(fl 1579–94). English lutenist and composer, father of robert Johnson (ii). He was appointed ‘one of the musicians for the three lutes at 20 li[vres] a year’ to Queen Elizabeth in 1579. He may have been the ‘Jonsonum’ included in John Case’s Apologia musices (Oxford, 1588) in the list of great English musicians of the time (p.44). Ballads published in 1588 were to be sung to two of Johnson’s most admired pieces, The Medley and the Flat pavan, proving that these pieces had been in circulation long enough for the poet to assume that the ballad-singing public was acquainted with them. Johnson’s ability as a musician was appreciated at court, as is shown by the 50-year lease granted in reversion in 1595 ‘to Alice, widow of John Johnson, one of the Queens musicians for the lute’ of Cranborne Manor in Dorset and of lands in Cornwall, Lincoln, Staffordshire, Wiltshire and Flint ‘in consideration of her husband’s services’.
Johnson’s compositions are widely disseminated in both English and continental sources. The popularity of his music is reflected in the many rearrangements of his works by contemporaries and near contemporaries. Indeed it is often difficult to distinguish between Johnson’s own work and that of other composers. Even his contemporaries sometimes mistook his music for someone else’s; witness the ascription of A pavane to delight to ‘Ed. Jhonson’ in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, to ‘Richard Jhonson’ in one of the Walsingham partbooks and to ‘Jhon Johnsonne’ in other sources. Johnson’s style is an amalgam of native and foreign (especially Italian) elements. His works show the English taste for cross-relations, surprising harmonic and tonal relationships and, above all, variation. Indeed, without exception, all his compositions include some form of variation procedure and often more than one kind at a time; variation techniques range from an entire piece being based on a single motif, to the varied reprise, to discanting on English and Italian grounds, to variations of popular tunes such as Walsingham and Carman’s Whistle. He is now best known, especially among lutenists, for his treble variations of grounds and duets for equal lutes. The latter combine the tripartite dance with varied reprise and role exchange, each lutenist performing the secondo part against the other’s primo, a novel procedure at this time. 18 trebles to grounds are ascribed to Johnson, most if not all dating from the late 1570s and early 1580s. They belong to an old-fashioned kind of music that is far removed in spirit and style from his pavans and galliards which are much more complex and are technically more demanding.
Edition: The Lute Works of John Johnson, ed. J.M. Ward (Columbus, OH, 1994)
Paired dances: Delight pavan; Galliard to the Delight pavan; Flat pavan; Galliard to the Flat pavan; Flat pavan; Galliard to the Flat pavan; La Vecchia pavan; La Vecchia pavan; Galliard to La Vecchia pavan; 1 untitled pavan and galliard
Single pavans: The Long pavan (2 versions); The Marigold pavan; 4 untitled pavans
Single galliards: The Division of the French galliard; Johnson’s Jewell; Omnino galliard; 4 untitled galliards; 2 galliards (inc.)
Variations for solo lute: Carman’s Whistle (2 versions); A ground; Passingmeasures pavan (i); Passingmeasures pavan (ii); Quadro pavan (i); Quadro pavan (ii); Rogero (i); Walsingham
Variations for 2 lutes: Chi passa; Dump (i); Dump (ii); Goodnight; The new hunt is up; Quadro pavan (iii); Rogero (ii); Short almaine (i); Short almaine (ii); Trenchmore; Wakefield on a green