When Lockrem Johnson, Seattle composer, pianist, and teacher, died in March 1977, he was remembered by his friends, colleagues, and students as a man of quick wit and personal warmth, given to versatile expression both in music and in animated discourse. Casual acquaintances might best remember his up-beat anecdotes about his keyboard peccadillos on a steam calliope in a Coney Island parade, or his lecture about Hungarian composer Bela Bartok on the grounds of the largest spearmint ranch in the state of Washington. But those who knew him well would recognize the profound poignancy expressed in A Letter To Emily as the best expression of the quintessential Johnson. This one-act chamber opera was completed in 1951 and is based on a poignant episode in the life of Emily Dickinson. The opera was premiered and conducted by Manuel Rosenthal at the Cornish Theatre. Approximately 100 performances of A Letter to Emily have graced the stage in the United States and Europe. This same underlying quality of pathos pervades many of his chamber works and piano sonatas, as well as his two symphonies, orchestral chaconne, and vocal works.
Born in Davenport, Iowa, he moved to Seattle as a child, where his father, a state champion drummer, opened the Kandy Kottage in Bellevue. Young Lockrem studied at Cornish school under Berthe Poncy Jacobson, herself a student of Swiss composer Frank Martin.
In the late 40's, Johnson was a Seattle Symphony pianist under Manuel Rosenthal and Eugene Linden, music director of the Eleanor King Dance Company (for whom he wrote the ballet She), and a member of the University of Washington faculty. At this time, renowned Seattle artist Mark Tobey exchanged composition lessons with Lockrem for original paintings.
A Guggenheim Fellow in composition, he moved to New York in 1951 to run a music copying firm, which copied the original parts to Flower Drum Song. He became an executive for C. F. Peters Co. music publishers until his return to Seattle in 1962, but not without escaping inclusion in Ned Rorem's New York Diary. In Seattle he directed the music department at Cornish School until 1969, where he instituted the baccalaureate degree program. In 1970 he founded Puget Music Publications, devoted to Publishing works by Northwest Composers.
Biography provided by Douglas Rice, Director of the Lockrem Johnson Estate.