Friday, March 12, 2010

12 March 1888: Composer Hall Johnson Is Born in Athens

On this day in 1888, musician Francis Hall Johnson was born in Athens, Georgia. He grew up around music, through his father, Reverend William D. Johnson's church, and his grandmother's spirituals. Both he and his sister were taught the piano as children, and he began composing his own music and creating his own arrangements of the music he encountered in his daily life from an early age.

Johnson attended the Knox Institute on the corner of Pope and Hull Streets, opened as the Knox School in 1868 by the Freedman's Bureau to educate former slaves. By the time Johnson attended, it was part of the American Missionary Association (AMA) and taught vocational skills such as sewing, typesetting, and carpentry in addition to basic academic courses. He graduated at 14, and spent a year at Atlanta University (founded by the AMA) before transferring to Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, where his father had been named President. It was during this time Johnson taught himself to play the violin. He graduated from Allen in 1908.

Johnson then went to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Music, and later studied at the Julliard School in the early 1920s. In 1923, he was part of the Negro String Quintet, performing classical arrangements as well as current black composers. His classical training was made stronger by his fluency in German and French, and he recommended to his students that they learn the languages they were singing.

In 1925, he formed the Hall Johnson Choir, which performed his own arrangements of spirituals and other traditional black music "to show how the American Negro slaves...created, propagated and illuminated an art form which was, and still is, unique to the world of music." The choir was a huge success, not just for concerts, but also singing in Broadway productions and on movie soundtracks throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s.

Throughout the rest of his life, Johnson continued to compose and arrange, but also write about music. Of spirituals, he wrote in 1949, "True enough, this music was transmitted to us through humble channels, but its source is that of great art everywhere--the unquenchable, divinely human longing for a perfect realization of life."

Johnson died in an apartment fire in New York City in 1970.

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