Composing and Arranging


The Nimble and Roguish Paw (2023)

for cor anglais and clarinet

World Premiere
Australian Chamber Music Festival, Townsville
31 July 2023 at 10.30am

Programme notes

Behemoth Dances (2016)

Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory, 23.04.2016
Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Pavel Kogan (cond.)

2, picc (= fl 3), 2, E flat Cl, 1, Bass Cl, 2 – 4, 2, 2, 1 – Timps, Percussion (3 players), – Piano = Celeste – Strings

Behemoth Dances shows that [Stephen Johnson] has a voice, he has technique, and he can connect with an audience. The Birmingham audience cheered. Above all, though, he has something worth saying.

Richard Bratby, The Arts Desk

Programme notes | Performance reviews

Angel’s Arc (2018)

for clarinet and string quartet

Cadogan Hall, London, 24.01.2019
Emma Johnson (clarinet), Carducci Quartet

The worked opened with lovely rhapsodic moments for the clarinet over quietly sustained strings. …Despite moments of loveliness and some thoughtful clarinet playing, Johnson also created a feeling of unease in the music resulting in a strikingly complex piece.

Robert Hugely,

Programme notes | Performance reviews | Carducci Quartet performance

String Quartet (2021)

Warwick Arts Centre, 11.11.2021
Brodsky Quartet

“And now the gloriously coloured, luminous course of the Elbe dazzles the three onlookers. The nocturnal river draws from the girl a soft cry of longing. What could she be thinking of? From a bouquet which she has brought with her she takes a dark, blooming rose and throws it into the glittering water. How sadly her eyes shine at that moment. It is as though the young woman has cast away a lifelong agonising struggle, for ever. It is very painful, having to bid farewell to something that has tormented you. And how silent the world is.”
Excerpt from A Balloon Journey by Robert Walser

Stephen Johnson (1955-) followed up the rhapsody and pain of his ‘Angel’s Arc’ (2018) for clarinet and string quartet with his ‘String Quartet’ (2021). An enthralling, often emotionally shattering work, it also revitalizes the intimate conversations of Haydn’s quartets, showing that not only is the future of the string quartet in good hands, but it has forgotten none of its past either.

David Vernon, ‘Beethoven: The String Quartets’ (Canon Row, 2023)

Programme notes | Interview with Stephen Johnson


Boulanger, Lili (1893-1918):

Vielle prière bouddhique (arr. 2021)

Chamber Choir (can be augmented)
Flute, Oboe, Clarinet in B flat, Bassoon, Horn in F
Percussion (bass drum, suspended cymbal, timpani)
Piano/Electric Piano
3 First Violins, 3 Second Violins, 3 Violas, 3 Cellos, 1 Double Bass

Stephen Johnson composing

All the time I’ve been working away, writing and broadcasting, something else has been fermenting in the background.

I used to compose as a child: mostly impossibly ambitious things like symphonies and a concerto for five saxophones and orchestra. I studied composition at university, the flow soon started to dry up – I found it increasingly hard to silence the critic in my own head. Instead I took up journalism and broadcasting, and for the last thirty years that has been my day, and sometimes night job.

Then, about fifteen years ago, after particularly dark depressive episode, I started composing again. In marked contrast to my boyhood efforts, the things I wrote now were mostly small scale: songs, and short unaccompanied choral pieces. But towards the end of 2013 a sketch for an orchestral piece that had sat on top of my piano for seven years suddenly leapt into life. The musical ideas merged with images from a favourite novel: Mikhail Bulgakov’s riotous, life-affirming The Master and Margerita. Soon the piece had a title, Behemoth Dances, named after Bulgakov’s magnificent cat-demon Behemoth, who wreaks such havoc in Stalin’s Russian.

Thanks mostly to the wonderful efforts of Andrew Jamieson from IMG Artists, Behemoth Dances was performed – not once, but five times, and by the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra under its director Pavel Kogan, in 2016. Inspired by that astonishing and deeply rewarding experience, and again encouraged by Andrew Jamieson, I began work on a Clarinet Quintet, for Emma Johnson and the Carducci Quartet. Its first performances, under the title Angel’s Arc, were so successful that I was soon working on an even more ambitious plan – a String Quartet, premiered by the Brodsky Quartet in November 2021. Already something new is germinating. Watch this space.

Stephen Johnson