As best as these things can happen, he was the Cincinnatus of our musical world. Born November 5, 1940, in Tackley of Oxfordshire, England, Anthony Rolfe Johnson came relatively late to music, spending the majority of his twenties as a farmer, beginning his formal training at nearly thirty years of age at the Guildhall School of Music in London. Initially unable to even read music, Mr. Johnson eventually learned, continuing on to study with Benjamin Britten’s partner, Peter Pears, and making his operatic debut in 1973.
Mr. Johnson was best known for his oratorio work, championing classic roles in Bach’s Passions. It was later in his career that he became the classic champion of contemporary music, in his signature role of Peter Grimes in Britten’s eponymously-named opera.
In my personal experience with his music, Mr. Johnson seemed home singing songs from the English canon. It was Mr. Johnson’s recording that introduced me to Vaughan Williams’s Silent Noon, Johson’s Quilter that introduced me to the Shakespeare Songs and, although it’s Bostridge’s recording that I own, it’s Johnson’s that introduced me to Britten’s Canticle I, and, to this day, remains most memorable. Mr. Johnson’s tone was rich and well-grounded, somehow more stable with respect to the often trying harmonic acrobatics that more contemporary music engages in. A rare voice, Johnson’s technique and understanding of the intimacy of a solo voice accompanied by piano remains unique to this day.
Mr. Johnson passed at the age of 69 on the evening of July 21, 2010 as a result of complications arising from Alzheimer’s. He is survived by his wife, their three children, and two children from a previous marriage.