Classical Editor: Rob
ENGLISH COMPOSERS FOR AMATEURS: No 8 - THOMAS JOHNSON by Philip L Scowcroft
Many young pianists and their teachers will be familiar with the name Thomas Arnold Johnson as he produced a large quantity of music for the elementary pianist in particular, though his horizons were broader than that. Himself a piano teacher, his life was of considerable interest in various other musical directions. Born in 1908 at Neston, Wirral, Cheshire where he lived until his death in 1989, he became the pianist at a silent cinema in 1923 while still at school, earning £2/10/0d (£2.50) per week. His work there continued until 1929, by which time "talkies" with a built in sound track including music were taking over from silent films. Tom recalled those years as very happy ones. Much of his work was as a soloist though later the cinema, like so many others at that period, did acquire a small orchestra.
The work called for initiative and speed of reaction as appropriate music was fitted to the pictures only when the film was first shown - there was no "dress rehearsal"! He recalled that he used Metzler's Cinema Music devised by G H Clutsam (Australian born composer of much orchestral music and presenter of stage works, most famously Lilac Time), a great deal in this work: he also used music by Hermann Darewski, Montague Ewing, whose Wand of Harlequin and Silhouettes he remembered with affection for their lovely piano writing, Herbert E Haines, whose Three Woodland Dances were often played, and Albert Ketelbey, but he also improvised a great deal. He became very proficient at performing at sight and it is appropriate that his instructional work included many volumes of sight reading exercises which music teachers use widely to this day.
Into his eighties he remained interested in collecting sheet music which was used for the silent cinema. Tom was self taught up to the age of 20 but he studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music 1928-31, under Frank Merrick and Frederick Dawson taking teaching and performer's diplomas (In 1965 he was made a Fellow of the RMCM). He gave many recitals and appeared many times as soloist or piano duettist on the BBC the first appearance being relayed from the old 6LV station in 1926, in a padded studio. He gave the first broadcast of Raff's Piano Concerto and Reger's Variations on a Theme of Beethoven (a two piano work) and the first Liverpool performance of Sibelius' Piano Sonata. Not all his broadcasts were serious in nature. Several were of syncopated music, arrangements of popular tunes of the 1930s. One of the broadcasts comprised popular tunes like The Queen was in the Parlour (a favourite in the 1930s) and Three Blind Mice, played in the style of Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Scarlatti, Rachmaninoff and Chopin, this being long before Joseph Cooper started delighting television and other audiences by doing much the same thing.
In the course of his work for the BBC Tom met such notable figures as Julian Herbage, Alec Robertson, Eric Fogg, Victor Hely-Hutchinson and Maurice Johnstone. He researched many neglected 19th century figures like Moritz Moszkowski, Eduard Schutt (1856-1933), Raff, Jensen, Hiller, Arensky, Sinding, Fibich, Chaminade, Godard and William Sterndale Bennett and gave talks on several of them on that well-loved, well-remembered radio programme "Music Magazine" during the 1950s. Arrangements of the music of many of these composers (and others like Elgar, whose Nimrod and Salut d'Amour were similarly favoured) figured among the countless arrangements he made from the classics, mostly for piano, which were published by the Associated Board and, in four volumes entitled The Romantic Pianist by Peters. They also included arrangements of popular carols for piano duet, settings of Romantic Concertos for eight (!) hands, operatic airs and so forth.
He also enjoyed many of the British Light music composers of the early 20th century: Edward German, Ernest Farrar, Harry Farjeon, Percy Fletcher, Percy Elliot and so on. He was a keen member of the British Music Society. During the Second War he spent 5½ years in the Royal Artillery, playing quite a number of recitals of chamber music and even concertos (with organ accompaniment) and acting as pianist to the Regimental Dance Band (he later gave lectures for the Education Corps). At this time he also met and played for Jewel and Warriss, Jack Buchanan, Anne Ziegler and others. Other acquaintances from this period included Leslie Heward, the conductor, and G D Cunningham, Organist at Birmingham Town Hall, who performed Johnson's March Total Victory on the organ. (It was later scored for military band). Tom continued to play regularly, but usually in private up to the time of his death.
Now for his compositions. Apart from his many arrangements he penned over 200 original pieces. his first works were published when he was only sixteen: one, Dawn, was orchestrated and used to accompany silent films. Many of the 200 plus were pure teaching works, many books of Beginner's Tunes, Tuneful Pieces, Left Hand Studies and the sight reading exercises already mentioned. Other piano compositions like the Suite of Dances, Western Suite, Playtime Suite, Rustic Sketches and the suites Puppets On Parade, A Day in the Country, In The Heart of the Country, Punch and Judy, Pantomime People and In The Forest and individual movements such as Rustic Scene, Butterflies, Leaping Horses, Cherry Tree, Eventide, Roundelay, Toy Trumpet and Dream, Market Day, an Etude Caprice, Preludes, a Concert Valse and at least one Sonatina were also aimed at students though some of the titles at least would be acceptable in recital. All these were for solo piano but there was also a quantity of music for piano duet: Caprice, Fiesta, Polka, Sarabande, Valse, Valsette, Scherzino and the samba, Lady of Brazil, and even for two pianos, like the Scherzo of 1947. More ambitious were the two sonatas written post-war for solo piano, both of them in an expansive Romantic idiom, but with a distinctly English accent with often scintillating piano writing reflecting his own fine playing and sets of Variations on the Miller of Dee and All Through the Night.
In lighter vein there were Whispering Zephyr played on the radio by Billy Mayerl and other similar novelties - Tom's piece Cut Glass was adapted for use by the TV Toppers. Most interestingly in this direction, he produced a set of two suites based on Frank Richards' Billy Bunter stories, each movement being based on a different character from Greyfriars School, a tribute which delighted and stimulated Richards. Just as popular as his piano music were his arrangements and original pieces for solo instrument(s) - usually clarinet, though recorder and oboe were often specified as alternatives and some cello pieces were also written - and piano: Scherzo, Gavotte, Pastorale, Gigue, Hornpipe and so on. All are attractively tuneful morsels. Tom also wrote songs too, sung by Violet Carson ("Ena Sharples" of Coronation Street and a fine musician) and Randolph Scott (this was Spanish Love), and for various revues. His other publications included The Principles of Pianoforte Pedalling (Weekes, 1923), Musical Art Forms for Students: A Concise Survey (Weekes, 1957), The Dance and its History (Weekes, n.d.), a new edition of H J Taylor's Historical Facts Relating to Music, a question-and-answer volume dating originally from 1895 (also Weekes) and many magazine articles, especially a series on Raff and other of his 19th century favourites, which appeared in Music Teacher and Musical Opinion during the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote short stories and a novel which were unpublished.
This is only the briefest of reports on some six and a half decades of intense yet enjoyable musical activity; but I hope that enough has been said to summarise adequately a fascinating and noteworthy contribution to music in various different directions.
© Philip L Scowcroft
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