HE was a Roman Catholic priest and composer of sacred music who turned to Protestantism and had to flee to England to escape persecution as a heretic.

Now the 16th-century musical works of Robert Johnson are to be revived and made accessible to a wider audience.

The project collecting his music may also lead to further inquiry into the claim that Johnson was sometime chaplain to Anne Boleyn, the Queen of England who had the unfortunate fate of marrying Henry VIII, who had her head chopped off for alleged treason by adultery.

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For undoubtedly Johnson’s most famous work is Queen Anne’s Lament, which features words apparently written by Anne Boleyn herself.

Dr Elaine Moohan, Senior Lecturer in Music for The Open University in Scotland, has received a grant from The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) that will lead to the production of a modern performing edition of Johnson's music.

These scores will be made available to music scholars, amateur and professional singing ensembles and schools.

A historical text claims Johnson, from the Scottish Borders, fled to England after being accused of heresy. It is believed he lived until 1560 – the year of the Reformation in Scotland.

Johnson composed many works, some in Latin and others in English, and 36 of those are currently scattered around UK libraries in 62 manuscripts, including at the British Library in London, the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library and The University of Edinburgh.

Moohan is visiting these to compile The Collected Works of Robert Johnson. She will transcribe and interpret Johnson’s musical notation for modern-day use, which includes collating music copied into separate vocal partbooks – such as the five-voice Easter Sunday piece, Dum transisset Sabbatum – into a modern score layout.

She said: “Generally we have very few remaining pre-Reformation religious texts, including music, in Scotland.

"Johnson is an important composer for Scotland because there are so many of his works that exist; 36 that can be attributed to him, including 30 complete ones.

“That is quite a big output for a composer, and for them to survive is impressive, as so many books were destroyed at the Reformation.”

Eighteen bars of Johnson’s music even feature in a Scottish book on music theory from 1580, emphasising how well-known he was then.

Moohan said: “From the sources which still exist, Johnson could be counted among the best composers of the time.”

The award from The RSE, an Arts and Humanities Small Research Grant, is supported by Scottish Government funding.

Once finished, Moohan’s scores, both individual and as a complete volume of around 200 pages, will be published under the auspices of research network Musica Scotica as part of their series of scholarly editions of Scottish music from all the historical eras.

This is scheduled for next spring and Moohan is keen for musical performances to take place around the launch.


Johnson was one of many who fled to England to avoid persecution

By Hamish MacPherson

THE fate of Robert Johnson was common to many priests in Scotland in the time before the Reformation.

The preaching of Martin Luther and John Calvin had spread across Europe, bringing the Catholic Church in Rome into a long and bitter conflict with the Reformers.

In Scotland in the 1530s, when Johnson was already a noted composer of church music, the Roman Catholic hierarchy was doing its best – and failing – to contain the spread of Protestantism.

The problem for the Scottish bishops was that Protestantism as they saw it was politically linked to the English court where, from 1532 to 1534, Henry VIII had created his own version of the Reformation that made him head of the Church of England. Henry also wanted to break the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, but the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland was strongly opposed to that.

So for patriotic and clerical reasons, a similar Reformation just could not be allowed to happen in Scotland, though an increasing number of the nobility embraced the Reformers’ cause.

We know very little about Johnson other than that he was suspected of heresy and apostasy, capital crimes in the eyes of the Catholic Church anywhere, and like many other clergy he fled south, even before the time that Cardinal David Beaton rose to power and started persecuting Protestants mercilessly.

It seems that Johnson was able to either be at the English court or be close to it by 1536, for he certainly was linked to Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, who was executed that year.

Johnson wrote the music for Boleyn’s memorial verses, said to be penned by the Queen herself.

“Defiled is my name, full sore / through cruel spite and false report /that I may say for ever more /farewell my joy, adieu comfort.”