Quartet #4 (Amazing Grace)


Program Note

This single movement string quartet is a heart-rendingly beautiful microtonal setting of the well-known melody Amazing Grace, the words for which were written by John Newton (1725-1807), captain of the slave ship “The Absolute,” who, guilt-ridden, eventually repented for his nine journeys to Africa and wrote the poem entitled “Faith’s Review and Expectation.” The melody was added thirty years later from an early American folk song called Loving Lambs, and both words and music were published under the new title in The Virginia Harmony, compiled by James P. Carrell and David S. Clayton, published in 1831 in Winchester, VA. Johnston’s Quartet No. 4 seems to bring out the mysterious karma of this tune’s history (although no programme is intended by the composer).

The quartet begins with a simple statement of the melody with undulating accompaniment parts, followed by a fuller arrangement with slight figurations on the tune. A more rhythmically complex variation with falling lines is next. A blues scale tinged variation follows which then breaks into joyous and wide-ranging rhapsodic playing. The feeling becomes more intimate and mysterious with more microtonal inflections. A strangely harmonized hymn comes forward until rushing patterns in contrasting rhythmic complexes are stated under the theme played by a solo string sounding almost like a wood flute. The rushing slows and is stretched into wildly rhapsodic lines of dramatic lyricism which eventually return for a brief re-statement of the pensive, noble mood (without restating the theme).


About Ben Johnston

American composer of mostly stage, chamber, choral, and vocal works that have been performed throughout the world. He is widely recognized for generalizing Harry Partch’s system of Just Intonation (proportional…