Roll Over Beethoven


In 1948, his first year of teaching at Black Mountain College, John Cage gave a lecture on Erik Satie, at the time a little-known French composer. To make his point about Satie’s significance, Cage weighed him against a composer who needed no introduction. “Beethoven was in error,” he said, “and his influence, which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music.” All that could be said of the German composer is that his legacy was to “practically shipwreck the art on an island of decadence.” In Indeterminacy, Cage recounted Satie’s remark that “what was needed was a music without any sauerkraut in it,” and “that the reason Beethoven was so well known was that he had a good publicity manager.” For his apostasy Cage not only alienated several friends among the Black Mountain music faculty but inspired, at least if the anecdotes can be believed, a number of students to torch their Beethoven records. Satie was correct in at least one respect: Beethoven never lacked for good publicity.

more from Eric Banks at Bookforum here.