THOMAS JOHNSON (1908-90) .... Greyfriars Suite
Many amateur pianists will be familiar with the name
Thomas Arnold Johnson, because he produced a good deal of music for
learners. Much of it was for piano duet though there are solos, sight
reading exercises and two-piano works ( a form which now seems to be in
decline; a house containing two pianos in the same room is now a rarity).
I met Tom in about 1983, after sending him
some of my own piano pieces. He was kind enough to write back and offered
help in composition. From that date we corresponded regularly, and a year
or so later I met Tom at his home in Neston, Wirral. For several years
we played duets together occasionally, and exchanged music.
Tom's first piano pieces were published whilst he was
still a schoolboy. Also whilst still at school (aged 15) he began
films at the local cinema, providing the musical sound track. This lasted
about five years, when the "talkies" arrived. He used Metzler's Cinema
Music, and pieces by Darewski, Ewing, Haines and Ketelbey, as well as
his own improvisations. He had a great love of early films and had an
enormous collection of film stills in his music room at Neston. Up to
the age of 20 he was self-taught, but he subsequently studied in Manchester
at the Royal College of Music and obtained his teaching and performing
diplomas. He made lots of radio broadcasts in the 30s, and gave recitals.
He gave the first broadcast of the Raff piano concerto. He also gave
talks on music which were broadcast (e.g. in "Music Magazine") but none of them survive in the
BBC archive; only one item involving Tom exists: "Children's Activities", 5
July 1956, with James Brown (another composer) and Olivia Cufolla (pianist) -
clearly an educational programme aimed at young children. The later part
of his life was largely occupied in teaching the piano to private pupils.
He collected sheet music and had a very large amount
of material from the 1800s, including the complete published works of
many minor composers. He was especially keen on Raff, but if you named
a composer from this period, the chances were that he would have the piece
you were looking for: Jensen, Hiller, Fibich, Chaminade, Godard,
Moszkowski, the Scharwenkas, and so on. With the help of the Associated
Board he produced decent versions of favourite pieces by minor
composers. His starting point for a piece would often be a badly edited
Victorian edition, long out of print, but the only version available.
Philip Scowcroft of the British Music Society has written an
interesting article about Tom Johnson, which is on-line, and I
have no wish to plagiarise. But Philip doesn't mention why
Tom's music is special. His
music is well-liked because it's fun for both player and listener; it is
happy music, which reflects his sunny, attractive
personality. His enthusiasm for life and for the piano jumps out from
every page - from the simplest sight reading books to the powerful
unpublished sonata which he recorded at the HMV studio just after the war.
Concert Waltz by T.A.J. played by ND on Youtube
Thomas Johnson: some of the works held by N.D:
Four CDs containing Sonata Fm, variation sets, studies, sonata for piano & clarinet,
and about 50 pieces published by Peters / Hinrichsen.
Traditional Tunes (folktune arr)
DUETS: ONE PIANO
Lady of Brazil
Pachelbel Canon, arr
Rumba, dedicated to Billy Mayerl
Vicar of Bray
5 Easy Duets
Concert Waltz, unpublished
Sonata, unpublished, 2nd mvt.
Themes from the concertos, arr
Tango & Rumba
Four rural sketches
In the Meadows
In the heart of the country
PS...Somewhere there is a "Greyfriars" suite -
pieces based on the
Billy Bunter stories, with titles like "Harry Wharton", "Bob Cherry", etc,
but at the time I knew Tom, he had lost the ms. He said there were no copies. I hope that it is 'out there' somewhere.....
UPDATE 2012.....I am astonished to learn that someone has found the Greyfriars Suite - and it is online as a pdf file, made available by Stewart Clarke of the 'Friardale' site and Naveed Haque from Canada, who has an interest in Charles Hamilton, the writer of (as Frank Richards) the 'Bunter' stories......thank you, Naveed. Never thought I would have these and be able to play them. Which reminds me - I should scan my own TAJ manuscripts - the Concert Waltz (unpublished) and the first movement of his Sonata no. 1.
MUSIC RECORDINGS (mp3)
T.A.Johnson: Concert Waltz, played by ND
Nigel Deacon , Diversity Website
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MORE ABOUT TOM JOHNSON AND THE GREYFRIARS SUITE:
Many amateur pianists will be familiar with the name Thomas Arnold Johnson, whom I knew for a period of about seven years at the end of his life. He was a composer of considerable ability and produced a lot of music for learners including piano duets, solos, sight reading and two-piano works, though he is probably best-known for his arrangements.
He was something of a musical prodigy; Tom's first piano pieces were published whilst he was still a schoolboy. Whilst at school (aged 15) he had an unusual part-timejob; he began accompanying films at the local cinema, providing the musical sound track on the piano, until the talkies arrived. He had a love of early films and had a comprehensive collection of film stills in his music room at Neston, where he spent many hours each day, surrounded by enormous quantities of sheet music and a venerable work-table.
He would sit at the Bechstein in his green bobble-hat (it was cold in that room in the winter), exploring some new two-piano piece, sight reading at a tremendous pace; his perspiring partner trying to keep up, and occasionally exclaiming 'slow down'!
He had to be pressed to speak about his compositions. To quote C.S.Lewis: 'You forget all propietorship in your own works. You enjoy them as if they were someone else's, without pride and without modesty'.
This brings us to the Greyfriars Suite. Tom told me about this in 1988. It's based on characters from the 'Billy Bunter' stories, which were set in a fictional public school called Greyfriars, and he had a lifelong affection for these stories, which were written by Charles Hamilton (pen name Frank Richards). Tom said ruefully that he had lost his manuscript years ago, and that the pieces were never published.
In early 2012, nearly 25 years later, I was browsing on the internet to see if any new Youtube performances of Tom's piano arrangements had been posted. To my surprise I noticed a reference to 'The Greyfriars Suite', and when I clicked on it (the 'Friardale' website, www.friardale.co.uk), up came the title page of the manuscript. I clicked again - and there was a copy, indistinct but complete, of the whole suite! Incredible. I contacted the webmaster, who was most helpful.
He referred me to the owner of the manuscript, a person living in Canada. The story goes like this; apparently the manuscript had been given by Tom to Charles Hamilton, whom he had visited in 1947, and it was in Hamilton's possession for many years.
Hamilton died in 1961, and the house passed into the possession of his housekeeper for about 20 years before she moved into a nursing home. When the house was sold, a well-known Hamilton fan rescued the contents of Hamilton's study, and moved them into his own house. When he died, his widow sold some of the stuff, and this was when the present owner of the manuscript acquired it.
The Greyfriars Suite is actually six pieces. No 1 is 'Greyfriars', setting the scene, and the sort of piece one might play as the children gather for 'school assembly'.
No 2 is 'Quelchy' - Henry Samuel Quelch; the ms is inscribed "with ashplant". Quelch was Bunter's form master; an essentially kindly man who occasionally found it necessary to whack his pupils with a cane (originally a flexible piece of ash) if they could not or would not learn, or if they misbehaved. One can actually hear the swish of the cane in the music; a clever piece of writing. It is a difficult piece to play.
No 3 is an amiable, pleasant piece, 'Bob Cherry', which reflects the character portrayed; steady, honest and reliable.
No 4 is a definite highlight; William Samuel Bunter, the Fat Owl of the Remove. You can hear his vast bulk rolling into the quad in the opening bars, and his silly giggle as he plays a joke on his friends - or steals a cake ...
No 5 is another highlight; Alonzo Todd, Poet and Dreamer, and the other-worldly music fits perfectly, dying away gently at the end.
No 6 is Harry Wharton and the Famous Five (Bunter's close friends), which brings the suite to a quiet conclusion, in a similar style to the 'Bob Cherry' piece.
The inscription to Charles Hamilton covers half of the last page, and reads as follows:
"Greyfriars School, A Suite by Thomas A Johnson: To Frank Richards, in appreciation of many happy hours spent with his dream children."
I recorded these pieces during the summer of 2012. I am no virtuoso, but hope you enjoy them. Tom would be delighted that this music is now in circulation once more.
So ... here are the Greyfriars pieces; I've had to compress them to reduce the file size, so they sounds slightly echoey and 'bubbly'. The original recordings will be going onto my 2012 CD along with some early music and some pieces by Herbert Oppenheimer (q.v.).
2.Quelchy (with ashplant)
5.Alonzo Todd, Poet and Dreamer
6.Harry Wharton and the Famous Five
Nigel Deacon, England, 31 July 2012