Reporter 459, 20 November 2000


back to original story

Times Obituary - Robert Sherlaw Johnson
by Caroline Rae, Department of Music, Cardiff University

Robert Sherlaw Johnson English composer, pianist and Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford

Distinguished as both composer and pianist, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, who died unexpectedly on 3 November aged 68, was a rare commodity in today's streamlined world and will be greatly missed. Acclaimed in the early 1970s as one of the outstanding figures of his generation, he composed and performed with equal fervour, achieving widespread recognition in both fields.

Addressing the central issues of the avant-garde in works ranging from electro-acoustic and computer generated music to the more conventional genres of concerto and sonata, his compositions embrace the sacred and secular. The influence of Messiaen, Boulez and Varèse can be traced in his early works of the 1960s, many of which use serial techniques. By the middle 1970s he had abandoned serialism to develop the use of referential notes, 'specific' register and controlled aleatorism.

As a pianist he achieved pre-eminence in the 1970s for his recordings of contemporary repertoire which include not only the Boulez Second Sonata, Cage Sonatas and Interludes (prepared piano) and much of his own music, but some of the first commercial recordings outside France of Messiaen’s piano music: Cantéyodjayâ, Neumes rythmiques, Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, both Iles de Feu and the gargantuan, complete Catalogue d’oiseaux which still remains a summit of virtuosic and musical complexity unassailable by most pianists today. With the soprano Noelle Barker, for whom much of his own vocal music was written, he recorded Messiaen’s song cycles Harawi, Poèmes pour Mi and Chants de terre et de ciel.

His physical appearance, sometimes considered unassuming, belied the power and intensity of his abilities as a performer. Diversifying in later years, he recorded many of Liszt’s early and late works and often performed repertoire noted for its extraordinary virtuosic demands, including Alkan, Albéniz, Ravel and Messiaen’s complete Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus. As if that was not enough, Sherlaw Johnson’s many published writings also earned him recognition in the field of musical scholarship; his monograph on Messiaen (London, 1975, 1989), now in its third edition (Oxford, 1997), remains a standard text.

Born in Sunderland on 21 May 1932, Robert Sherlaw Johnson belonged to the illustrious generation of British composers which came to prominence during the 1960s. In 1969 he was one of the joint winners of the Radcliffe Music Award with his Second String Quartet. While his approach to serialism was more French than Viennese, as is revealed in the intricate, Boulezian pointillism of the Second Piano Sonata (1967), compositional method never dominated beauty of sound itself. Extending playing techniques in his piano writing he not only incorporated clusters and effects of resonance using the sostenuto (third) pedal, but explored the sound-world of the instrument’s interior; harmonics, string glissandos, plucking of strings, and the use drumsticks (hard and soft) are common-currency in his piano music. Nocturne (1992) for two pianos explores these techniques in a delicate world of poetic, Bartókian night-music. Asterogenesis (1973) illustrates the more extrovert side of his creative persona; composed for the extended range of the Imperial Bösendorfer, it is an explosive tone-poem celebrating the power and dynamism of the solo piano.

He spent most of his early life in north east England where he was educated at Gosforth Grammar School in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and King's College, Durham (1950-53); Sherlaw Johnson’s geographical roots remained important throughout his life. They provided the inspirational source for his opera The Lambton Worm (1978), his collection of Four Northumbrian Tunes for piano (completed in the 1990s), and Symphony for orchestra (1999) which includes the Northumbrian pipes on which he was himself an accomplished performer.

After graduating from Durham, Sherlaw Johnson won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London where he studied piano and composition. (He was made an RAM Honorary Fellow in 1984.) In 1957 he won the Charles W Black Award and went to Paris where he studied piano with Jacques Fevrier, composition with Nadia Boulanger and attended Messiaen’s classes at the Conservatoire. He held appointments as lecturer at Leeds University (1961-3) where he gained his MusD, Director of Music at Bradford Girls’ Grammar School (1963-5) and lecturer at York University (1965-70), where he was among six composers in an innovative and then still new Music Department.

In 1970 he moved to Oxford University where, following Edmund Rubbra and Kenneth Leighton, he was appointed Fellow at Worcester College. Sherlaw Johnson founded the Electronic Music Studio at the Faculty of Music and wrote several works for the Fairlight CMI, including Kyisi (1982). His interest in electro-acoustic music and computers spawned a fascination for the relationship between maths and music, the use of Golden Section structures and the compositional possibilities inherent in Fractals.

He received the D.Mus. (Oxon.) in 1990 for his contribution to composition and remained at Oxford until his retirement in 1999 when the composer Robert Saxton was appointed his successor. Holding university positions over more than thirty years, Sherlaw Johnson’s influence as a teacher is great and lasting.

Central to Sherlaw Johnson’s musical life and activities as a composer was his Catholic faith. His intimate knowledge of plainchant influenced aspects of his melodic writing and the flexible nature of his music which often sounds free although it is rigorously crafted. He composed a number of masses and other functional pieces for use in Roman liturgy, several of which were composed for the Easter Music Week of Spode House which he directed for many years. Frequented by many musicians closely involved with music for the Catholic liturgy, including the late George Malcolm, Spode moved to Hengrave Hall near Bury St. Edmunds in 1988. One of Sherlaw Johnson's last completed works was a Mass written for and first performed at Spode in August 2000.

Possessing an intensely dynamic mind for which relaxation was possible only when focused on concentrated activity, one of Robert’s most notable hobbies (apart from wine-making) was the collecting of historic playing-cards. Not only did he attend international collectors' congresses but also mastered a host of the most esoteric card-games of which Hungarian Tarok was among the more simple. He had a great love of cats - especially grey ones - his impish humour revealing itself in his label for his home-made wine, ‘Chateau Robert au domaine du chat gris’.

In recent years he developed an interest in the very English practice of bell-ringing and even wrote his own computer programme to practise the ringing of changes more comfortably at home. Ironically, it was while ringing at the historic Oxfordshire tower of Appleton that, in the midst of sound itself and about to embark on the Yorkshire Surprise Major, he died. He is survived by his wife, the painter Rachel Sherlaw Johnson (nee Clarke), whom he married in 1959, their two daughters Rebecca and Griselda, three sons, Christopher, Austin and Edward and four grandchildren.

[Main news stories | News in brief | Events | Notice board]


HTML by Karen Cooper