Ben Johnston's String Quartet No. 4 (Amazing Grace)
Ben Johnston was born in 1926 and became famous in the second half of the 20th century for his modern compositions and use of microtonality. He worked with John Cage and Darius Milhaud, though arguably his greatest influence was Harry Partch, a pioneer in justly tuned microtonality. String Quartet No. 4 (Amazing Grace) is considered his most famous work, as he integrates his avant-garde style to one of America’s most beloved hymns.
The piece begins with the “Amazing Grace” melody along with counterpoint-like side melodies. The strings fit beautifully with this well-known hymn, and when the melody is raised an octave and ornamentation is added, the piece becomes even more endearing to its listeners. In the next variation, the piece becomes cute, as the melody and rhythm begin to evolve and the other strings echo. I especially enjoyed the playful plucking of the cello and the switch to a deeper sounding string ensemble. By its fourth repetition, “Amazing Grace” is flowing into a waterfall of new melodies and rhythms, and though the melody is nearly lost, listeners can still sense what they’re supposed to hearing. However, this feeling goes away by the seventh repetition, when Johnston eases into a minor-ish, jazzier section and the only hints of melody come from the evolving rhythms of previous sections. A new attacking variation soon begins and unique, mixed meters can be heard, along with new notes that sound bent or from a non-typical scale. The melody is completely forgotten and new, dramatic ideas continue to build until a new, polar variation presents itself. Now slow and sorrowful, the music begins to sound Eastern due to the new scales and tuning. However, the “Amazing Grace” melody is starting to show hints of life again. A sudden fury of oddly-tuned miniature steps begin to color the piece, reminding me of an angry beehive. Out of the dissonance suddenly shines the beautiful “Amazing Grace” melody, with the bees still chaotic in the background. Eventually a sense of finality begins to surface as the strings move to a higher register and some of the opening melodies re-emerge. Listeners are soothed as the disorder and microtones evaporate to allow beautiful tonality to take control of the piece. By the last variation, the listener is reminded of the quartet’s gorgeous opening and he or she can reflect on the journey it took to get back to the beautiful melody that Americans love so much.
The charming “Amazing Grace” melody makes this piece sound simple, though a glimpse of the score will prove its complexity. In the performance notes, Johnson tells performers to use three different tuning systems, including: Pythagorean tuning (based on fifths), triadic just intonation (based on fifths and major thirds), and a new form of just intonation using a seventh partial in the overtone series. These are notated in the score using symbols like pluses, minuses, upside-down 7s, and other accidentals. Rhythm is also horrendously complex due to unique time signatures such as 10/64 or 27/32 that are often occurring at the same time in different instruments. Johnston continually makes each variation more arduous by expanding both the number of pitches used and the rhythmic complexity, and this seems to be the purpose of the piece. Of course, to the listener, they barely hear any difference, but many performers will attest that this piece is one of the most difficult string quartets in the repertoire.
Using a melody that Americans know by heart, Johnston is able to be extremely creative with this work. Because I knew the hymn, I was able to follow Johnston’s work and “go for the ride,” as he threw me into new directions and played variations that tricked my ears. I appreciate how this piece challenges listeners to think about what they’re hearing, and how it uses a familiar tune to teach and explore modern music. I also thought Johnston did a remarkable job of creating different emotions with the Amazing Grace melody. While one variation may be charming and charismatic, the next may be stressed and conflicted. The moments of melody sounded remarkably beautiful due to the extreme dissonance usually preceding it. Also, the beautiful open fifths and flowing American folk melody reminded me of Aaron Copland, while the microtonal sections sounded like something Charles Ives would experiment with.
Though Johnston’s 4th String Quartet was fairly popular, it has lacked fame and inclusion into the canon for many reasons. In 1973, classical composers were losing an audience due to the appeal of popular music and resistance to modern music. The piece’s novel tuning also may have turned off many performers. An out-pouring of unique and experimental music defined the second half of the twentieth century, and may have been another reason for Amazing Grace’s exclusion. Composers were already exploring every area of music imaginable, so as more and more unique pieces were composed, each one begins to lose gravity and importance. The canon can distinguish only so many pieces, and with such an outpouring of creativity and borrowing of techniques and ideas, a piece like this can easily be overlooked. When scholars discuss tuning in modern music, the first names mentioned are Henry Cowell and Harry Partch, while Ben Johnston is often viewed as an extension of these creative pioneers. Though I believe he deserves his place in the western canon.
This work should be included in the canon because of its appeal to western listeners. Unlike other avant-garde pieces, this piece is viewed favorably by students because of its familiar melody and the beautiful variations Johnston experiments with. This piece has a lot of offer, as it demonstrates modern elements like microtonality and atonality, along with an interesting take on harmony, rhythm, American folk song, and even medieval, renaissance, and classical music concepts. The piece is less than forty years old but I feel it has enough beauty and universal elements to stand the test of time.
Gann, Kyle. American Music in the Twentieth Century. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997.
Shinn, Randall. “Ben Johnston’s Fourth String Quartet.” Perspectives of New Music 15, no. 2, 1977