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The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

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The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs is a song
Song
In music, a song is a composition for voice or voices, performed by singing.A song may be accompanied by musical instruments, or it may be unaccompanied, as in the case of a cappella songs...

 for voice and closed piano
Piano
The piano is a musical instrument played by means of a keyboard. It is one of the most popular instruments in the world. Widely used in classical and jazz music for solo performances, ensemble use, chamber music and accompaniment, the piano is also very popular as an aid to composing and rehearsal...

 by John Cage
John Cage
John Milton Cage Jr. was an American composer, music theorist, writer, philosopher and artist. A pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde...

. It was composed in late 1942 and quickly became a minor classic in Cage's oeuvre. The text was a reworked version of a passage from James Joyce
James Joyce
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was an Irish novelist and poet, considered to be one of the most influential writers in the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century...

's Finnegans Wake
Finnegans Wake
Finnegans Wake is a novel by Irish author James Joyce, significant for its experimental style and resulting reputation as one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language. Written in Paris over a period of seventeen years, and published in 1939, two years before the author's...

.

General information


The song was commissioned by singer Janet Fairbank
Janet Fairbank
Janet Fairbank was an American operatic singer.She was the daughter of novelist and suffragette Janet Ayer Fairbank and Kellogg Fairbank, the son of industrialist N. K...

, who later became known for pioneering contemporary music. Cage chose to set a passage from page 556 of Finnegans Wake
Finnegans Wake
Finnegans Wake is a novel by Irish author James Joyce, significant for its experimental style and resulting reputation as one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language. Written in Paris over a period of seventeen years, and published in 1939, two years before the author's...

, a book he bought soon after its publication in 1939. The composition is based, according to Cage himself, on the impressions received from the passage. The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs marks the start of Cage's interest in Joyce and is the first piece among many in which he uses the writer's work.

The vocal line only uses three pitches
Pitch (music)
Pitch is an auditory perceptual property that allows the ordering of sounds on a frequency-related scale.Pitches are compared as "higher" and "lower" in the sense associated with musical melodies,...

, while the piano remains closed and the pianist produces sounds by hitting the lid or other parts of the instrument in a variety of ways (with his fingers, with his knuckles, etc.) Almost immediately after its composition the song became one of Cage's most frequently performed works, and was several times performed by the celebrated duo of Cathy Berberian
Cathy Berberian
Catherine Anahid Berberian was an American soprano and composer. She interpreted contemporary avant-garde music composed, among others, by Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna, John Cage, Henri Pousseur, Sylvano Bussotti, Darius Milhaud, Roman Haubenstock-Ramati , Igor Stravinsky.She also interpreted...

 and Luciano Berio
Luciano Berio
Luciano Berio, Cavaliere di Gran Croce OMRI was an Italian composer. He is noted for his experimental work and also for his pioneering work in electronic music.-Biography:Berio was born at Oneglia Luciano Berio, Cavaliere di Gran Croce OMRI (October 24, 1925 – May 27, 2003) was an Italian...

. Cage later composed another piece for voice and closed piano, A Flower
A Flower
A Flower is a song for voice and closed piano by John Cage. It was composed in 1950 for a choreography by Louise Lippold, wife of sculptor Richard Lippold. There is no text; the singer vocalises a small number of phonemes such as "uh", "wah", etc., without vibrato. Instructions given in the score...

, and a companion piece to The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, called Nowth upon Nacht
Nowth upon Nacht
Nowth upon Nacht is a song for voice and piano by John Cage. It was composed in 1984 in memoriam for Cathy Berberian, the celebrated soprano singer, wife of composer Luciano Berio....

, also based on Joyce's book.

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