Saturday, September 18, 2021

For this historic week, Amazing Grace


The week started with the total solar eclipse on Monday and ended with another show of nature’s awesome power, this time to destroy, as Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the South Texas coast as a Category 4 storm Friday night.

Ben Johnston, who was once my composition teacher at the University of Illinois, Urbana (he gave me an “A”), arranged the hymn “Amazing Grace” for string quartet as his String Quartet No 4, back in 1973. That was before I worked with him, but his tradition of just intonation continued throughout his career.

The above performance by the Denali Quartet isn’t even the official recording of this work. But you can hear how Johnston adjusted the pitch of notes in harmonies so that those pitches tie directly to the mathematical proportions of the intervals, rather than to a well-tempered intonation.

The musicians present the hymn at first in a folk-like fashion (the overall structure of the work is a theme and variations). While the just intonation may not be as apparent in the theme, the variations that follow explode with harmonies unlike those you may have ever heard. Such was the eclipse for me and many others in the US who had never seen one before.

In addition to the harmonic depth, the piece brings a rhythmic complexity that is also steeped in mathematics, and Johnston has a firm place in my memory as one of this nation’s greatest composers.

The theme struggles to reprise at the end, but its return is as triumphant and rare a sound as the eclipse was a sight or the hurricane was a storm.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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