Penn Library Department of Special Collections

William Penn

Keffer Collection of Sheet Music,
ca. 1790-1895

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Philadelphia Composers: Francis Johnson (1792-1844)

Portrait of Frank Johnson, from a Lithograph by Hoffy, 1846
Frank Johnson

Francis (Frank) Johnson, composer and bandmaster, was born in Martinique in the West Indies. He moved to Philadelphia around 1809 and first came to widespread public notice in 1818 when George Willig published Johnson's Collection of New Cottillions . By 1819 Johnson was well-known in Philadelphia as a leader of a dance orchestra.

Johnson's career flourished in the 1820s as he and his band performed at most of the major dance functions in Philadelphia, including dancing schools, balls, and private parties. His talents were also in demand from military regiments in the city. The Washington Guards Company Three Band (later the Washington Grays), the State Fencibles Regiment, and the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry all employed Johnson and his musicians. Johnson used different instrumentations, strings and winds, depending on th e function. The various ensembles also performed at resorts such as Saratoga Springs and Cape May.

In 1824 Johnson supplied the major share of the music programmed for celebrations surrounding General Lafayette's triumphant return to Philadelphia. Johnson was also involved in performances of sacred music at African-American churches in Philadelphia, Ne w York, and Boston. He and Morris Bown, Jr. staged a performance of Haydn's Creation in March 1841 at the First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and later at a white church.

Johnson's band of African-American musicians faced competition from other African-American bands in Philadelphia, including those of Isaac Hazzard and James Hemmenway. Johnson was famous for his skills as a performer on the violin and keyed bugle and was among the first to introduce keyed brass instruments into an American band. He was also famous for his dramatic performance style that included the production of realistic effects used to illustrate programmatic pieces.

When Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne in 1837 Johnson saw an opportunity to take part in the celebrations. He assembled a small group comprised of William Appo, Aaron J. R. Connor, Edward Roland, and Francis Seymour, and sailed for England in November 1837. Johnson's band was the first American musical ensemble, black or white, to make such a tour and they were well-received in England. While there, Johnson was exposed to contemporary musical styles, including the waltzes of Johann Strauss an d the promenade concerts of Philippe Musard. When Johnson returned to the United States he introduced the new style of concert during the Christmas season of 1838 to 1839 in Philadelphia. This informal presentation is still evident today in such settings as the concerts of the Boston Pops.

Frank Johnson was a prolific composer whose output included more than two hundred published works and many more unpublished. Unfortunately, none of the band and orchestra arrangements have survived, although much of Johnson's repertoire was published in a rrangements for piano. Johnson's compositions include cotillions, quadrilles, marches, arrangements of operatic arias, and songs, sentimental and patriotic.

There is an impressive list of "firsts" associated with Johnson's accomplishments: first black American composer to have works published as sheet music, first to have such a strong influence as to establish a "school" of black musicians, the first black A merican to give public concerts, the first American musical ensemble, black or white, to present concerts abroad, the first musician to introduce the promenade concert style in America, and the first black American musician to participate in integrated co ncerts in the United States in1843 to 1844.

Compositions by Johnson in the Collection

Item No.TitleImprintPlate No.Illustration
Box 34
no. 5
A Collection of New Cotillins [sic] : [1st Sett] / composed by F. Johnson Philada: G. Willig's Musical Magazine, 1818 None None
Box 34
no. 5
A Collection of New Cotillins [sic] : [2nd Sett] / composed by F. Johnson Philada: G. Willig's Musical Magazine, 1818. None None
Box 35
no. 7
A Collection of New Cotillions : [5th and 6th Setts] / composed by F. Johnson Philadelphia: Geo. Willig's, 182- None None
Ms. Coll. 126
no. 10
Favorite Waltz ; Spanish Dance ; Favorite Hop Waltz ; Mrs. Hernandez Waltz ; Celebrated Waltz ; Mrs. Hernandez Hop Waltz / F. Johnson 183-? None None
Box 32
no. 14
Johnson's Celebrated Victoria Gallop : as performed at his concerts in London and the United States / respectfully dedicated to Mrs. J. Hall Bready by Francis Johnson Philadelphia: Osbourn's Music Salon, 1839. Plate no. 145 None
Box 39a
no. 31
The Monongahela Waltz / composed expressly for Miss Virginia Crossan by the late Frank Johnson Philadelphia: Osbourn's Music Salon, 1845. Plate no. 497 None
Box 34
no. 14
Philadelphia Firemen's Cotillion / composed & respectfully dedicated to the members of the Fire Association by F. Johnson
Printed with Johnson's Orphan's Cotillion
Includes instructions for the dance steps
Philadelphia: G. E. Blake, between 1815 and 1841. None A fire hydrant
Box 36
no. 35
The Phoenix Polka : as performed by Johnson's Brass Band at Cape May during the season of 1849 : arranged for the piano forte
"Respectfully dedicated to the Phoenix Hose Company of Philadelphia."
Philadelphia: Lee & Walker, 1849. Plate no. 799 4 None


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