Robert Johnson (c. 1583 - 1633) 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. Johnson worked with William Shakespeare providing music for some of his later plays.
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 George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon as an apprentice. Robert is assumed to have been around 13 at the time, as this was a typical age to begin an apprenticeship, but his date of birth is not known. Carey and his wife Elizabeth Spencer were patrons of the lutenist and composer John Dowland, who dedicated various compositions to them. The family had a London house (in Blackfriars) and a country home Hunsdon House (in Hunsdon, Hertfordshire), which partially survives.
Johnson joined the Carey household at an interesting time in their patronage of the arts. In 1597 Dowland dedicated his First book of songs and ayres to George Carey. As well as supporting musicians, Carey was patron of a theatre company to which William Shakespeare belonged. In 1596/7 the company was briefly known as "Baron Hunsdon's Men", but is better known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men (the name they used after Carey became Lord Chamberlain in 1597), or their subsequent name, the King's Men. It is not known whether Johnson worked with this theatre company on any of their productions in the 1590s, such as The Merry Wives of Windsor. However, he certainly provided music for the King's Men in a later stage of his career.
Johnson's patron George Carey died in 1603. The following year Johnson found work at the court of James I where a number of lutenists were employed. Lutes came in various sizes and Johnson may have specialised in the bass lute when playing in consort music.
Johnson was lutenist to Prince Henry (until the prince's death in 1612). He composed music for the masques and entertainments which were popular at court in the Jacobean era. For example, he wrote music for Oberon, the Faery Prince in which Prince Henry took the title role. He also served at the court of Charles I, remaining on the royal payroll until 1633, the year of his death.
Johnson's surviving compositions for the King's Men theatrical company have been dated to 1610-1617. During these years the King's Men were producing plays by Shakespeare and other playwrights such as Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. Johnson's main claim to fame is that he 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.
From 1608 the King's Men company was using the Blackfriars Theatre as its winter base, and this may have influenced the songs and instrumental music required from Johnson. The Blackfriars Theatre, which had previously been used by a company of acting/singing children, offered increased scope for incidental music compared to the Globe Theatre. One difference between the theatres was that Blackfriars was an indoors venue, lit by candles which needed to be replaced between acts. It featured music between acts, a practice which the induction to Marston's The Malcontent (published 1604) indicates was not common in the public theatres at that time. Shakespeare´s The Tempest (circa 1610), in which the stage directions call for music and sound effects, is an example of a play which may have been written for performance at Blackfriars. However, the company continued to perform at The Globe, and other venues such as the court, where Johnson's theatre music would presumably also have been heard.
There is a partial discography on the HOASM website. Other recordings include a recital of Robert's lute music by Nigel North on Naxos, and a lute recital by Lynda Sayce of music by Robert and his father on Dervorguilla Records.