This article explores the early collaborations of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, in which music and dance were united structurally and in expressive intent. Drawing on unexamined archival materials, I begin by highlighting the thematic content of the earliest Cage-Cunningham collaborations, Credo in Us (1942) and Four Walls (1944), of Cunningham's (rather than Martha Graham's) choreography for the Revivalist's solo in Appalachian Spring (1944), and of Cage's The Perilous Night (1943–44), premiered at the couple's debut concert. These works all portray a conflict between sexual desire and social conformity through marriage, a theme of pressing import as Cage left his wife to become Cunningham's partner. I then elucidate the programmatic nature of the first and last works that Cunningham choreographed to the music of Satie, Idyllic Song (1944) and Second Hand (1970), both of which use Cage's arrangements for piano of Satie's Socrate. Placing Cunningham's personal choreographic notes in dialogue with my own observation of rehearsals and performances, I suggest that Second Hand dramatizes not only the Socratic texts set in Satie's score but also the couple's relationship and their earlier dependence on and subsequent rejection of personal expression, a rejection that heightened their status within the postwar avant-garde. Instead of dismissing the collaborations of the 1940s as “early” or “anomalous,” I suggest that they are fundamental to understanding how Cage and Cunningham's relationship prior to their de facto marriage led to one of the most productive divorces in the history of artistic collaboration.

You do not currently have access to this content.