Professor Norman Johnston

Norman Johnston, Professor of Organ at the Sydney Conservatorium and Sydney University Organist for over thirty years, was born in Noumea on 10 November 1917 to an expatriate Irish-Australian family.  On his arrival in Australia in the early 1930s, after schooling at Shore School, Sydney, Norman became a pupil of Lilian Frost to whom he was devoted and whose chosen successor as organist at Pitt Street Congregational Church he became.

Norman enlisted in the 2nd AIF immediately after the Fall of France and served in Egypt and Palestine but transferred to the RAAF in 1943 in order to serve in Europe. Ever the pessimist, he had not expected to survive.

After the war Norman was a pupil of George Faunce Allman in Sydney, Harold Darke in London and the great but stylistically controversial, blind French organist, André Marchal in Paris. His first public performance had been as associate artist to Lilian Frost at Pitt Street when he was eighteen. In 1939 he won three first prizes for piano and organ at the Sydney Eisteddfod. As an Associate of the Royal College of Organists, Norman respected the English cathedral music tradition while having greater admiration for the professionalism of the French school. Thus he became a major influence in introducing Sydney audiences and musicians to contemporary French music, especially the compositions of Olivier Messaien.

As conductor of the Oriana Singers he also pioneered historically authentic performances in Sydney of the great choral works. His planned 1963 performance of Bach's 'St Matthew's Passion', scheduled for Sydney Town Hall, had to be cancelled because the day before a bye-law was discovered which prohibited the use of the Town Hall for any event on Good Friday for which admission was charged. The bye-law was changed.

As University Organist he played at the graduation ceremonies of thousands of graduates. He was responsible for the University's acquisition for the Great Hall of a pipe organ by the German maker, Rudolf von Beckerath; it was the first of its type to be brought to Australia. Norman was the first to recognise and encourage Ronald Sharp as a voicer of organ pipes. Sharp was thus employed in the construction of the University organ and went on to build the Opera House instrument.

Norman himself was notoriously self-effacing and could never be found after a concert. Typically, he declined the University's proffered award of an honorary D.Mus in 1994. Norman's many pupils included the first Sydney organists to achieve international reputations as performers including Michael Dudman. He taught at St Peter's, East Sydney where he was also organist for many years.  

Informed by a tolerant Christian faith he was also organist and choirmaster at the Scots' Church and Pitt Street Congregational Church, Sydney; St Mark's, Darling Point; St Michael's, Vaucluse; Mary Immaculate, Waverley and St John's, Darlinghurst.

Norman was of Anglo-Irish descent. His birth in Noumea, New Caledonia where his grandfather and uncle served as British consul, predisposed him towards a life-long admiration for French culture. His ability to communicate this and his inculcation of the highest professional standards in performance resulted in his being held in enormous esteem.

He was an honorary life member of The Organ Music Society of Sydney and had been a founding councillor of The Organ Institute of NSW. In 1949 Norman married Margery Makin, a fine soprano. He is survived by two sons. He died in Sydney on 25 March 2012, aged 94. 

From an article by Peter Meyer in the Sydney Organ Journal, New South Wales, Australia, June 2012.