Robert Johnson (English Composer) - Life


Robert Johnson was the son of John Johnson, who was lutenist to Elizabeth I. In 1594 Robert's father died, and in 1596 he joined the household of George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon as an apprentice. Robert is assumed to have been around 13 at the time, as this was a typical age to begin an apprenticeship, but his date of birth is not known. Carey and his wife Elizabeth Spencer, whose family home Hunsdon House partially survives, were patrons of the lutenist John Dowland. In 1597 Dowland dedicated his First book of songs and ayres to Carey.

As well as supporting musicians, Carey was patron of a theatre company to which William Shakespeare belonged. In 1596/7 the company was briefly known as "Baron Hunsdon's Men", but is better known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men (the name they used after Carey became Lord Chamberlain in 1597), or their subsequent name, the King’s Men. It is not known whether Johnson worked with this theatre company on any of their productions in the 1590s, such as The Merry Wives of Windsor. However, he certainly provided music for the King's Men in a later stage of his career.

After serving his apprenticeship in the Carey household, Johnson found work at court. He became a royal lutenist in James I's "Private Musick" from 1604, and was later lutenist to Prince Henry (until the prince's death in 1612). He composed music for the masques and entertainments which were popular at court in the Jacobean era. He went on to serve at the court of Charles I until 1633, becoming “Composer for Lute and Voices”.

His compositions for the King's Men theatrical company have been dated to 1610-1617, a period when the company was using the Blackfriars Theatre as its winter base. There is evidence that this venue offered more scope for incidental music—songs and instrumental music—than other theatres. The King's Men produced plays by various writers and Johnson collaborated regularly with poets and playwrights such as Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Johnson's main claim to fame is that he composed the original settings for some of Shakespeare's lyrics, the best-known being probably those from The Tempest: "Where the Bee Sucks" and "Full Fathom Five." He is the only composer known to have composed the original settings of Shakespeare's lyrics. While other contemporary settings of Shakespeare's lyrics exist, for example those by Thomas Morley, they have not been proved to be connected to a stage performance.

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