A remarkable case: Johanna Beyer

Johanna Beyer, or Hanna, as friends called her, or J. M. Beyer as she signed in order to evade discrimination, was born Johanna Magdalena Beyer in Leipzig in 1888. She settled in NYC in 1923 and little is known of her prior life. Her awakening as a composer must have taken place somewhere in 1931, since in 1932 she began being tutored by Ruth Crawford and Charles Seeger, and in 1933 she enrolled in the New School for Social Research to follow the classes of Henry Cowell, of whom she soon became an assistant. In 1936, Cowell was sentenced to fifteen years in prison due to homosexual activity with an underage in California.1 Thanks to Beyer’s enormous efforts and support, Cowell was released in 1940 and was delivered a pardon. However, she had romantic feelings for him that never met with any response and in 1941 they broke all contact. In the meantime, Beyer was struggling with a deteriorating health due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that eventually killed her in 1944 – she was only 56 years old.

Her oeuvre, dating from ca. 1932-1942, contains, among others, a bulk of percussion works dealing with process and cyclic repetition (in line with the way paved by Henry Cowell)2 plus 4 string quartets and other chamber music pieces resulting from her studies next to Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford. I will focus on String Quartets no. 1 and no. 2 that display in my opinion applications of techniques that were at least 20 years yet to come.

Let’s go first to the finale (4th movement) of String Quartet no. 1 from 1934 (unfortunately, the score remains in manuscript form, a copy of which I ordered from the NY Public Library):

String Q1-movement4, p. 1String Q1-movement4, p. 2String Q1-movement4, p. 3

What do we have here? We hear Xenakian melodies springing from continuous glissandi, ostinati figures made of speeding up glissandi, and a high E flat regular pulse for 119 bars. We see a minimalist treatment of the material, and an exclusive care for texture, notated in the most simple and effective way.3 All in all, an astonishing mechanism that’s set in motion through repetition in a way of thinking belonging to the 2nd half of the century, though it was actually conceived in 1934!

Let’s move on to Beyer’s String Quartet no. 2 from 1936 now (2nd movement):

Listen to it on youtube

String Q2-movement2, p. 1String Q2-movement2, p. 2

Again here’s an extraordinary field of sound that almost resembles a “soundscape”. If we think of Cage’s stationary String Quartet in Four Parts from 1950, and how singular we consider his achievement of a purposeless harmony that does not progress, what to say of this stasis, of this frozen environment?

The father of sound-mass texture is of course Arnold Schönberg, with his Farben out of the Fünf Orchesterstücke op. 16 from 1909 that show the many facets of a single harmony. It’s obvious though that Beyer’s quartets owe much more to her mentor’s Ruth Crawford seminal String Quartet 1931 – especially to the 3rd movement4 that’s supposed to feature “one of the most radical (and earliest) uses of a completely static sound-mass texture”.5 Crawford also invented there, in her own words, “a heterophony of dynamics—a sort of counterpoint of crescendi and diminuendi. […] The melodic line grows out of this continuous increase and decrease”.6 The influence of these is evident most strikingly in the beginning of Beyer’s 4th movement of her String Quartet no. 1, where in effect what grows out sounds like a pitch-fluctuating drone in the manner of Giacinto Scelsi. Notwithstanding the influence, Crawford’s movement remains a dramatic arch-form with a clear forward drive – that is, with a dynamic rhetoric. Beyer’s stasis on the contrary is sober; her use of dynamics is neutral, and as a result we get a non-directional music with an arbitrary beginning and an unpredictable end. Even when it’s interspersed with tiny melodic attempts, these are p u r e  t i m b r e – and they are soon lost in the stars. In other words, Crawford still converses with the past while Beyer points to the future.

But where does this music come from? Which are its forbears? Let’s examine the core elements one by one:

1. Glissando

Glissando, as a continuous glide from one pitch to another is usually thought to introduce itself in Pelleas und Melisande (1903) of Schönberg, where the trombone glissando, something to be avoided till then, becomes a valid gesture. In 1928 Bartók writes his String Quartet no. 4, renowned for the various glissandi it requires in the 3rd movement. Last but not least, let’s mention the use of massive downward glissandi in Dynamic Triptych, the piano concerto of John Foulds (another unknown composer) from 1929. However possible it might be that Beyer was aware of some of these works, it matters little: in there, glissando remains an effect – in Beyer’s music i t  b e c o m e s  t e x t u r e. In this sense, her employment of glissando points directly toward Iannis Xenakis – let alone the closing gesture of her String Quartet no. 1, which is actually identical to the ending of Metastáseis: the whole spectrum slides into the narrowest chord, and finally into a unison, which, like in Metastáseis, plays the role of an ‘inverted recapitulation’, and brings symmetry into play. While Beyer’s forces are much more modest, and the gesture lasts no more than a wink, the fact remains: the world’s most striking musical effect has been used before!

2. Repetition

Regular repetition of minuscule gestures7 is again something to associate with the Viennese School: during the first atonal years of 1909-1913 there are many instances in Webern’s music where one could point this out,8 and Wozzeck of Alban Berg as well often takes advantage of this tool for dramatic purposes. The most famous of these instances is of course in the 3rd piece out of 5 Orchesterstücke op. 10 of Webern.

It’s true that repetition for the Viennese is more than a mere ostinato figure that one could find anywhere else: i t  is  a l s o  t e x t u r e, no doubt, like in Beyer. But it is but a moment amongst other moments – like all the moments that these brief, almost aphoristic forms of early Webern consist of, where under the premises of Expressionism a succession of momentary gestures serves an essentially dramatic rhetoric: “it reminds of the film music of that time”, as Xenakis says9. Again, the extent to which Beyer knew the works of Webern is debatable and it would need a specialized research to find that out – Cowell, for one, was in personal contact with the Viennese, while her mentor Ruth Crawford, by the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship, had lived in 1930 in Berlin and had met Schönberg, too. It’s true that Beyer shares with them aesthetic inclinations as well, such as the intent use of mutes on strings, and the extremely soft dynamics. In any case, what Beyer inserts into the picture is  a b s t r a c t i o n; and while in the Viennese we’re dealing with a momentary layer of sound, here  i t  i s  about the sound: t h e  t e x t u r e  i s  t h e  m u s i c  i t s e l f.

This employment of repetition together with an absence of narrative this time points toward Morton Feldman: Feldman was introduced to the Viennese through his teacher Stefan Wolpe, and the account of his first meeting with John Cage on January 26, 1950 is well-known: they both walked out of Carnegie Hall after a performance of Webern’s Symphonie op. 21 (1928) in order to treasure up the experience.10 Feldman would soon compose music that, characteristically deriving from Webern, utilized delicacy, short duration and soft dynamics, while eschewing drama for the sake of abstraction. This resulted in building structures out of aligned micro-events, each one made of Webernesque repetition. A striking example is Structures for string quartet that dates from 1951:

3. Sustained sound

It’s remarkable as well as tantalizingly desirable to presume that for both Beyer and Feldman Webern had been the starting-point – though Feldman initially relied on silence and momentary gestures whereas Beyer swiftly proceeded to  s u s t a i n e d  s o u n d. This latter feature, in fact, brings another Webern-influenced youth to mind: La Monte Young also started off from twelve tone music during his studies at the University of California, and his notorious Trio for Strings from 1958 combines an abstract cluster-chromaticism and a tendency for stasis (strongly reminiscent of Beyer’s aesthetics) with excessive duration – all these being premonitary of his drone-minimalism soon-to-come.


Beyer’s music remains unknown; and on the common gravestone under which she’s buried, her surname is misspelled. She’s definitely unknown in Europe while in the Americas some little activity around her owes much to New World Records as well as to Larry Polansky and Frog Peak Music: the String Quartet no. 2 namely has been published in a critical edition as part of the Johanna Beyer Project established in 1994. There’s a lot of music of hers that has never been performed nor recorded yet, including orchestral works that seem to be equally significant and revolutionary. There’s scarcely any Beyer on Youtube either! And perhaps it’s not by coincidence after all that, though I knew the music of Beyer for years, I thought of talking about her exactly at the moment when the first monography was being published: Amy C. Beal’s book Johanna Beyer is a first try to shed light on Beyer’s life and work, and it was for sure indispensable to me. Let’s hope it becomes a kick-off that will draw attention to a very singular composer.


1 It’s hard to believe that this sentence was passed in a state where 30 years later the culture of “free love” would emerge from; or was that no coincidence after all?

2 cf. his Ostinato Pianissimo from 1934.

3 “It foreshadows the radical graphic notation of the 1960s found in the music of composers like Penderecki and Crumb” (Beal, Amy C. (2015) Johanna Beyer, American Composers, Urbana, Chicago and Springfield, University of Illinois Press, p. 60).

4 Crawford later arranged it separately as the Andante for Strings (1938).

5 Beal, 2015, p. 59.

6 Tick, Judith (1997) Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music, Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, p. 357-58.

7 (an effect that lovers of the Sgt. Pepper’s LP would call “a run-out groove that loops back into itself”)

8 Eg. 5 Sätze op. 5, 4 Stücke für Violine und Klavier op. 7, 6 Bagatellen op. 9.

9 Varga, Bálint András (1996) Conversations with Iannis Xenakis, London, Faber and Faber, p. 53.

10 Ross, Alex (2007) The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, New York, Picador, p. 527.