Stephen Johnson sitting outside, smiling

Johnson's Quartet honours the masters

Tuesday 9 November 2021

Stephen Johnson has, until recently, been best known for writing about music. A frequent voice on BBC Radio 3, 4 and the World Service, his radio work includes Discovering Music, and various award-nominated documentaries on composers. .

His latest composition is String Quartet No.1, which receives its World Premiere at Warwick Arts Centre on Thu 11 Nov, performed by the renowned Brodsky Quartet. 

Here Stephen tells us more..

You've described Quartet No.1 as a tribute to Beethoven and Shostakovich - what is it about these two giants that you admire most, and what did you hear in their work (or see in their lives) that shaped No.1?

I love their intense, impassioned expression, but also how they are able to fuse this with gripping power of development - so gripping that the music seems to tell stories, even if we can’t find the exact words for what they tell us. And in their quartets in particular I think I can sense how both composers found the inner strength to survive the severe trials fo their very different lives. That’s been a great inspiration to me.

The Warwick performance will be its World Premiere! Excited? Nervous?  

Both! I’m very proud of this quartet, yet I’m aware that putting it beside Shostakovich and Beethoven might be asking for trouble. They’re hard acts to be sandwiched between. I’ll definitely be there though - trying to sit still and not bite my fingernails.

Was No.1 written with the Brodsky in mind?

Not at first. I discovered that it would be the Brodsky who would play it just as I was beginning the second movement, and I was thrilled. Their playing is absolutely the kind I would want for my music.

The Brodsky are absolutely front rank amongst British quartets. They combine power, precision and sheer class in a way few could rival.

The programme consists of your work framed between Shostakovich's Quartet No.7 and Beethoven's String Quartet No.15 - were these pieces chosen by yourself? How do they relate to your work?

I did choose them - possibly unwisely (I’m inviting frightening comparisons here). But they were both huge influences on my own quartet writing. The Shostakovich is tiny in length, but not in effect. It's full of wicked black humour, but in the background you sense there’s something deeply serious going on. The Beethoven is a profound and complex spiritual journey, with surprises and riddles along the way. But in both - as in all great string quartets - the element of conversation between the instruments - tender, violent, playful, mocking - is vital too. All this influenced my quartet enormously.  

You're best known as a writer, broadcaster and critic, but studied composition - what led you down the writer (over the composer) path?

I used to compose a lot, and I was encouraged by composers Alexander Goehr and Robert Simpson. But it became harder and harder, and eventually, in my mid-twenties, I stopped. But after a terrible mental breakdown in 1997 I started again. For a long time it was laborious and slow, and I wrote only very small things. Behemoth Dances, which I finished in 2016, changed all that.

As a critic yourself, when it comes to composition, are you your own worse critic?

Yes, definitely - or at least so far! There’s a kind of desiccated donnish voice in my head which drawls ‘Oh, you can’t do that!’ What I’ve learned is that this very anxiety often means I’m on the right track. I remember a fantastic line of Martin Luther which translates roughly as, ‘I you’re going to sin, then really sin!’ I’ve never regretted following that advice.

Your first major work was Behemoth Dances. How did it feel to see and hear that performed for the first time?

To hear it performed so marvellously, by a Russian orchestra (Behemoth is a cat-demon in a great Russian novel, The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov), in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, where so many Russian masterpieces had their premieres, was indescribable. I’ve got the poster framed on the wall (there I am in Russian, 'S Johnson', along with 'S Prokofiev' and 'S Rachmaninov’) and I still have to look at it to remind myself that it really happened.  

And then came Angel's Arc - which was performed at Warwick Arts Centre in February 2019 with Carducci. Any memories of that performance?

It was there. I remember getting lost on my way to the Arts Centre from the station, in the rain, and feeling pretty miserable. And then the performance moved me so much I forgot that I was listening to my own music. I felt like a ‘real’ piece. Emma Johnson and the Carducci’s played it with such understanding, especially the long quite passage at the end.

Angel's Arc was recently filmed for broadcast - can you tell us a bit more?

It was filmed at the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, this time with Matthew Hunt as clarinettist. I was thrilled, not just by the performance but by the reception - absolute silence during the hushed final section, and for nearly half a minute afterwards. This was its fourth performance, and it’s having its New York premiere in November, around the time when the Hatfield film is coming out. I’m delighted with the way people seem to have taken to this piece.

Are you working on any other projects and/ or compositions at the moment?

Something is stirring ... I’m not quite sure of the forces yet, but it will almost certainly be for chamber ensemble, possibly with voice this time. Lockdown and its aftermath have been forcing a lot of composers to think for small forces at the moment, but I realise that suits me ideally. I’ve always admired composers who can create a big impact with small resources. You don’t have to shout to make people listen.

Stephen Johnson's String Quartet No.1 receives its World Premiere on Thursday 11 November 2021 at Warwick Arts Centre with Brodsky Quartet. 

Brodsky Quartet

Brodsky Quartet

Thursday 11 November 2021 7:30pm