Audio dada: A precursor to John Cage's 4'33", 20 years earlier

As New Sounds celebrates composer John Cage's 100th birthday, we at the WNYC archives add our own, irreverent archival item to the celebration: a WMCA News Parade program with an eerie premonition of John Cage's famous "silent" piece, 4'33".

In this amusing episode, opera singer Maria Jeritza is sued by a young, loopy Viennese composer over an opera… without notes or words. Choice quotes:

COMPOSER: Wait, I open the piano and I play you the main theme from my opera.

JERITZA: Fine [pause]. Well, I don’t hear anything!

COMPOSER: Of course not, Madame! You are not supposed to hear anything!

[. . .]

JERITZA: Aren’t there any notes to your music?

COMPOSER: Of course not Madame!. . . There are no notes! There is not even any music! . . . See how wonderful this is: Everyone will be surprised: The singers, the audience, and so am I. Think of the idea, Madame: how different! Madame, it’s—it’s—colossal!

Not much is known about The News Parade, a weekly program in the newsreel style popular at the time, in which news items were re-created using actors (since portable recording was still in its infancy). But is the original event a true story? It is hard to tell. Later in the broadcast, the young composer is identified as Max [von] Oberleithner (1868-1935), which is likely incorrect since Oberleithner had a good relationship with Dame Jeritza, having dedicated  his breakthrough piece, Aphrodite, to her; besides, in 1932 Oberleithner was hardly a young composer. But the story may not be entirely apocryphal, since Jeritza is known to have been “frequently in an Austrian court suing an author or a publishing company.” (1)

While this broadcast is hardly the first reference to a musical silent piece (French humorist Alphones Alaïs' 1897 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man (2) and Erwin Schulhoff's 1919 In Futurum handily predate it), it is significant in that John Cage would have been 20 when this was broadcast. Cage quotes an anechoic chamber at Harvard University as the inspiration for his famous piece, but could he have heard this 1932 broadcast and been at least subliminally influenced? We will probably never know.

Do you have information about The News Parade? We would love to hear it.

 

 

(1) Burstyn, Joan N., ed. Past and Promise: Lives of NJ Women, p.330. (Syracuse, N.Y. : Syracuse University Press, 1997)

(2) It is also interesting to note how some breakthrough trends in Western classical music often appear as "musical jokes" earlier in history.