Robert Johnson (English composer)

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For other people named Robert Johnson, see Robert Johnson (disambiguation).

Robert Johnson (c. 1583 – 1633) was an English composer and lutenist of the late Tudor and early Jacobean eras. He is sometimes called "Robert Johnson II" to distinguish him from an earlier Scottish composer. Johnson worked with William Shakespeare providing music for some of his later plays.


"Deare doe not your faire beuty wronge" by Johnson as it appears in the manuscript Drexel 4175--the only song in the collection with authorial attribution (at bottom right)

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 were patrons of the lutenist and composer John Dowland, who dedicated various compositions to them. The family had a house in Blackfriars, London, and a country home Hunsdon House, which partially survives.

Johnson joined the Carey household at an interesting time in their patronage of the arts. In 1597 Dowland dedicated his First book of songs and ayres to George Carey.[1] As well as supporting musicians, Carey was patron of a theatre company to which William Shakespeare belonged.[1] 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 the court of James I in 1604. A number of lutenists were employed at court, and Johnson may have specialised in the bass lute when playing in consort music.[2] He was lutenist to Prince Henry (until the prince's death in 1612).[3] He composed music for the masques and entertainments which were popular at court in the Jacobean era. He also served at the court of Charles I, remaining on the royal payroll until 1633, the year of his death.[2]


His surviving 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. It has been noted that the facilities at the Blackfriars Theatre offered increased scope for incidental music – songs and instrumental music – compared to the larger Globe Theatre.[4] However, the company continued to perform at The Globe, and other venues such as the court, where Johnson's theatre music would presumably also have been heard. At this time the King's Men were producing plays by Shakespeare and other 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.


There is a partial discography on the HOASM website.[5] Other recordings include a recital of Robert's lute music by Nigel North on Naxos, and a lute recital by Lynda Sayce of music by Robert and his father on Dervorguilla Records.[6]

Music connected with Ben Jonson's plays[edit]

The best-selling recording is that of Sting on the 2006 album Songs from the Labyrinth.

Recorded by Musicians of the Globe.

Music connected with Shakespeare's plays[edit]

The following list mainly follows the order of "Shakespeare's lutenist" (a recording of the singers Emma Kirkby and David Thomas with the lutenist Anthony Rooley):[6]

  • Where the bee sucks; (The Tempest)
  • Hark, hark! the lark; (Cymbeline)
  • Come hither, you that love;
  • As I walked forth;
  • Woods, rocks, and mountains (supposedly from the lost Shakespearean play Cardenio);[4][7]
  • 'Tis late and cold;
  • O let us howl;
  • Arm, arm!;
  • Come away, Hecate;
  • Fantasia (lute);
  • Pavan I in C minor;
  • Pavan II in F minor;
  • Pavan III in C minor;
  • Galliard (lute);
  • Charon, oh Charon;
  • Away delights;
  • Come, heavy sleep;
  • Care-charming sleep;
  • Alman I (lute);
  • Alman II (lute);
  • Alman III (lute);
  • Alman IV;
  • Corant (lute);
  • Full fathom five; (The Tempest)
  • Adieu, fond love;
  • Come away, thou lady gay;
  • Tell me, dearest;

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Charles Nicholl, "The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street", Penguin Books.
  2. ^ a b Matthew Spring, ‘Johnson, Robert (c.1583–1633)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 accessed 17 June 2015 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  3. ^ Robert Johnson, Here of a Sunday Morning (
  4. ^ a b Wood, M. (2003). In Search of Shakespeare. BBC Books. ISBN 0-563-52141-4. ".
  5. ^ Partial discography,
  6. ^ a b "Shakespeare's Lutenist", Medieval Music & Arts Foundation. Retrieved April 2011.
  7. ^ Richard Wilson, Secret Shakespeare: studies in theatre, religion and resistance, Manchester University Press 2004 (p.233 on Google books). This source refers to Michael Wood's claims regarding Shakespeare's authorship of "Woods, rocks, and mountains".

External links[edit]