Hunter Johnson, 92, of Benson, North Carolina's first Composer Laureate, died Thursday at Johnston Memorial Hospital in Smithfield after a period of declining health. A Mausoleum Service will be 11 a.m.Saturday at Roselawn Cemetery, Benson. Speakers will be Mr. Harold Medlin and Mrs. Julia Mc- Cullers.
Dr. Johnson, who received an honorary doctorate in music from the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill, was a Johnston County native whose best-known musical compositions include his frequently performed "Piano Concerto" and for three ballets commissioned by dancer-choreographer Martha Graham.
He was named the state's first composer-laureate in 1991, when Governor James Martin proclaimed January 13 of that year as "Hunter Johnson Day" to acknowledge the accomplishments of one of the state's most distinguished musicians.
Hunter Johnson was born on a family farm in Johnston County on April 14, 1906. He began taking piano lessons at age 10 and composed his first music, based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," at the age of 13.
After graduating from Benson High School, he entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was interested in writing poetry and short stories as well as in composing music. Although he retained an ongoing interest in literary matters, he transferred to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, in order to pursue a career as a composer. He graduated from Eastman in 1929.
In 1933, he won the prestigious Prix de Rome, which enabled him to spend two years in Italy and France studying in the American Academy and traveling throughout Europe. He was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships (in 1941 and 1954) and the Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1958. In 1963, the North Carolina General Assembly honored him with a citation, and in 1965 he received the North Carolina Award in Fine Arts.
In 1940, Dr. Johnson met choreographer Martha Graham, who commissioned him to compose music for her ballet troupe. "Letter to the Word", a ballet based on the life and poetry of 19th century poet Emily Dickinson, was described by the New York Times as "a wonderful blend of melodic eloquence, harmonic richness, and extraordinary rhythmic variety. The concert suite from "Letter to the World" has been performed worldwide more than 500 times.
In 1975, Dr. Johnson and Miss Graham worked together again as he composed the score for "The Scarlet Letter," a ballet based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous novel. Rudolph Nureyev danced the role of Reverend Dimmesdale when "The Scarlet Letter" was performed in New York.
Dr. Johnson taught music theory and composition at Cornell and the Universities of Manitoba, Michigan, Illinois, and Texas before retiring in 1971. He also served as a guest instructor at the N.C. School of Arts.
Dr. Johnson's composition have been described as neoclassical, neoromantic, and "intensely American." He was considerably influenced by jazz and blues, as well as by American folk music.
Hunter Johnson was the son of the Amos Cephus and Martha Barbour Johnson of Johnston County's Elevation Township. He was preceded in death by his parents, his sister, Eva J. McCullers of Smithfield, and his brothers, Victor, Cecil, Sherwood, Garland, and Leon Johnson.
Survivors include brother and sister-in-law, Cameron and Janie Johnson of Raleigh Road, Benson; and 11 nieces and nephews.
Family suggests memorials may be made to Johnston County Heritage Center, P.O. Box 2709; Smithfield, N.C. 27577.
Family will be at Rose & Graham Funeral Home in Benson, 7-9 p.m.
News & Observer, The (Raleigh, NC) - Friday, August 28, 1998
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