Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4, “Amazing Grace”: The Kronos Quartet

American composer Ben Johnston (1926-2019) was a pioneer of just intonation (pure intervals tuned as whole number ratios) and microtonality (the use of intervals smaller than a half step). At the age of 17, following a concert of his music, Johnston gave an interview in which he predicted, “with the clarification of the scale which physics has given to music there will be new instruments with new tones and overtones.” He went on to study with American avant-garde composers Harry Partch and John Cage, as well as French modernist, Darius Milhaud. From 1951 until 1986, Johnston taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Composed in 1973, Ben Johnston’s Fourth String Quartet unfolds in a single movement which progresses through a collection of increasingly complex variations on the folk hymn, Amazing Grace. David Harrington, a founding member of the Kronos Quartet, notes that the work quotes Harry Partch’s Ancient Greek Scales for harmonic canon II and bass marimbaKyle Gann recalled his first meeting with Johnston at Oberlin College in 1976, writing,

Ben lectured and played a recording of his Fourth String Quartet, based on the song “Amazing Grace.” He was a Quaker-bearded, good-humored, gruff, not very talkative fellow, and there was a peculiar contradiction, I think we all sensed, in this composer who had invented his own pitch notation and 22-pitch scale and written a score nearly black with ink using all these crazy polyrhythms of 35 against 36 and 7 against 8, 9, and 10 – all at the service of an old folk song anyone’s grandmother could sing. Conservative versus avant-garde was how we divided the music world up at that time. Where the hell did this fit?

Don’t let “crazy polyrhythms” and microtonality scare you away from this piece. It is first and foremost warm, exhilarating, and soulful music by a composer the critic John Rockwell called “one of the best non-famous composers this country has to offer.”

The Kronos Quartet collaborated frequently with Ben Johnston. This recording of String Quartet No. 4, “Amazing Grace” comes from their 1987 album, White Man Sleeps:


  • Johnson: String Quartet No. 4, “Amazing Grace,” Kronos Quartet

Featured Image: Abingdon, Virginia, photograph by Curt Fleenor

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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