• ca1583 — 1633
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Robert Johnson was the son of composer/lutenist John Johnson. While his father was known primarily for his lute music, Robert was more versatile in his output, turning out both lute and sacred vocal works, as well as songs, especially songs written for plays. In this latter genre he was a key figure in establishing the more declamatory style that began to emerge in England in the second decade of the seventeenth century.
The exact details of Robert Johnson's birth are uncertain, but he likely was born in London around 1583. His early musical education undoubtedly came from his father, who died in 1594, when Robert was about 11. In 1596 the young boy was taken into the service of George Carey, who had recently been appointed Lord Chamberlain. Carey provided for Robert's music education and supplied him with room and board, in effect serving as a surrogate father.
Johnson's earliest surviving lute music dates to around 1600, about the middle of the period he was indentured to Carey. He left Carey's service in 1603 and the following year secured the appointment of lutenist to King James I. His father had served in the same capacity under Queen Elizabeth. Johnson would hold this prestigious post, along with others simultaneously, until his death in 1633.
After a period of travel abroad in 1605-1607 with the Earl of Hertford, Johnson returned to England and began working with a troupe of actors and singers, the King's Men. He soon began producing songs for their plays, most notably for their Shakespeare productions: for Cymbeline (1609-1610) he wrote "Hark! hark! the lark!"; for The Tempest (ca. 1611) he composed two of his most popular songs, "Full Fathom Five" and "Where the bee sucks." Johnson also wrote songs for other plays, including some by Beaumont and Fletcher, and Ben Jonson.
It appears that Johnson either wrote no lute music after 1615, or that if he did, the manuscripts were lost. He continued to write songs for plays into the 1620s, however, and remained active at Court as well. Besides serving as lutenist to the King, he held secondary posts with Prince Henry (1610-1612) and Prince Charles (1617-1625). The latter position did not end in 1625, however, but was redefined and retained by the composer until his death in late November 1633.