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ClassicsOnline Home » JOHNSON: Lute Music
John Johnson (c.1550 - 1594)
John Johnson, like most English Court musicians, probably began his career as a boy serving an apprenticeship to a player engaged in a great noble house, possibly that of the Earl of Leicester. This would normally last for seven years, and may have begun as soon as the early 1560s. One extant indenture, for a lutenist of a later generation, Daniel Bachelar, records that the boy entered his apprenticeship at the tender age of seven, and there is nothing to suggest that this was unusual. The system was essential for any musician of low birth aspiring to a Court post, for it provided the crucial patronage and personal contacts which would otherwise be totally out of reach, however prodigious his talent.
In 1577 Johnson entered Royal service as one of Her Majestys Musitians for the three lutes. Together with Mathias Mason and Thomas Cardell, appointed around the same time, Johnson was among the first group of native English players to win the Royal accolade. The roster of lutenists formally engaged in that capacity by Elizabeth at times eventually rose as high as six or seven, and more lute players were employed in other posts, while extras were doubtless taken on as required for special occasions such as Court masques. Thus Johnson joined the Court just when his instruments time seems to have come.
Johnsons lute playing must have been exceptional, but his historical importance resides, of course, in the quality and quantity of music by him that has come down to us today. While we have a few fine compositions by native English lutenists before him, John Johnson can reasonably be regarded as the founder of the school of English lute music of the Golden Age which was to culminate in the work of John Dowland (1563-1626). Johnson absorbed both the prevailing Italianate style and a more idiosyncratically English taste to produce a substantial body of work of real distinction. His music is found, almost always anonymously, in manuscripts from all over Europe, to an extent only matched (and greatly exceeded, it must be said) by John Dowlands, yet, as far as we know, John Johnson never left England.
The forms and idioms of Golden Age lute music were already set when Johnson entered Royal service. With a few fine exceptions, English lutenists did not compose elaborate and cerebral contrapuntal fantasias like their Italian counterparts, nor, apparently, did they have much relish for arranging vocal music for the lute. The basis of their repertory was dance music, pavans, galliards and almaines. All these dance-types originated abroad, and many of them were simply English translations of dances known throughout Europe. In such cases, each dance comprised an instantly recognisable sequence of harmonies which corresponded in some way to the sequence of steps. The most widespread were the two types of passamezzo, the antico (ancient) one, which the English called the Passingmeasures Pavan (£ on this recording) and its moderno variant, which evolved into the English Quadro Pavan @. Johnsons settings both appear to be early works, into whose divisions he has skilfully woven some distinctively English touches, harking back, perhaps, to an earlier native tradition of lute-playing.
Johnsons skill in composing divisions undoubtedly arose from his experience as a performer. The traditional Italian practice was for a pair of lutenists to work as a team: the tenorista played the long-held tenor or other lower parts of a well-known song, motet or dance, while the discantor worked up a dazzling display of fast notes in a higher register. This duetting tradition was adapted by the English into a distinctive style of ensemble music, and may have partly given rise to the lasting predilection for sets of divisions upon a ground which continued to delight professional and amateur musicians for a century and a half after Johnsons death. The contrapuntal tenor of the Italian tradition was replaced in the English lute duet by a repeating chord sequence, a harmonic ground over which the treble player would play variations of increasing speed and difficulty. The genre of divisions on a ground was later imitated by players of the viol, the recorder and, in the seventeenth century, the violin, and became an immensely important part of the English musical scene.
The English loved variation techniques of all kinds and almost every sixteenth-century instrumental composer of note left examples. Johnson was a great master of the style and his divisions, in both duet and solo works, combine the virtuosity of the star performer with the skill and dramatic judgement of the experienced composer. Italian grounds provided the basis for many of his lute duets, such as the Short Almaine 4 and Rogero 6, both built over versions of the Ruggiero harmonic pattern, Chi Passa $, which is based on a popular part-song, Chi passa per questa strada or La Vecchia Pavan and its Galliard % & ^, an adaptation of the well-known Passamezzo la Paganina, first published in 1578. The last of these, a product of Johnsons maturity, shows an increasing trend towards equality between the players, who now share the duties of accompanist and soloist, as in the Flat Pavan and Galliard 5 & 6. This is Johnsons masterpiece in the genre; its strange name comes from the fact that it is in a minor key which requires flat signs in music notation. It brings to the duet medium an atmosphere of English melancholy at odds with the normal tradition of virtuoso display. The same is true of the first of the two Dumps recorded here 5 & ™, both of which use the simplest of grounds, the second shamelessly revelling in the solo players digital dexterity.
Another English tradition is manifest in the final duet, Goodnight °. This early work is a setting of a widely-encountered ground that may have originated in a popular song. English songs and ballad-tunes were a constant source of inspiration to the lutenists of the Golden Age; Carmans Whistle 3 was also set for the virginals by William Byrd while Walsingham ¢ was one of the most popular of all. Many of these tunes became well known in Europe, brought over by the musicians performing with the English theatrical troupes which were enormously popular, especially in Germany. They probably also brought with them Johnsons solo lute music, such as the enormously widespread Delight Pavan 1 and the Marigold Pavan &, which, by contrast, has only survived in a single copy from Königsberg on the Baltic, where English Comoedianten are known to have performed regularly.
John Johnson, Queen Elizabeths favourite lutenist, died in 1594, when the Golden Age school of lutenists was at its zenith. In 1613 the first collection of virginal music, Parthenia, appeared in print to celebrate the wedding of James Is daughter. Alongside music by William Byrd, John Bull and Orlando Gibbons appears an anonymous Galiardo, which turns out to be a keyboard setting of Johnsons Jewel !. So, even though Johnsons name had been widely forgotten so soon after his death, his musical influence continued to be felt well beyond the grave.
Tim Crawford © 2003
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JOHNSON: Lute Music