Classic Cat

Biography of

Robert Johnson

ca. 1580 - ca. 1634
Buy sheetmusic from Johnson at SheetMusicPlus

Robert Johnson (c. 1583 – c. 1634) 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.



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 Sir George Carey as an apprentice. Carey, who became Baron Hunsdon the same year on the death of his father, was a patron of the lutenist John Dowland. (In 1598 Dowland moved to Denmark, having failed to get a job at the court of Elizabeth I: much later he was to work with Robert Johnson at the Jacobean court).

As well as being a patron of lutenists, Carey was patron of a theatre company to which William Shakespeare belonged. The company was briefly known as "Baron Hunsdon's Men", but is better known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men (a title they used after Carey became Lord Chamberlain), or their subsequent name, the King’s Men. It is not known whether Johnson worked with this theatre company in the 1590s, but he did so later in 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).[1] He composed for the 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. The players required songs and instrumental music, and Johnson 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.

Apart from the Shakespeare connection, Johnson collaborated regularly with other poets and playwrights such as Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. He also composed a number of other songs and "catches" or rounds, and drinking songs.


Johnson's music is fairly straightforward. He sets texts in a way which allows the words to be heard clearly. Presumably, this partly reflects the demands of the dramatists whose words he was setting.

Music connected with Ben Jonson's Plays

One of Johnson's songs was recorded by Sting on the 2006 album Songs from the Labyrinth: "Have you seen the bright lily grow?" from Ben Jonson's comedy The Devil is an Ass, 1616. Music for Jonson's masque Oberon, the Faery Prince, has also been recorded: Robert Johnson collaborated on this masque (performed in 1611) with another composer Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger.

Music connected with Shakespeare’s Plays

The following list mainly follows the order of the Virgin Veritas cd "Shakespeare's lutenist" [2].

  • 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")[3];
  • '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;
  • The Witches' Dance;

Some other pieces

  • Fantasia;
  • The Gypsies’ dance;
  • Gallyard (My Lady Mildmay’s Delight);
  • How wretched is the state;
  • With endless tears;
  • Get you hence;
  • He That Will an Alehouse Keep


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ website relating to this 1991 recording
  3. ^ Secret Shakespeare This source refers to Michael Wood's claims regarding Shakespeare's authorship of "Woods, rocks, and mountains"

External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Robert Johnson. Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.
Buy sheetmusic from Johnson at SheetMusicPlus

Our dream: to make the world's treasury of classical music accessible for everyone. See the about page on how we see the future.
Help us with donations or by making music available!

Contact     Privacy policy    Looking for classical mp3 downloads? We index the free-to-download classical mp3s on the internet.
©2021 Classic Cat - the classical music directory
Sheet Music Plus Featured Sale