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“A Ping, Qualified by a Thud”: Music Criticism in Manhattan and the Case of Cage (1943–58)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 March 2007

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This article surveys the reception of concert performances in Manhattan of music by John Cage, from his arrival in 1942 until his gala retrospective held in Town Hall in 1958, in particular comparing responses from composer-critics such as Virgil Thomson, stabled at the New York Herald Tribune, with that of music journalists based at the New York Times and other local dailies. Close reading of reviews and of an array of archival sources suggests that Cage's personal and professional relationships with composer-critics ensured that the reception of his music was uniquely well informed, and that his prepared piano works and early experiments with chance were treated with a remarkable degree of affirmation. Much of Cage's critical identity can be attributed to the aegis of Thomson, who, if he denied acting as “hired plugger” for Cage, nonetheless sympathetically construed him as Americanist, Francophile, post-Schoenbergian, and ultramodernist. Thomson's resignation from the Tribune in 1954 coincided with a pronounced deterioration in Manhattan critics' appreciation of Cage. I argue that the reasons for this lie as much with the demise of the composer-critic—and a reversal of Cage's own attitude to criticism—as with conservative disaffection with new forms of experimentalism.

© 2007 The Society for American Music

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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Society for American Music conference in Eugene, Oregon, in 2005. I am grateful for comments by Leta Miller, David Nicholls, Craig Parker, David Patterson, and Vincent Plush, as well as for advice from the anonymous readers for SAM.


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