Ben Johnston String Quartets

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Ben Johnston String Quartets

Post by diegobueno » Mon Aug 26, 2019 6:37 pm

It’s a shame it took the recent death of Ben Johnston to goad me into listening to his celebrated series of string quartets, but I must say I’m not the only one. In fact discs of the Kepler Quartet’s Ben Johnston cycle have been a little bit hard to get ahold of. I now have two discs of the three disc cycle and have listened to 1-5, and 9-10. The disc containing 6-8 was temporarily unavailable, but I will get to it.

The thing that makes Johnston’s music distinctive is his use of microtones. He uses them in 9 of his 10 quartets. He was inspired by the example of Harry Partch, and actually played in Partch’s ensemble for a while. The 10 string quartets were written between 1959 and 1995.

Quartets no. 1-3 are basically the usual post-war atonal stuff, and so are of limited interest to me. Things get interesting with no. 4, which is based on the folk song “Amazing Grace”. No. 5 is also based on a folk song, “Lonesome Valley”. No. 9 and 10 are neo-classical works, with clear forms (including exposition repeats and section repeats in the scherzos) and clear tonality, except for the enrichment of microtones. The microtones seem structural, rather than decorative. I have no idea of just what microtonal tuning or harmonic scheme is being used, but the microtones sound right, as if they were deliberately put there and accurately delivered by the Kepler Quartet.

I recently saw a meme that reads “Hard-Harder-Ben Johnston”. That about sums it up. I listen repeatedly to the scherzo of no. 9 and the finale of no. 10, but no. 10 is a good introduction for the uninitiated. The finale sounds like early music. It starts out like a medieval dance. Within a couple minutes it’s advanced a few centuries, maybe like 17th century divisions on a ground. The lines transform themselves in such a way that the tune “Danny Boy” emerges effortlessly from the counterpoint.

The use of semitones can serve to make the consonant intervals very pure, as in the “Amazing Grace” quartet, or to give the dissonant intervals greater crunch, as in the “Lonesome Valley” quartet. I have found myself being greatly impressed and moved by the Quartet no. 5, the “Lonesome Valley” quartet. This happens to be the one with the harshest, most in-your-face use of dissonant microtonal harmony. The song is about the valley of the shadow of death. No one can go there with you, you have to go through it on your own. The last 3 minutes or so of this quartet, with the final formulation of the Lonesome Valley song, is the most touching, most transcendent passage in all of the 10 quartets. I can see Johnston sitting in the afterlife, playing this for Charles Ives. Ives has a radiant smile on his face. He pats Johnston on the back and says “You done well, son, you done well”.

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Re: Ben Johnston String Quartets

Post by some guy » Tue Aug 27, 2019 2:59 am

I never liked any of the Johnston music I heard when I was young.

But one of my dearest friends was a student of Johnston's and constantly praises him.

And now this.

OK. Ben Johnston it is then. After all, liking more things is better than liking fewer things....

Thanks, diegobueno. :D
"The public has got to stay in touch with the music of its time . . . for otherwise people will gradually come to mistrust music claimed to be the best."
--Viennese critic (1843)

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--Henry Miller

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