Robert Sherlaw Johnson , Dr

Robert Sherlaw Johnson , Dr

b: 21 MAY 1932
d: 3 NOV 2000
Malton Croft
Woodland Rise, Stonesfield
Nr Whitney
Oxfordshire
OX8 8PL
Robert Sherlaw-Johnson
Teacher, composer and pianist whose output reflected his affinity with Messiaen

Guardian, Thursday November 16, 2000

The composer and pianist Robert Sherlaw-Johnson, who has died aged 68, belonged to the enlightened generation of British composers of the 1950s that embraced modernist musical developments from continental Europe, transforming the musical landscape into the one we now take for granted. This change was not due solely, as is often suggested, to Sir William Glock and his team at the BBC. Even before the Glock ascendancy, these young composers, who had not yet made their mark, were studying in various parts of Europe, and they brought back new ideas, new techniques, and different aesthetics.

Born and brought up in Sunderland, Sherlaw- Johnson went to Gosforth grammar school, Newcastle upon Tyne, was a student at the University of Durham from 1950-53, and studied piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1953-57. He then went to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, to attend Messiaen's epoch-defining analysis class at the Paris Conservatoire, and to study piano with Jacques Février.

At that time, Messiaen's music was little known in Britain, but Sherlaw-Johnson had phenomenal facility as a pianist, and was able to tackle some of the most demanding works in the repertory, including Messiaen's monumental cycle, the Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus, which he often performed (but never recorded). However, he did record the whole of Messiaen's Catalogue d'Oiseaux for solo piano, and Harawi (with the soprano Noelle Barker). His doctoral thesis on Messiaen's music (Leeds, 1970) was followed by his book Messiaen (1974, revised 1989), the first major study of Messiaen's music published in English. It remains a classic of an unusual kind, replete with the insights that can come when one composer retraces the steps of another.

Inevitably, his work on Messiaen had an impact on his own music, and perhaps even more so on others' perception of it. Some early works show the influence of Messiaen, as well as of Varèse and Boulez, but later works transcend these influences. He leaves some important (and technically very demanding) piano works, including three piano sonatas, and Asterogenesis (1973). There is an opera (The Lambton Worm, 1977), and a Symphony (1999). Two works for soprano, piano and tape result from his notable collaboration with Noelle Barker: The Praises of Heaven and Earth, and Green Whispers of Gold.

He also leaves a significant body of religious and liturgical pieces (he converted to Roman Catholicism), the most recent of which, a Mass, will be premiered next year. Sherlaw-Johnson held several teaching positions: Leeds University (1961-63); director of music at Bradford Girls' grammar school (1963-65); and the universities of York (1965-70) and Oxford (1970-99). Although he spent the last 30 years in Oxford, as university lecturer in music (latterly reader) and fellow of Worcester College, it should not be forgotten that he was a member of that "Camelot" of composers which Wilfred Mellers brought together at York in the 1960s (including Bernard Rands and David Blake). By comparison, Oxford was not known as a centre for composition, but Sherlaw-Johnson's arrival (succeeding Kenneth Leighton and Edmund Rubbra) certainly helped, and he was to act as mentor for many musicians who have passed through Oxford.

In 1988, he was awarded the Oxford DMus, and was thus the only person in the country to have two "earned" higher doctorates of music. Robert Saxton, his successor at Worcester College, and I made the journey from Cambridge to Oxford to study with Sherlaw-Johnson at about the same time. I recall his tutoring as rigorous but not dogmatic, encouraging and constructive in its criticism: he considered the work presented to him in its own terms, and did not seek to impose his own creative ideas or personality. His death was sudden and poignant, like that of an actor who dies on stage.

For some years, he had been a keen bell-ringer. The interest had grown from his own compositions and his playing of bell-inspired piano works by other composers (one recent work of his was inspired by the bells of Rennes Cathedral). He regularly rang at his local church at Stonesfield, near Woodstock, but on this occasion was ringing at the historic tower of Appleton, south-west of Oxford. A full ring of Stedmans was giving way to Yorkshire Surprise Major when he collapsed and died in the bell tower.

He leaves a widow, Rachael (an accomplished painter), their three sons, two daughters and four grandchildren.

• Robert Sherlaw-Johnson, composer, born May 21 1932; died November 3, 2000


Robert Sherlaw Johnson, from The Independent, Tuesday 7 November 2000:

Robert Sherlaw Johnson was one of the leading musical figures of a generation in Britain including David Blake, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, Jonathan Harvey, John McCabe and Hugh Wood. In common with four of them, he was a Northerner and his sometimes enigmatic and self-facing exterior hid an inner core of strength of purpose and humour. Brought up as a Presbyterian and educated at Gosforth Grammar School, Newcastle, Durham University and the Royal Academy of Music, he converted to Roman Catholicism as a young man, a decision which manifested itself in various strands of his work. His book on the music of the 20th century's most prominent Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen (Messiaen, 1975) is a standard work, Sherlaw Johnson having studied in both Messiaen's and Nadia Boulanger's classes in Paris while taking piano lessons with Jacques Fevrier. He regularly directed the music for Easter Music Week at Spode House in Staffordshire (now held at Hengrave Hall in Suffolk) and wrote the Millennium Mass for this year's Easter Music Week, his liturgical music illustrating the time and energy he devoted to plainchant research.

His temperament was an investigative one and from the mid-1960s he was a prominent figure as the composer of path-breaking piano and chamber music. His Second String Quartet was awarded joint first prize at the 1969 Radcliffe Music Award by Benjamin Britten and was commercially recorded on Argo, a label which featured him as pianist when he made what is now the "classic" recording of Messiaen's enormous Catalogue d'oiseaux; he also recorded the same composer's song-cycles Poemes pour Mi, Chants de terre et de ciel and Harawi with the soprano Noelle Barker, as well as Boulez's Second Sonata, a work demanding enormous stamina and all-round technique.

Having lectured at the universities of Leeds & York, where he was a member of Wilfred Mellers newly founded department, Sherlaw Johnson became the third composer in succession (after Edmund Rubbra and Kenneth Leighton) to be appointed University Lecturer (and, later, Reader) and Fellow and Tutor in Music at Worcester College, Oxford, where he lost no time in setting up an electronic music studio in the faculty. Typically, he doggedly taught himself the complex and, by today's standards, cumbersome technology of the 1970s, holding seminars for students and running the studio single-handed. In more recent years, he applied mathematical fractal theory to composition, delighting in giving lectures both at Oxford and at conferences, in which he would describe the specific equation being used at some length, following this with a recording of his Fractal in A flat, a piece of somewhat comical character. Nothing could better illustrate his combination of lack of pretention with formidable technical assurance and intellectual brilliance. The latter also revealed itself in his card playing and expertise in Hungarian Tarock (he was a member of the International Playing-Card Society), and in his love of computer technology; on the lighter side, he made his own (rather strong) beer and wine. He wasa formidable croquet player of great accuracy and power, as those on losing side knew to their cost. Since the mid-1990s he had taken up bell-ringing, mastering the most difficult peals; indeed, he died whilst ringing Yorkshire Surprise Major at Appleton, in Oxfordshire. One of his most beautiful recent piano pieces had been inspired by the bells of Rennes Cathedral in France.

As a teacher, Sherlaw Johnston nurtured several generations of musicians, some of whom have worked with him professionally. Nicholas Cleobury (a former organ scholar of Worcester College) has conducted his music and Caroline Rae partnered him both in Britain and abroad in two-piano recitals of Messiaen and his own work. When a small, unassuming figure made its way to the piano in St John's, Smith Square, in London one evening during the 1971 Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music, few in the audience were expecting the astounding display of keyboard virtuosity combined with profound musicality which ensued. As a school leaver in that audience (which included Pierre Boulez), I had no idea of the influence that Robert Sherlaw Johnson would have on my own life; the performance of his Second Piano Sonata which he gave then is etched on my memory nearly 30 years later, not only for its quality as music-making, but also because it summed up both man and musician as I came to know him.

His generosity and care frequently went well beyond the call of duty and I was not the only student to benefit from these qualities: having acted as external examiner for my undergraduate Finals at Cambridge in the mid-1970s, he suggested that I work with him as a postgraduate at Oxford and his encouragement, advise and wisdom have sustained me ever since. Having being a Visiting Professor in Composition at the Eastman School in Rochester, New York, in the 1980s, he had returned to the United States in the past year to lecture and play at a Messiaen conference in Texas and, since his retirement from Oxford in 1999, he had continued to tutor students at Worcester College.

Robert Sherlaw Johnson's compositions have never received the recognition which they deserve; pieces of the sheer musical quality of Asterogenesis for piano and Carmina vernalia for soprano and ensemble are masterpieces of British music. His Symphony, premiered in Oxford in 1999 (and still awaiting a professional performance), seems, in retrospect, to be valedictory; it presents the listener with a wonderfully expressive and perfectly proportioned aural voyage, culminating in a solo for the Northumbrian pipes, an instrument which Sherlaw Johnson played. In this final large-scale work, typically without sentimentality or nostalgia, the music finds rest in the sounds of the landscape from whence its creator came.

Robert Saxton

END
Biography
Malton Croft
Woodland Rise, Stonesfield
Nr Whitney
Oxfordshire
OX8 8PL Robert Sherlaw-Johnson
Teacher, composer and pianist whose output reflected his affinity with Messiaen

Guardian, Thursday November 16, 2000

The composer and pianist Robert Sherlaw-Johnson, who has died aged 68, belonged to the enlightened generation of British composers of the 1950s that embraced modernist musical developments from continental Europe, transforming the musical landscape into the one we now take for granted. This change was not due solely, as is often suggested, to Sir William Glock and his team at the BBC. Even before the Glock ascendancy, these young composers, who had not yet made their mark, were studying in various parts of Europe, and they brought back new ideas, new techniques, and different aesthetics.

Born and brought up in Sunderland, Sherlaw- Johnson went to Gosforth grammar school, Newcastle upon Tyne, was a student at the University of Durham from 1950-53, and studied piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music from 1953-57. He then went to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger, to attend Messiaen's epoch-defining analysis class at the Paris Conservatoire, and to study piano with Jacques Février.

At that time, Messiaen's music was little known in Britain, but Sherlaw-Johnson had phenomenal facility as a pianist, and was able to tackle some of the most demanding works in the repertory, including Messiaen's monumental cycle, the Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jésus, which he often performed (but never recorded). However, he did record the whole of Messiaen's Catalogue d'Oiseaux for solo piano, and Harawi (with the soprano Noelle Barker). His doctoral thesis on Messiaen's music (Leeds, 1970) was followed by his book Messiaen (1974, revised 1989), the first major study of Messiaen's music published in English. It remains a classic of an unusual kind, replete with the insights that can come when one composer retraces the steps of another.

Inevitably, his work on Messiaen had an impact on his own music, and perhaps even more so on others' perception of it. Some early works show the influence of Messiaen, as well as of Varèse and Boulez, but later works transcend these influences. He leaves some important (and technically very demanding) piano works, including three piano sonatas, and Asterogenesis (1973). There is an opera (The Lambton Worm, 1977), and a Symphony (1999). Two works for soprano, piano and tape result from his notable collaboration with Noelle Barker: The Praises of Heaven and Earth, and Green Whispers of Gold.

He also leaves a significant body of religious and liturgical pieces (he converted to Roman Catholicism), the most recent of which, a Mass, will be premiered next year. Sherlaw-Johnson held several teaching positions: Leeds University (1961-63); director of music at Bradford Girls' grammar school (1963-65); and the universities of York (1965-70) and Oxford (1970-99). Although he spent the last 30 years in Oxford, as university lecturer in music (latterly reader) and fellow of Worcester College, it should not be forgotten that he was a member of that "Camelot" of composers which Wilfred Mellers brought together at York in the 1960s (including Bernard Rands and David Blake). By comparison, Oxford was not known as a centre for composition, but Sherlaw-Johnson's arrival (succeeding Kenneth Leighton and Edmund Rubbra) certainly helped, and he was to act as mentor for many musicians who have passed through Oxford.

In 1988, he was awarded the Oxford DMus, and was thus the only person in the country to have two "earned" higher doctorates of music. Robert Saxton, his successor at Worcester College, and I made the journey from Cambridge to Oxford to study with Sherlaw-Johnson at about the same time. I recall his tutoring as rigorous but not dogmatic, encouraging and constructive in its criticism: he considered the work presented to him in its own terms, and did not seek to impose his own creative ideas or personality. His death was sudden and poignant, like that of an actor who dies on stage.

For some years, he had been a keen bell-ringer. The interest had grown from his own compositions and his playing of bell-inspired piano works by other composers (one recent work of his was inspired by the bells of Rennes Cathedral). He regularly rang at his local church at Stonesfield, near Woodstock, but on this occasion was ringing at the historic tower of Appleton, south-west of Oxford. A full ring of Stedmans was giving way to Yorkshire Surprise Major when he collapsed and died in the bell tower.

He leaves a widow, Rachael (an accomplished painter), their three sons, two daughters and four grandchildren.

• Robert Sherlaw-Johnson, composer, born May 21 1932; died November 3, 2000


Robert Sherlaw Johnson, from The Independent, Tuesday 7 November 2000:

Robert Sherlaw Johnson was one of the leading musical figures of a generation in Britain including David Blake, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, Jonathan Harvey, John McCabe and Hugh Wood. In common with four of them, he was a Northerner and his sometimes enigmatic and self-facing exterior hid an inner core of strength of purpose and humour. Brought up as a Presbyterian and educated at Gosforth Grammar School, Newcastle, Durham University and the Royal Academy of Music, he converted to Roman Catholicism as a young man, a decision which manifested itself in various strands of his work. His book on the music of the 20th century's most prominent Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen (Messiaen, 1975) is a standard work, Sherlaw Johnson having studied in both Messiaen's and Nadia Boulanger's classes in Paris while taking piano lessons with Jacques Fevrier. He regularly directed the music for Easter Music Week at Spode House in Staffordshire (now held at Hengrave Hall in Suffolk) and wrote the Millennium Mass for this year's Easter Music Week, his liturgical music illustrating the time and energy he devoted to plainchant research.

His temperament was an investigative one and from the mid-1960s he was a prominent figure as the composer of path-breaking piano and chamber music. His Second String Quartet was awarded joint first prize at the 1969 Radcliffe Music Award by Benjamin Britten and was commercially recorded on Argo, a label which featured him as pianist when he made what is now the "classic" recording of Messiaen's enormous Catalogue d'oiseaux; he also recorded the same composer's song-cycles Poemes pour Mi, Chants de terre et de ciel and Harawi with the soprano Noelle Barker, as well as Boulez's Second Sonata, a work demanding enormous stamina and all-round technique.

Having lectured at the universities of Leeds & York, where he was a member of Wilfred Mellers newly founded department, Sherlaw Johnson became the third composer in succession (after Edmund Rubbra and Kenneth Leighton) to be appointed University Lecturer (and, later, Reader) and Fellow and Tutor in Music at Worcester College, Oxford, where he lost no time in setting up an electronic music studio in the faculty. Typically, he doggedly taught himself the complex and, by today's standards, cumbersome technology of the 1970s, holding seminars for students and running the studio single-handed. In more recent years, he applied mathematical fractal theory to composition, delighting in giving lectures both at Oxford and at conferences, in which he would describe the specific equation being used at some length, following this with a recording of his Fractal in A flat, a piece of somewhat comical character. Nothing could better illustrate his combination of lack of pretention with formidable technical assurance and intellectual brilliance. The latter also revealed itself in his card playing and expertise in Hungarian Tarock (he was a member of the International Playing-Card Society), and in his love of computer technology; on the lighter side, he made his own (rather strong) beer and wine. He wasa formidable croquet player of great accuracy and power, as those on losing side knew to their cost. Since the mid-1990s he had taken up bell-ringing, mastering the most difficult peals; indeed, he died whilst ringing Yorkshire Surprise Major at Appleton, in Oxfordshire. One of his most beautiful recent piano pieces had been inspired by the bells of Rennes Cathedral in France.

As a teacher, Sherlaw Johnston nurtured several generations of musicians, some of whom have worked with him professionally. Nicholas Cleobury (a former organ scholar of Worcester College) has conducted his music and Caroline Rae partnered him both in Britain and abroad in two-piano recitals of Messiaen and his own work. When a small, unassuming figure made its way to the piano in St John's, Smith Square, in London one evening during the 1971 Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music, few in the audience were expecting the astounding display of keyboard virtuosity combined with profound musicality which ensued. As a school leaver in that audience (which included Pierre Boulez), I had no idea of the influence that Robert Sherlaw Johnson would have on my own life; the performance of his Second Piano Sonata which he gave then is etched on my memory nearly 30 years later, not only for its quality as music-making, but also because it summed up both man and musician as I came to know him.

His generosity and care frequently went well beyond the call of duty and I was not the only student to benefit from these qualities: having acted as external examiner for my undergraduate Finals at Cambridge in the mid-1970s, he suggested that I work with him as a postgraduate at Oxford and his encouragement, advise and wisdom have sustained me ever since. Having being a Visiting Professor in Composition at the Eastman School in Rochester, New York, in the 1980s, he had returned to the United States in the past year to lecture and play at a Messiaen conference in Texas and, since his retirement from Oxford in 1999, he had continued to tutor students at Worcester College.

Robert Sherlaw Johnson's compositions have never received the recognition which they deserve; pieces of the sheer musical quality of Asterogenesis for piano and Carmina vernalia for soprano and ensemble are masterpieces of British music. His Symphony, premiered in Oxford in 1999 (and still awaiting a professional performance), seems, in retrospect, to be valedictory; it presents the listener with a wonderfully expressive and perfectly proportioned aural voyage, culminating in a solo for the Northumbrian pipes, an instrument which Sherlaw Johnson played. In this final large-scale work, typically without sentimentality or nostalgia, the music finds rest in the sounds of the landscape from whence its creator came.

Robert Saxton

END
Facts
  • 21 MAY 1932 - Birth - ; Sunderland, Co Durham, UK
  • 3 NOV 2000 - Death - ; Appleton, Oxfordshire, UK
  • BET 1961 AND 1963 - Fact -
  • BET 1963 AND 1965 - Fact -
  • BET 1965 AND 1970 - Fact -
  • BET 1970 AND 1998 - Fact -
  • BET 1970 AND 1999 - Fact -
  • 1976 - Fact -
  • Nobility Title - Dr.
Ancestors
   
?
 
 
?
  
  
  
?
 
Robert Sherlaw Johnson , Dr
21 MAY 1932 - 3 NOV 2000
  
 
  
?
 
 
?
  
  
  
?
 
Family Group Sheet - Child
PARENT (U) ?
Birth
Death
Father?
Mother?
PARENT (U) ?
Birth
Death
Father?
Mother?
CHILDREN
MRobert Sherlaw Johnson , Dr
Birth21 MAY 1932Sunderland, Co Durham, UK
Death3 NOV 2000Appleton, Oxfordshire, UK
Marriage1959to Private
Family Group Sheet - Spouse
PARENT (M) Robert Sherlaw Johnson , Dr
Birth21 MAY 1932Sunderland, Co Durham, UK
Death3 NOV 2000 Appleton, Oxfordshire, UK
Marriage1959to Private
Father?
Mother?
PARENT () Private
Birth
Death
Marriage1959to Robert Sherlaw Johnson , Dr
FatherCyril Clarke
MotherElizabeth Eularia Baines
CHILDREN
Private
Birth
Death
Private
Birth
Death
Private
Birth
Death
Private
Birth
Death
Private
Birth
Death
Evidence
[S3841] The James, Pyne, Dixon Family Book, compiled by Alicia C Percival, publ London 1977
Descendancy Chart
Robert Sherlaw Johnson , Dr b: 21 MAY 1932 d: 3 NOV 2000