Sonata for Clarinet, by John Cage

January 7, 2015

John Cage, among the most influential inventors of music during the twentieth century, gained notoriety for his thoughts and experiments with indeterminate music, electroacoustic music and unconventional use of musical instruments. He never completed a formal education, dabbling briefly in theology studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He left in favor of an eighteen-month journey to Europe by way of hitchhiking, sailing and train. During his travels, Cage experienced a plethora of architecture, art and music before returning to California. By 1933, the year of this sonata, he decided to focus on music.

The Sonata for Clarinet, or Sonata for One Voice is among the earliest works of Cage in publication. Cage submitted the work to Henry Cowell as an unsuccessful submission to New Music. However, Cowell found the work interesting enough to suggest its performance at a New Music Society of California Workshop in San Francisco. After hitchhiking, Cage arrived at the workshop finding the clarinetist totally unprepared. Thus, he plunked out his work at the piano for its “premiere.” Another clarinetist, principal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, refused to play the work stating: "That's not the way to write music." In spite of its poor reception, Cage ultimately made minor revisions and arranged for its publication by C.F. Peters in 1963.

Cage’s Sonata for Clarinet remains obscure and waited until 2008 for its premiere CD recording by clarinetist Charles Stier. Cage chose to depart from traditional notational rules. He simply prefaces the work: “The music is written in B-flat. Natural signs are not used. A flat applies only to the note it directly precedes. Phrasing and dynamics are not given.” In regard to expressive markings, a few select articulations are indicated, but the interpretation of the work is left entirely to the performer. The outer movements are both marked Vivace, framing a Lento centerpiece. The sonata exploits the full range of the instrument and shows influence of twelve-tone technique without adherence to its formal procedures. Cage uses fragments in retrograde, transposition and retrograde inversion. In fact, the third movement is a pitch retrograde of the first.

Recording Date:
  August 13, 2014
Recording Location:  Blodgett Recital Hall, Twin Lake, Michigan
Ensemble Type:  Unaccompanied Clarinet
Duration: 0:03:39
Performers: Christopher Nichols, clarinet

About the Music

Composer: John Cage
Instrumentation: Unaccompanied Clarinet
Date Composed: 1933
Music Styles:  Modernist


Sonata for Clarinet - Movement One - Vivace

Sonata for Clarinet - Movement Two - Lento


Sonata for Clarinet - Movement Three - Vivace

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