changed slightly and slowed down (‘in augmentation’)

RH bars 22-4.  As bars 13-15, but with a few notes changed

LH bar 9.  G#-C# interval starts off new phrase, leading into chromatic idea

LH bar 17.  Next phrase starts with same idea.

LH bars 19-24.  Chromatic idea is developed into a longer melody, but returns to G#-C# to end

LH bar 25.  Final phrase starts as bar 9

LH bars 11-12.  Octave idea.

LH bars 14-15.  Repeats octave idea at different pitch

John Cage is known most widely for the views he expressed on music and chance.  To summarize briefly, with loads of oversimplifications:

*  There is no distinction between musical and non-musical sounds (see 4’33”)

*  The role of the composer is to allow the inherent musicality of sounds to realize itself, and not to seek to impose an order on sounds – he wrote of ‘abolishing the composer’s ego’ – some hope!

*  The way to achieve this was by using a variety of random or chance processes to determine the content and structure of a piece of music.  Some of these involved improvisation by the performers.  Others involved procedures using the I Ching, an ancient Chinese Book of Changes.

*  Musical works should be ‘Open’ – in other words, the boundary between the musical work and the world was not fixed; other sounds not conceived of by the composer (e.g. ambient sounds, or the variables of a particular performance) were a valid part of it; and every performance was potentially radically different from every other.

The important thing to remember is that these ideas developed mainly after Sonatas and Interludes was written, and are connected more to Zen Buddhism (in which Cage was very interested in the 1950s and afterwards) than to Hinduism and Rasa.  Cage arguably leaves very little to chance in Sonatas and Interludes, and they fit a traditional definition of what a piece of music is. 

The emphasis on silence (or at least on very quiet passages) is one respect in which there is a connection with Cage’s Zen-Buddhist-influenced work from the 1950s.

Past paper questions

Unfortunately there is only one past paper for this exam, which is the one you had as your mock.  In addition, Edexcel have published some specimen exam questions, which you can find here (warning - big PDF file download).

Good Luck!

Back