Classical Music on the Web

Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


by Philip Scowcroft

One British composer we are in danger of forgetting is Maurice Johnstone, born in Manchester, where he was later to spend a considerable part of his working life, in 1900. This may be because much of his life was given over to musical administration of one sort or another and his compositions are relatively few, if good. He trained at the former Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College) and then at the Royal College of Music. After spending the years 1923-32 in the retail trade and as a freelance journalist, he became Secretary to Sir Thomas Beecham in 1932 and remained with him for three years. And three exciting years they were, too, because Sir Thomas founded the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1932 and immediately established for them an outstanding reputation. Almost incredibly, Charles Reid's biography of Beecham does not mention Johnstone, but Johnstone himself later wrote

* Humphrey Proctor-Gregg (ed), "Sir Thomas Beecham: Conductor and Impresario", (publ privately 1971), pp84-6

of the affection in which Sir Thomas was held, his rehearsal procedures, his spontaneity and urbane perfectionism, his marvellous memory and the detailed marking of his scores and parts, in which latter task Johnstone was himself deeply involved. From 1935 he worked in the BBC's Music Department, at first in London, then, between 1938 and 1953, as Head of the Corporation's North Region's Music in Manchester - and great years they were, with the expansion of the BBC Northern Orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic) and a burgeoning public appetite for good music - and finally, back in London, as Head of Music Programmes (Sound) between 1953 and 1960, when he retired. He died in 1976 at Harpenden, where he had lived both as a boy and latterly.

As we have said, his compositions are not plentiful, but brass bands at least have cause to be grateful to him. His major works for that medium, which, it must be stressed, only began to attract major composers after the Great War, include a 'symphonic fantasy' on The Tempest, the Anthem for Brass and a bustling overture, Sea Dogs. Possibly because neither has been a test piece at either of the major Brass Band Championships, one rarely encounters these, but bands are happy to play from time to time his stirring marches Pennine Way, County Palatine, Watling Street and Beaufighters (some of these have orchestral versions) and only recently I enjoyed a very well put together Gilbert and Sullivan medley he made for chorus and brass band. It was indeed as an arranger that Johnstone was best known. He made orchestral versions of Wagner's Siegfried's Rhine Journey and Lohengrin, Prelude to Act III under the pseudonym of David Bowden while his orchestral transcription of Weber's Invitation to the Dance was at one time played as often as earlier, well-established ones by Berlioz and Felix Weingartner.

He composed songs like At Night, Hush and So Are You To My Thoughts (1947) and, most notably, a setting of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach for baritone and orchestra. I remember him conducting at Sheffield City Hall in February 1951 with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of poetic expression, a performance of his then recent Cumbrian Rhapsody, Tarn Hows, a lovely evocation of that beauty spot with its gorgeous writing for the woodwind and at around 15 minutes a substantial work. I would like to see this revived and recorded, along perhaps with Dover Beach and maybe the earlier Welsh Rhapsody of 1932 or the sllghtly later The Oak and The Ash (1953). Saxophonists may care to explore his Ballade, revised in 1961 with an accompaniment for a smallish orchestra and similar in length to Eric Coates' Saxo-Rhapsody.

© Philip L Scowcroft.

Enquiries to Philip at

8 Rowan Mount



Philip's book 'British Light Music Composers' (ISBN 0903413 88 4) is currently out of print.

See also the Maurice Johnstone pages

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