“I Don’t Like Being Great”

John Cage’s early letters to Merce Cunningham.

By John Cage

Thursday, June 16, 2016

John Cage’s letters to Merce Cunningham, found among Cunningham’s personal papers shortly after his death in 2009, will be revelatory for many. While the relationship between Cage and Cunningham—both romantic and artistic—is well known, it has never been entirely clear how it began.

The two first met at the Cornish School in Seattle in the late 1930s. Cunningham enrolled as a student in 1937, first in the theater department, then in dance; Cage joined the faculty the next year, often serving as piano accompanist for the classes Cunningham attended. Cage was twenty-six years old to Cunningham’s nineteen, and at Cornish their relationship was purely that of teacher and student. Decades later Cunningham would remember Cage as serious, even formidable, and very much married, to the artist Xenia Cage. He also recalled that many of the students referred to Cage not by name but as “the strikingly handsome new man in the red sweater.”

Cunningham left the Cornish School in 1939 to join Martha Graham’s dance troupe in New York. Two years later, the Cages also headed east, stopping for a year in Chicago, where Cage had accepted an invitation from László Moholy-Nagy to teach at the School of Design. It was in Chicago that Cunningham and Cage met again. Martha Graham and Dance Company gave a program at the Civic Opera House on March 14, 1942, in which Cunningham was featured. Cage’s first letter is dated a week later, newsy in tone and brimming with enthusiasm for the young dancer. “Nobody recognizes Nijinsky when they see him,” he wrote, softening his report on what were mostly tepid local reviews.

In the letters that followed—eleven in all, spanning a little more than two years—Cage shows himself to be a man who has fallen deeply in love. His letters are passionate, distraught, talkative, romantic, and confused, and occasionally contain snippets of poetry and song. At the same time, these are far more than love letters, since we see intimations of all manner of things that resonate with our experience of the later John Cage: his penchant for making strong and important associations, his contemplative musings on the purpose of music and the possibilities in composition, his warm and playful humor, his energetic engagement with community, his inventive use of both form and language, and even his devotion to Erik Satie.
—Laura Kuhn


In Cage’s first letter to Cunningham, his enthusiasm for the young dancer is clear. Martha Graham and Dance Company, of which Cunningham was a member, had performed at Chicago’s Civic Opera House the week before in a program that included the premiere of Graham’s Land Be Bright, with music by Arthur Kreutz and sets and costumes by Charlotte Trowbridge. Cunningham performed the role of the Yankee Orator, Erick Hawkins the role of the Indian Chingachgook, and Graham herself the role of Betsy Ross. From the start Cage is a champion of Cunningham’s work, and he speaks here of his conversations on Cunningham’s behalf with a new friend, Rue Shaw, president of the prestigious Chicago Arts Club.

Undated, postmarked March 21, 1942 | 323 East Cermak Road, Chicago

Dear Merce:

This is very tardy in comparison with telegrams, menus, etc. It is because we were completely sad that the reviews were impossible to send. Bulliet hated it. Smith stayed only for the first dance, didn’t like it. And nobody liked it who got into print. It wasn’t the truth, but we couldn’t send reviews. If you still want them, let us know again, and we will blindfold ourselves.

Martha’s new dance seemed very good to me, although it was obviously ballet form, war-horse form; but I enjoyed it. One thing, the space of that stage is magnificent. And you were marvelous, and it was good to see the group moving around. Nobody liked Eric[k]. I was overjoyed that the audience was so spontaneous every time you left the stage. And I was amazed that the reviews didn’t headline your work. But they didn’t. Nobody recognizes Nijinsky when they see him.

About Arts Club: Rue Shaw says that you have to have concerts someplace else before she can give one at the Club. She is crazy about your work and felt rotten saying that, but that’s what the conclusion was. Please don’t be discouraged. I told her that you felt the same way about New York, that you wanted to do someplace else first. Bennington should be that possibility. Plus perhaps (I don’t know anything about it) Yale Theatre, someplace in colleges: Cornell, Harvard. Rue also said: I wish when Merce starts with Jean that their music is not piano music because everybody no longer likes typical dance concert music. One more piano is only doubling the error. It was better when Louis had snare, wind and percussion and dance deal. What do you think? Giving it later in NY. Of course my fear is that people are anxious to say that our music is not enough by itself and must have dance, but I would not feel that way with you and Jean. At any rate work hard and we’ll see you in June. If the radio thing goes through here, I’ll let you know when and if possible maybe you’ll play in it. 

Cunningham earned very little money, so Cage invited him to work with him on projects he was doing for his father, the inventor John Milton Cage Sr. At the time, this involved translating medical articles by Spanish physicians—which is curious, as Cunningham was never known to be fluent in Spanish. Cunningham was often on the road, and Cage instructs him to reply in care of the Academy of Music Library, a movie theater named for the opera house once situated across the street at East 14th Street and Irving Place. The Cages had moved to New York, still very much married, and the blossoming relationship between the two men was initially clandestine.

Undated, postmarked June 28, 1943 | New York

Dear Merce:

Saturday night nearly went crazy, because, not solving my problems until they occur, I very suddenly realized you were gone. Fly away with you but was in a zoo.

Sunday, interested? Woke up in time to see you, worried whether you had taxi fund, etc. but was helpless; went through hottest day of y[ea]r in and out of bath tub. A parade went under the window (a real one) with something like 5 percussion bands, one of them made of black people played beautifully; it must have been a chinoiserie about your having gone away.

I don’t know when it was that I found out how to let this month go by without continual sentimental pain. It’s very simple now, because I’m looking forward to seeing you again rather than backward to having seen you recently. That’s a happy way to be.

Another thing: I’m going to look at studios for you, not that I’m doing something you probably want to do yourself, but it will be good to give you a list, descriptions, etc., and then you’ll know that such and such exists. I’ve gathered that you want to be uptown.

By Friday or so you should get new article to translate, which is long and will be very remunerative.

I say I’m unsentimental but I’m sitting at one of our tables and looking in a mirror where you often were.

We had a card this morning from the Patchens who are at Mt. Pleasant for the summer (!).

Please try writing to the Academy of M. care of the Library.

I don’t know: this gravity elastic feeling to let go and fall together with you is one thing, but it is better to live exactly where you are with as many permanent emotions in you as you can muster. Talking to myself.

Your spirit is with me. Did you send it or do I just have it? 

“Enigma and his little friend” is Cage’s playful reference to his and Cunningham’s penises. “Enigma” refers to that of Cunningham, while “His little friend” refers to Cage’s own.

Undated, postmarked June 29, 1943 | No location indicated

Rain finally came + it’s beautifully cool. Wonder how long it will last. It was marvelous because it started suddenly and then was alternately terrific and gentle.

I think of you all the time and therefor have little to say that would not embarrass you, for instance my first feeling about the rain was that it was like you.

Yesterday, with no success, I looked for a studio for you, found one that was useless for $125.00.

Otherwise the day was spent packing instruments, and studying the corporate structure of non-profit organizations, so that the Natl. Inst. for Biochem-Research would get under way legally. God knows why they didn’t employ a lawyer.

This morning rode elegant us-bus to Academy. Thought about enigma and his little friend.

Someday maybe instead of writing I’ll send you a present. I hope you’re having a beautiful time. Love you. 

The Martha Graham Company was in residence at Bennington College throughout much of 1943, hence Cage gives Cunningham a bit of advice on how to deal with academics. Also note Cage’s catty “Horror news” about Welland Lathrop (1905–1981), an American dancer and choreographer who from 1930 to 1934 was resident at the Cornish School. Lastly, Cage’s remark “Every now + then the past smiles at me” is a reference to his own “prepared piano,” developed while he was at the Cornish School himself. He first made use of it in his Bacchanale (1940), which accompanied a dance by fellow faculty member Syvilla Fort, who had requested a work with an African “inflection.” Cage had intended to write for percussion ensemble. However, because the performance space was small and he had only a grand piano with which to work, Cage began experimenting with objects placed inside the instrument—under and between its strings—in an effort to alter its sounds. The rest, as they say, is history. Cage’s magnum opus for the prepared piano, Sonatas & Interludes (1946–1948), would receive citations from both the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Academy of Arts and Letters.

Undated, postmarked July 2, 1943 | 550 Hudson Street, New York


Very exciting to get your spirit letter no questions asked (we have a post office). I am this day sending long forty to 50 dollar article which I hope won’t be travail to translate. At least you will get to know 3 more of your South American brothers.

When they (Benn[ington] Folk) get too intellectual, “answer them only with” art. Horror news: W. Lathrop has been subsidized by private individ. to go look at S.W. Indians and then when return to N.Y. occurs will be subsid. to nauseate us via theatre. Saw him in proper place: subway.

The weather here now is magical. Cool and sunny, it’s like San Francisco.

I get terribly lonesome for you. Had a note from Renata who is in Colorado looking at MTS [mountains]; she wants to see more of us and play percussion.

Sent my score to be published actually never thought that would occur. Made added note in it to arouse creative spirit in this land: “Determine size and position of mutes by experiment.” Read an article about “Sordino” in a musical dict., which came to conclusion that a plain penny put between violin strings is better than fancy mute. Every now + then the past smiles at me.

Today I have to trace graphs about the male hormone.

I stop doing that every now and then + read your letter over again.

Please don’t let intellectual art discussions intimidate you. They are only talking about art or loving it or God knows what, but you are it. You’re a visitation and any one who has a chance to be near you is damned fortunate. It’s like the stories of people talking about God or Christ + he is Incognito among them.

I nearly left this earth a few minutes ago—ecstasy—word from you. Pretty soon I’ll write music for you. 

Cage’s dissatisfaction with Euterpe, the Greek muse of music, prompted his later adoption of Calliope, the muse presiding over eloquence and epic poetry—and, according to Ovid, the “chief of all muses.” Cunningham’s muse was, of course, Terpsichore, her name deriving from the Greek words “delight” and “dance.”

Undated, postmarked July 20, 1943 | 550 Hudson Street, New York

Letter came this morning: going to sea and sun will be marvelous, but please be lonesome enough to come back in not too distant time; I couldn’t help thinking how magic it would be to meet you some place on cliff or sand, but problems of communication and my own allergy to summer-nature mock romanticism.

No new word from Indian.

Martha’s dance sounds like maybe beauty. I hope it remains in intimacy; if it is tortured there, I can worship; but if it gets to “heights of frustration greatness,” would have difficulty.

I’ve found out that my muse’s name is Euterpe. This does not incline me farther in direction of the art.

I hope I’m right in thinking you rec’d. 2nd money order for long article. No mention in letter. I have new translation and will check for it next Friday or Saturday. If you want money mailed to sea-shore place, let me know. ($13.25)

Rudy Reviel has arranged a meeting for me with man who runs Blue Angel. La Touche is back from Congo and persuaded B.A. that I should be attraction there. At first thought it would be all right, but since have changed my mind: I am so completely on fringe of acceptability that such an action would remove what of doubt remains in bourgeois heads. Cannot discuss this with Euterpe since we do not get on together; would prefer to discuss it with you.

I love you and often think of fancy reasons why: spirit is very close to me and mine, I sent it, close to you.

Have Buenos tiempos y coloratura benefices y comprobar natura.

Translation was much better this time and easier to get into shape.

There is one more to be done, but no time to get Photostats, etc., before you leave (besides you’re probably sick of Spanish medical language).

My whole desire is to run up and down the sea coast looking for you.


While undated, this letter is synchronous with Xenia’s decision to leave her husband, moving in late February 1944 out of the Hudson Street apartment they shared in New York and back, if briefly, to Peggy Guggenheim’s mansion on Beekman Place. She never returned, and the two would divorce in 1945. From all accounts, Xenia was permissive about sex; Cage was, after all, involved with another man, Don Sample, at the time of their engagement. But something about her husband’s affair with Cunningham had become for her irreconcilable.

This note, contained in a very small envelope, without postmark, is fragile and has been cut up into small pieces, some of which, folded, have over time broken in two. The fragments, comprising everything extant, have been pieced together. 

Undated, 1944

i am in a world you make with recherches: and the leaf is suspended by a pin near the little wooden saint. these things mean very much to me; but i think it is not to my credit that they do. i am beginning to think that the reason i “give so much” is that i am so poor in spirit, hoping through leaning on every little gesture, thought, word, and mood of other to get my empty spaces filled. so my giving is really demanding. where shall i go and what shall i do: read a book? how to benefit by what can be said by oneself!

not being spontaneous and relaxed about natural things, i get ideas about people connected with art, fashion little pedestals, love them and bring the public in. a rather disgusting scene.

i love you always.

xenia went all alone.


i am in a muddled state.

calliope calls.

soul-searching; i did it once before, about 12 years ago. i’m not very good at it.

louis and satie at breakfast, what did that mean? 

“Portrait of Erik Satie,” by Suzanne Valadon, 1893. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.

Cage’s devotion to the work of the French composer Erik Satie, captured so beautifully here, would express itself variously throughout his life. Soon after writing this letter, he would undertake an arrangement for solo piano of Socrate, to which Cunningham would contribute a choreographic aspect titled Idyllic Song. Their work was presented as part of their first out-of-town performance in Richmond, Virginia, on November 18, 1944. Cage also refers to two other compositions of the period: Four Walls (1944) for solo piano and voice, for which Cunningham would write a text, “Sweet love my throat is gurgling,” and The Perilous Night (1943–44) for solo prepared piano, an uncharacteristically dramatic work that reflects the conflicting emotions Cage was experiencing at the time. It is interesting to note that The Perilous Night is one of very few of Cage’s early pieces that would not be paired with a dance by Cunningham.

Undated, postmarked July 3, 1944 | No location indicated

your letters i just plain love: they bring you so close that at any moment i expect the door will open and you will see me camouflaged in enigmatic home, built on shoes you made.

i went away for week-end; but you will be disappointed to know it was to Buchanan’s in New Jersey plus Virgil [Thomson]. However, it was quite pleasant, and everything was taken easily. There were not many bugs; it was cool; there were two yelling children, but on the whole well-behaved, and Virgil was in kind style. Drinks, swimming, damn good food; but best of all was the music and talks about music. Virgil had brought out one of the rare copies of Satie’s Socrate, and we must have played and sung it six times. I know now many things wrong with Four Walls musically, basic of all being that i made too much expressiveness via melody-means. Some time i [will] make better music for you. Socrate is an incredibly beautiful work. There is no expression in the music or in the words, and the result is that it is overpoweringly expressive. The melody is simply an atmosphere which floats. The accompaniment is a continuous juxtaposition of square simplicities. But the combination is of such grace! Three pieces: the first is after a banquet, and Socrates is merely introduced by a little speech which rather completely avoids any profundity. The second piece is in the country, and Socrates and his companion talk about the history of the spot and how delightful the air and grass is, and there is a slight suggestion that following the conversation they lie down together on the grass. The third piece is a report of the death of Socrates, little things he said, little things the jailer said, how it was when he drank the poison and only at the very end is it finally said that he was “the most just, etc. great of men.” Sometimes I played it while Virgil tortured the air with song; mostly, however, he preferred to both play and sing, while I turned pages. We also went thru Four Saints, Filling Station, a piano sonata, a good deal of Mozart; and one evening The Perilous Night. Virgil went into ecstasy which will not get into print. I am genius, and everything i write is fine he says and he says related to great things, etc. I cannot remember it all. Who cares?

Country was beautiful, and lying on the grass so that i could sometimes see the net a tree is against the sky or turning make a space for eyes between two trees and watch bird-movements across and in it. Beautiful daisies and a jungle of tiger lilies. Multitudinous lakes and canoes. I could tell how distinctly happy you would be in country wherever; and i really need not be with you for me or for you, because there was facility in inventing your presence and knowing that just then you were merely not visible or not audible. 

This letter is short and sweet, albeit hinting at the continuation of Cage’s disquieted state. During the warm New York summers, Cage spent a lot of time in air-conditioned movie theaters. He refers here to having recently seen Kings Row (1942), directed by Sam Wood and starring Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, and Ronald Reagan.

Undated, postmarked July 12, 1944 | 12 East 17th Street, New York

au prince delicieux.

your last letter is so beautiful i cannot answer it, only read it and lie on it.

music going beautifully, peace and fluently; i will hear it again tomorrow, but this time with fizdale because he senses phrase which gearhart does not know.

saw king’s row which is very fine. went to amagansett and ny coktail group. swam in ocean and now have night-itchy sunburn. bicycled all over small hills.

i have two movements finished: seven to go; i think i have not written so well before. heard berg’s violin concerto reading score as record played at lou’s. it is very beautiful except when it gets chewingummy re intervals (da da da de; da da da do).

Did you meet the Cages in Denver?

bell sounds will enter now with crossing of the hands; utter grace is the goal.

the heat is not too bad and besides I live in the nude;

do beauty work (another secret: inexpressivity)

i am often in deep pain; i am afraid i am not human being

i talk to you all day long but when i start to write i cannot 

Merce Cunningham and John Cage perform “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run,” April 13, 1971. University Musical Society.

This letter is almost entirely about Cage’s work on A Book of Music (1944) for two prepared pianos, and it tells us much about his developing compositional ideas. A Book of Music would receive its first performance at the New School for Social Research in New York by Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold on January 21, 1945. While Cage would in time compose works for countless musicians, this was likely his first commission from professional performers.

Undated, postmarked July 20, 1944 | 12 East 17th Street, New York


my muse fluidity continued and 4 movements are finished; last night i was able to hear 3rd and 4th movements; i had thought to copy 3rd movement yesterday, but I woke up so early that I was here by seven and it was a beautiful day so i wrote the 4th movement which got finished around two o’clock; and then i had both pieces to copy so as to be able to hear them, did that, had dinner, beginning to get jittery that they wouldn’t “sound,” bought some brandy and went to hear them. And thank God and Calliope, they are marvelous. All four hold together like one big movement and it is beautiful. The part i wrote to you about: the faster part: is fantastic. It is like a scherzo in paradise. Instead of writing hymn for wild church, I went back to original tempo and really continued second movement in more passionate vein. please hear it. i have been lucky and i am grateful. i had the most curious experiences writing the 4th piece which came so quickly: everything simply happened: phrases wrote themselves, ignored, seemingly, my “phrase structure” and then turned out to be on “phrase structure” side after all, making everything clear but passionate. i drank too much brandy after i found out the music was right, and i don’t feel very good today, although i will probably start next part. So far, piece is a little over 13 minutes. That is approximately length of Perilous Night: except this music holds together and is played without a break, but really it never is boring because it is always having new things happening. Have a new idea now upon which deliberation and dreaming must center: to make next part prestissimo (out of my range of execution) so that speed will enter for the spirit. i have never really written any fast, really fast, music, and i think i will do it: these unresonant sounds will take to it like water because they do not muddy each other. I am leaning towards the side of giving plain title like “Sonata for two pianos.” That would involve me in tempo titles for movements: andante, etc., of which i would not be too pleased…haven’t heard from you for long week, except via spirit, which is what sustains me. will probably send little gift soon. the nights are no longer perilous, having moved into area of being terrifying. as darkness comes, i lose mind with loneliness and must work or go to movie to bring about utter fatigue which protects…i hope you love it there and have some beauty one to love…and i hope Four Walls is going well and that you are spirit-full…what need to wish?…you are strong…love you 

This letter gives some idea of the breadth of Cage’s associations at the time: Schuyler Chapin (1923–2009), the impresario and producer who became vice president of Lincoln Center and then general manager of the Metropolitan Opera; the set designer Oliver Smith (1918–1994); Jerome Robbins (1918–1998), the theater producer, director, and choreographer who would go on to receive five Tony and two Academy Awards; and Edwin Denby (1903–1993), the dance critic both Cage and Cunningham considered to be the finest of his time. He also references Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson’s newly published A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork. In short order, Joyce would join Satie as one of Cage’s idols. Note, too, that Cage mentions here his adopted muse, Calliope, who, he coyly tells Cunningham, “is not female, and looks exactly like you.”

The letter is intentionally cut in various places, and it is also typewritten on the page both horizontally and vertically, as indicated below.

Undated, postmarked July 22, 1944 | 12 East 17th Street, New York

[horizontal] today is beautiful and i am dreaming of you and enigma and how we are together today: your words in my ears making [me] limp and taut by turns with delight. oh, i am sure we could use each other today.

i like to believe that you are writing my music now: god knows i’m not doing it, because it simply seems to happen. the prestissimo is incredible the way you are and is perhaps a description and song about you.

banalities: blue check arrived and dv et Helmsley got theirs; i am afflicted with bills of all description, but do not seem to be able to be sensible about money. passed by clyde’s yesterday with their socks; they look beautiful. had, for a change, a pleasant time with Schuyler; he informs me that Oliver who called the other day and wanted to know whether you could hold a tune and what kind of voice you had, with Robbins, has you in mind for the lead of their dance-musical; it doesn’t mean you have to sing like galli-curci, but like American sailor[s] sing (and see stripes au meme temps?)

there is apparently a part in the book where you would go through a tunnel of love and everyone thinks you would do it very well: so do i, please go through mine, taking your time, if you will.

also schuyler had evening with virgil and v.t. now says i am ultra-genius, having seen some of 2 piano work, and that i am on a par with picasso, schoenberg, stravinsky, satie, matisse, cezanne, van gogh etc. ad nauseum: schuyler now thinks virgil had good reasons for not reviewing other concerts, will blare next one to skies, that his review of it is really already written, that he has been making careful decisions about what to say etc. i don’t like being great. it’s not good for my relation with calliope, who by the way, is not female, and looks exactly like you.

pardon the intrusion: but when in september will you be back? i would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us.

[vertical] in one letter i said absurd things about inexpressivity; obviously wrong, but what i meant was that high expressivity often comes about through no attempt to make it or to express anything. had dinner one night with denby; i think he’s a sad little man who’s frightened of something. read his poetry which has some good qualities, but is by no means off this earth. i keep reading marvelous myths in joe’s book, but joe, too, is not really fine fine writer. of course, this is first draft i have and he will probably improve it. would you like me to send copy of finnegan book which is out now or would you rather save that for home-reading?

need you deliciously.

gas bill came but is nothing; do not worry about it.

prestissimo will be complex at first, then simple then complex and then faster yet to end entire piece which should be finished in two weeks, because have more things to write; i am so happy with this music that i shall be sad when it is all written. each sound has gotten to be friendly and something i know and have pleasure with; they are so well trained, too.

send me some little twig or a hair from near enigma or a piece of grass you touched and sunbathed with, mon prince. 

Two more references to what Cage was reading at the time appear here, including a special edition of Kenyon Review (1944) celebrating the centenary of the English poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889). This issue also contained an article by a young Canadian English professor named Marshall McLuhan titled “The Analogical Mirrors.” McLuhan was unknown to Cage in 1944, but after becoming an internationally recognized media theorist some twenty years later, he would greatly influence the composer’s thinking.

Undated, postmarked August 17, 1944 | 12 East 17th Street, New York


Curious problem I have with words (I was not born an Irishman as you): tonight I wd. love to write an essay about music—it seems to me I know some things tonight—but good God! For hours with pencil in hand + only one stupid sentence. Who tied my tongue + stopped the spirit for words?

Maybe I can tell you what vision I have: rhythm is like the air or water or the ether that the planets move in,—it is in fact like space, and the whole problem in writing notes or making movements, etc., is to not destroy it. It has not the slightest thing to do with anything that is put into it: an accent or a metre or what else; it only begs to be free to be.

Does that mean anything?

The other thing I have idea about is tones (pitches): they least kill the spirit when they arrange themselves for the most part in scales or scale-like structures. So used they evoke + are magic. If jumps in the scale are used, one must soon reestablish scale or magic is gone, + petty sentiment rules. Proofs by way of example from graved-past. Debussy, Schoenberg, Bach, Mozart, Palestrina, Hindus. I will have to talk about this because I can’t sitting alone see all the angles.

I am resting from composing by doing copying (of which have great deal to do); still have 7 minutes to write. I bought a beautiful copy of Kenyon Review (Summer issue) which has many articles about G.M. Hopkins in it and a beautiful article about economics + Adams’ Law of Civilization + Decay.

Great lightning + thunder + rain tried to remove horror-heat but failed.

When are we going to be together?

The Nameless One


Letters excerpted from The Selected Letters of John Cage, edited by Laura Kuhn, with permission of the publisher, Wesleyan University Press. Copyright © 2016 by John Cage Trust. Introductory texts by Laura Kuhn.