Francis Frank Johnson: a Black Virtuoso

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Francis “Frank” Johnson
Johnson was born on June 16, 1792 in Martinique in the West Indies and immigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1809 by the age of 17. He directed military bands and society dance orchestras, taught music, and performed on the violin and keyed bugle. His early career consisted of performing for balls, parades, and dancing schools. He first became widely known in 1818 when George Willig published Johnson's Collection of New Cotillions. His career flourished in the 1820s, as he performed arrangements of "fashionable" music for most of the major dance functions in Philadelphia. In 1837 Johnson and a small ensemble of African American musicians sailed to England to take part in the celebrations surrounding the ascent of Queen Victoria to the British throne. While there, he was exposed to the promenade concert style. When Johnson returned from England in 1838 he introduced this new style of concert in Philadelphia during the Christmas season.

Johnson's Voice Quadrilles, a musical work performed in London and in major U.S. cities, was well received and successful. His work New Cotillions and March was performed for General LaFayette, as America celebrated LaFayette's visit in 1824. A townsman in Philadelphia noted that nothing would be more natural than for a master such as Johnson to perform at the grand LaFayette Ball. This notoriety is a hint as to why Johnson's music was included in compilations alongside Beethoven, Bellini, Brahms, Burgmüller, Czerny, Donizetti and Weber. Johnson successfully rivaled white musical organizations, receiving patronage from the public in spite of the considerable racial discrimination of the time. Available accounts show that his composition and playing must have had qualities which cannot be reconstructed from the surviving manuscripts. Historical accounts suggest that his performances infused stylistic rhythmic changes, differing from the written versions, which were either inferred by performers or...
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