Music for closed piano

John Cage’s 1942 work The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs was composed for one singer and one piano… with the lid closed.

David Han from Sydney, Australia / CC BY-SA

John Cage is probably most famous for his experimental work 4’33”: four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, in which the audience can appreciate all of the ambient sounds that make up the “music” of the rest of the world.

Ten years before that landmark, Cage composed The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs. He based it on the following line from James Joyce’s experimental work Finnegans Wake:

…Easter mornings when she wore a wreath, the wonderful widow of eighteen springs, Madame Isa Veuve La Belle, so sad but lucksome in her boyblue’s long black with orange blossoming weeper’s veil) for she was the only girl they loved, as she is the queenly pearl you prize, because of the way the night that first we met she is bound to be, methinks, and not in vain, the darling of my heart…

(Hey, I told you it was experimental.)

So how do you play a closed piano? The pianist is supposed to hit different parts of the piano’s surface with their fingers and knuckles. The piano becomes a solid surface to be drummed while the singer sings.

It was rather ingenious how Cage represented this on the sheet music. The notes on the stave correspond to four parts of the closed piano: the top, the upper part of the keyboard lid, the lower part of the keyboard lid, and the underside of the piano. A regular note indicates finger percussion, and a “ghost” note indicates knuckles. I’ve included a link to that sheet music below, plus a video of a performance.


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