It was oft discussed in FYS and continues to be referenced in conversation, but I do not think that it was ever written in this blog what Cage meant when he said that "Beethoven was wrong." And so I thought I'd take the time to explain this statement in context and to record here what was being said when Cage uttered these fightn' words.
In the 1930s, Cage had studied with the Austro-Hungarian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who had settled in Los Angeles in 1933. It was during this time that Cage discovered his lack of aptitude for harmony and after two years of study, Schoenberg also saw this. Harmony, maintained Schoenberg, is an essential for writing music, an obstacle which Cage would always encounter if he continued to compose. If it were true that Cage had no feeling for harmony, as he so claimed, then, said Schoenberg, it would "become a wall through which [he] could not pass." In response to this, Cage recalled saying, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall."
In his battle against harmony, Cage was not alone, finding two allies in the French composer Erik Satie and Anton Webern, a former student of Schoenberg's. It was after studying the works of these two men, Cage came to mount his attack on Beethoven. Cage reasoned that, in the field of structure, there has been only one new idea since Beethoven and this new idea was what Cage saw in the works of Satie and Webern. Beethoven defined the parts of a composition by means of harmony (already we see why Cage would develop a sort of vendetta with the man). In contrast, Satie and Webern define the parts of a composition by use of duration, time lengths. To this divergence in compositional relation of parts to the whole, Cage pose the question, who is right? He also provided an answer:
" I answer immediately and unequivocally, Beethoven was in error, and his influence. which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music."
One wouldn't be alone in questioning whether such a statement were simply a way for Cage to get around the issue of his personal handicap with regards to harmony, but even if this were so, Cage uses logic to back up such an antagonizing statement. As he saw it, regarding music in terms of harmony left no room for silence. If one considers that silence is the opposite of sound, it is therefore, sound's essential partner. Sound is characterised by pitch, volume, timbre and duration. Silence, however, can be characterized by duration only and cannot be heard in terms of pitch or harmony, but only in terms of length. And, I mean, who can argue silence's necessity to music? We even write notes for rests.
All this considered, Cage was drawn to the conclusion that of the four fundamental characteristics of the material of music, duration was most important... and that Beethoven is wrong.