Donald O. Johnston was born in 1929 in Tracy, Minnesota. He attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He is a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and has composed choral works, orchestral works (including six symphonies), an opera, chamber music, and pieces for band. His music is the proof of the viability of the neo-romantic tradition established by his mentor, Howard Hanson. The logical, well-balanced formal construction; the piquant harmonies; the striking rhythmic constructions -- all of these have an immediate appeal for audiences.
Johnston's compositional style consists of a strongly tertian harmonic vocabulary with bitonal implications. Open fifths frequently appear in strong rhythmic positions. His metrical schemes often contrast "white note" with "black note" meters. Rhythmic constructions are frequently spiced with intricate cross rhythms.
Johnston saw military service in Korea, serving with the 45th Infantry Division during the Korean War. In addition to composing music for the official march and marching song for the 45th Division, he created special concert music for the concert band and the Thurderbird "Dance" Band which assisted in USO shows
Johnston's post-war compositions have appeared in a number of publishers' catalogs including Summy-Birchard Co., Bourne Co., G. Schirmer, Elkan-Vogel, Boston Music Corp., Harold Flammer, Edwin F. Kalmus & Co., Rochester Music Publishers, Theodore Presser, Edward B. Marks Music Corp., Warner Brothers, Masters Music Publications, Inc., Shawnee Press, and Ludwig Publishing Company. Johnston conducted his composition studies under Philip Warner, Robert Mills Delaney, Bernard Rogers, and Howard Hanson.
Johnston taught at the College of Idaho (1954-55) in Caldwell, Idaho, Ripon College (1955-58) in Ripon, Wisconsin, and The University of Montana (1960-1993), in Missoula, Montana, where he held the position of Composer-in-Residence and Professor of Composition. Johnston is the founder of Ars Nova Press, Inc., a publishing house dedicated to promoting the musical compositions of skilled modern classical composers.