About this Recording
8.572178 - JOHNSON, R.: Lute Music (North)

Robert Johnson (c. 1583–1633)
Lute Music


The illustrious dedicatee of The Prince’s Almain is Henry, Prince of Wales (1594–1612) and son of King James I. The Prince’s untimely death at the age of eighteen was felt by many people as a great tragedy for England as Henry showed the promise of being an intelligent, well-rounded future monarch. Had he lived, English history would have been very different. The lutenist Robert Johnson, less famous today, was an esteemed musician at the courts of both Prince Henry and King James. Johnson’s most popular piece, surviving in over sixteen versions, was The Prince’s Almain, written for his pupil, Prince Henry.

A generation later, Thomas Mace opens his book Musick’s Monument (1676), with a dialogue between himself and the Lute. In mourning the loss of the earlier Golden Age of lute music of which Robert Johnson was the last great lutenist, the Lute shows the significance of Johnson’s contribution with his comments:

Despair I do: Old Dowland he is Dead; R Johnson too:
Two famous Men; Great Masters in My Art:
In each of Them I had more than One Part,
Or Two, or Three;

There were two pairs of father and son lutenists in London and I have often wondered how they may have influenced each other. John Johnson, lutenist to Queen Elizabeth I from 1581 until his death in 1594, represents the earliest generation. Johnson would have known, perhaps played with, and even taught John Dowland (1562–1623), who was one generation later. Was it a coincidence that they both had sons named Robert who became court lutenists? Robert Dowland (c. 1590–c. 1640) must have had some lute tuition from his father, whom he also succeeded at court in 1626. Robert Johnson (c. 1583–1633) was born a little earlier than Robert Dowland and had a more successful life as composer and lutenist than did his Dowland namesake.

Following the death of his father in 1594, Robert Johnson was taken under the care of Sir George Carey (also known as Lord Hunsdon) who oversaw his education, including music. In 1597 Carey became the Lord Chamberlain to Elizabeth and was the patron of the acting company (known as The Lord Chamberlaine’s Men, later called The King’s Men) of which Shakespeare was a member. This created a strong artistic influence on Johnson, who went on to write songs and music for this company including plays by Shakespeare, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Webster.

Johnson’s surviving lute music is a small collection of around 24 pieces. Early works for seven-course lute include the two Galliards and some of the Almains, most likely written before he joined the court of James I in 1604. The style of these early pieces is a little reminiscent of John Dowland in their use of melody, divisions and texture. Soon, however, Johnson developed his own mature style represented in four Pavans and the Fantasie. Most of his later works are found in three great English manuscript sources for nine- or ten-course lute (British Library: Ms. 38359, known as the M.L. lute book; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s Lute Book; Royal Academy of Music, London: Margaret Board Lute Book).

Although Robert Johnson relies upon the old forms of Pavan, Galliard, Almain and Fantasie, his use of the instrument exploits the extreme ranges of the nine-course lute. In contrast to his father’s style, or even John Dowland’s, Robert Johnson’s music is more “baroque” in that it is lyrical, expansive and often in two polarised voices. The Pavans and the Fantasie demonstrate his excellent contrapuntal skills. Pavan No. 1 has divisions written by the composer, while the Pavan No. 3 has no surviving divisions. The two extant copies, however, have many graces and I have embellished the repeats with these graces—a performance practice which was taken up later in the century. Pavan No. 2 has divisions which I felt were not good enough to be Johnson’s, so I preferred to add my own. The sublime Fantasie is reminiscent of viol consort fantasies written by contemporaries such as Ferrabosco, with its tightly woven counterpoint. Sadly Johnson left us only one. He was most prolific in the Almain, leaving us ten examples. These highly tuneful dances most reflect Johnson’s more modern musical style suited to the lighter tastes admired at the court.

The English court Masque was primarily an entertainment for those at court, the royal family and those close to them. Often the courtiers and the royal family, including the young Prince Henry, were given rôles to play. Masques were a unique allegorical blend of speech, dance, music and song, lavish affairs on which much money was spent. Robert Johnson was a prominent member of the court’s “lute and voices” and he worked side by side with poets such as Ben Jonson and Thomas Campion in these multifaceted events. Johnson’s main contributions to the Masque were as a performer in the “lute band”, and as a composer of dance music. This has come down to us in two forms, original five-part ensemble versions and anonymous lute arrangements. Most likely the five-part versions are the “originals” and the lute versions came later.

There are three masques with which Johnson was associated. The Masque of Queens by Ben Jonson, performed in 1609 at the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, which contained Johnson’s The Witches’ Dance. Another Ben Jonson masque, Oberon, performed in the same hall in 1611, had an antimasque which contained The Fairies’ Dance and The Satyre’s Dance. The lute version of the latter has not survived so the recorded version is my own reconstruction. In the masque proper of Oberon a contemporary account mentions “XX Lutes provided by Mr Johnson for the Princes Dance”. These dances were most probably the First, Second and Third Dances in the Prince’s Masque. The Noble Man comes from the Masque of the Middle Temple and Lincoln’s Inn by George Chapman, performed in Whitehall in 1613.

Robert Johnson’s lute music must have been well known in court music circles. We find several arrangements for keyboard, some anonymous and others by Farnaby. In all cases, without exception, the arranger has transposed the lute originals up a tone, presumably to make it more convenient for the keyboard. The lute pieces existing in keyboard versions include The Prince’s Almain, several other Almains, The Prince’s Coranto and a Pavan (set by Farnaby). This Pavan (No. 4) has not survived in its original lute version, so I have extracted a new lute version from Farnaby’s arrangement.

© Nigel North, 2010


Instrument used in the recording:
10 course lute, after Hans Frei, by Lars Jönsson, Dalarö, Sweden, 2005.
Pitch: A 392

All pieces are edited by Nigel North from original manuscript sources
except tracks 14 and 17 which have been reconstructed by Nigel North.

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