Merritt Johnson Collection
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Merritt Johnson (1902-1978) was a pianist, organist, and composer on faculty at Northern State College (now University) in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and was a student of Joseph Lhevinne and Darius Milhaud. His collection at UNT consists of five boxes of music compositions, with numerous materials in the UNT Digital Library.
A Biography of Merritt Johnson, by Susan K. Vaughan, Ph.D. and MBA:
Merritt Johnson (1902-1978) was a teacher, composer, organist, and pianist, whose career spanned forty-five years, primarily while teaching at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. His compositions from the early 1900s to the late 1970s represent styles and genre rich with melodic appeal and diverse rhythmic patterns that Johnson credited to African rhythms of the 1960s.
Merritt Johnson’s Early Life:
Merritt Johnson was born on October 29, 1902 in Dunkirk, Ohio, and lived on a farm of about 80 acres. Johnson recalled, during a live interview in 1969, that his early life was filled with teasing, because he had such a small stature. He remembered being harassed so much, that at about the age of six that he wanted to leave school altogether. Merritt remembered as a young boy that his father was very strict, primarily a self-taught musician, who enjoyed playing the reed organ at church. Johnson fondly remembered his father rocking in his chair while listening to him practice. Merritt’s mother, Minnie Swanger, came from England and was as a very hard worker, a musician who talked with her son fondly about playing in the dance band while she was in high school. His mother was deeply religious, but other memories of her are curtailed, because she died at a young age due to intestinal problems.
Although Johnson’s birth certificate recognizes his birth as October 29, he remarked that it was always celebrated as March 29. Johnson smiled when he recalled his kind high school teacher, who believed in his talents enough to help him find ways to earn money for piano lessons. In the early 1920s, Merritt started college, and by 1925, he received his bachelor of music degree in composition from Oberlin Conservatory of Music with concentrations in piano and organ. While studying at Oberlin, he taught piano and organ part-time and played the organ for silent movies and for a church located near his hometown of Dunkirk. He found college level music theory very difficult, and he quit study for a while because he struggled so much with this class.
Mr. Johnson began his college teaching career in 1925 at Wesley College in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he served as head of the piano department until 1932. Between 1931 and 1932, he also taught music at the Fargo Conservatory. In an interview, he recalled earning an annual salary of $800.00. Later, Mr. Johnson taught at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where he also served as a church organist.
During summer breaks, he attended school at Cornell University, Mills College, the American Conservatory of Music, and Oberlin College. This degree coincided with the end of his first year of teaching at Northern State Teachers College (NSTC), now Northern State University (NSU). Merritt Johnson became an exceptional teacher early in his career, partly due to his commitment in teaching students using his own compositions and teaching students with high performance standards, as he wanted his own students to become exceptional teachers. He was once quoted in the local Aberdeen American News as saying, “We (Merritt and his wife, Katherine) are always running into people who say, ‘You taught me piano, don’t you remember?’”
While tenured at NSU, Johnson served as head of the piano department for twenty-five years and was the Director of the Northern State University Symphony Orchestra, where he also played viola for forty-five years. For thirty-five of those years, Merritt served as organist of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church. For twenty-five of those years, he was directory of the senior choir director. Johnson frequently performed his own compositions for organ, voice, and choir.
Johnson said, “I have had a very pleasant life and I’m thankful for being able to do what I have done. Many students have come my way, and I like to think that I have helped them on their musical journey.” He also used the word, “pleasant,” to describe his goal when composing.
Johnson liked to create music that “depicted the pleasant things of life due to the constant state of chaos in which we find ourselves today.” When inquiring about favorite works, Mr. Johnson took some time to discuss Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1, a work not performed until the year that the composer died, 1945. “Rachmaninoff (1849-1945) did not want to prepare his audiences for the unexpected, to respond to their shock, so he refused to have his music played until his death. Later composers, on the other hand, strove for the ‘effect’ or response from the audience when their music was performed.”
Approach to Study with Renowned Teachers and Performing Musicians:
Shortly after receiving his bachelor’s degree, Johnson made a deliberate decision to study with, acclaimed pianists, organists, pedagogues, and composers, rather than to seek additional degrees. Johnson studied the organ with Wilhem Middleschulte and piano with Leon Fleisher, Egon Petri and Josef Lhevinne, the latter who wrote the classic book, The Basic Principles of Playing the Piano. To Johnson, these men represented three of the greatest teachers of the Twentieth Century. Johnson described Fleisher, a man scarce on compliments, yet charming. Mr. Johnson commented that he tried to do exactly what Fleisher wanted, because he was totally immersed in his work and motivated his students to do their best by that example. Merritt commented that Dr. Fleisher would snap at his hands if he missed notes, something that Susan Vaughan vividly recalls Mr. Johnson doing in my own lessons in the mid- 1960s.
Johnson once said:
“I remember best Josef Lhevinne (December 13, 1874 - December 2, 1944) for the short time that I studied with him. Lhevinne wrote the short 1924 classic, ‘Basic Principles of Pianoforte Playing.’ At the first lesson, he showed a student awful finger methods. He then proceeded to show me how to play scales. He believed that in playing scales, the hands should always lead the finger, e.g., the right hand will have a fairly low wrist going up and coming down and the left hand will have a fairly low wrist going down and a high wrist going up.”
Lhevinne had Johnson play nothing but scales for the first week, and he always had him play the first note of a grace note on the beat. Both Johnson and his wife, Katherine, studied with Dutch pianist, Egon Petri, (March 23, 1881 - May 27, 1962) at Mills College, Oakland, California, as well as at Cornell University. Petri’s wife, Mitta, who left Holland during WW II, became very close to the Johnsons.. Egon Petri came to Aberdeen to play two concerts during the Johnsons years of association with them. Merritt remarked in an interview that he was so impressed with Petri, who sent ten optional programs from which Johnson was to choose a concert, each one of which was 1.5 hours in length. Referred to as one of the three or four greatest piano teachers of the Twentieth Century, Johnson found Petri’s technique to be phenomenal. “Horowitz had faster octaves, but Petri’s technique excelled in all other areas.” On one occasion, Petri played the first twenty-four Chopin Etudes and was then asked to play them again. He remarked that he could play them as many times as the guests wished for them to be performed.
Katherine Johnson took a daily lesson from Petri, and it covered all of the Chopin Etudes among many other selections that were studied. Petri demonstrated a technique of throwing fingers down on the keys as scales are played. He believed that when the fingers are working, they are fairly straight. As the fingers swing down, they curve just like opening and shutting one’s hand. It is the same motion that one makes when grabbing something. This natural “whip” of one’s fingers became invaluable to the Johnsons in their own performances.
Petri also emphasized that the wrists must be flexible at all times to keep fingers in playing condition. He had the ability to view a long composition as a whole and keep it unified. He did not believe in much practice, but he was always analyzing motions and trying to find an easier way to play music more efficiently by changing fingerings, something that he used for decades. Petri’s greatest attribute was his ability to view a long composition and to keep it unified, not break it into sections. He was admired for sustaining continuity in a long piece. And, he was obsessed with finding an easier way to play a difficult passage. He frequently changed fingerings to improve expression or speed and agility.
One time, Petri gave Merritt a scale fingering that was very challenging suggesting that the complicated fingering would make the prior rigorous fingering easier. Katherine, in particular, enjoyed lessons with Petri so much that when the Johnsons gave birth to their first daughter, they named her Mitta, after Petri’s wife. Johnson also studied with American choral and organ composer, Leo Sowerby, church musician and winner of the 1946 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Sowerby, taught Johnson his organ and choral composition skills. From Darius Milhaud, French composer, conductor, teacher, and member of The Group of Six (September 4, 1892-June 22, 1974), Mr. Johnson acquired techniques for composing more quickly. Johnson credited Milhaud as one of the most prolific American church music composers of the Twentieth Century, who directly affected jazz and polytonality. Merritt studied organ and composition with German organist and composer, Wilhelm Middleschuldt (April 3 1963 - May 4, 1963), who played for what is now called the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. From Middleschuldt, Merritt became expert in the works of Bach. At his first lesson, Middleschulte had Johnson bring the entire organ works of Bach. He then proceeded to put in his own marks for phrasing and manual changes for all compositions. When Johnson went home to practice, he found that his markings were the best that he had encountered. Although he never played for Middleschulte, he had those fingerings for the remainder of his life.
Johnson’s Ideas about Composition and Other Twentieth Century Composers:
“I compose when I have the time. It takes time, you know. Each composition is created not as a whole but works itself out tone by tone.” Whenever possible, Johnson believed that the idea was the first concern of any composer. Johnson felt that the second theme was even more difficult to conceive than the first. It could, but does not have to, be derived from the first theme. In 1931, Merritt married Florence Larson, a North Dakota conservatory graduate and instructor of violin. He said that he held a great fondness for her, but she was sickly and died a few years later in 1936. The only record found about her is a Florence Johnson (1910-1936) gravestone at the Cheyenne Valley Cemetery in Barnes County, North Dakota.
When Merritt moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota in 1933, it was originally to serve as a composer-in-residence. It was here that he began to record his thoughts about composing and teaching, often in notebooks, such as one that was recently recovered and added to the Johnson permanent collection at the University of North Texas (UNT). In that same year, he began to play the organ at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Aberdeen, and his organ compositions were regularly played in that congregation for decades to follow.
During an interview, Johnson shared some thoughts about composing from the 1930s through the 1970s.
“I’m interested in three things: melodies, harmony, and rhythms. All the music, which is usually accepted, happens to have pretty good themes. They often have a quality about them, which cannot be defined other than they stick in your mind. The theme seems to be important so much that one does not want to change one note.”
Johnson wanted each piece to have continuity and logic in its construction. He wanted to see the whole of every composition create something new, something with melodic logic and “not serve merely as drawing room music,” Johnson commented that “music today is supposed to represent our times.” For that reason, “many sounds have come into our music, which are not musical sounds.” To Johnson, these ideas are crucial for a successful composition: “Music is a form of entertainment and should dwell upon pleasant things.” He considered life in the twentieth century to be very pleasant, and he believed that we are given many opportunities to entertain ourselves. “Often a poor melody seems to be so unimportant that it could have been anything else and still have been just as good.”
Below are some of his ideas that he shared about composing in the mid to late Twentieth Century.
- “Poor melodies make dull, uninteresting music. I think that since it is so difficult to write new melodies, one should do all of the chords first, since music is nothing without a melodic line. Debussy demonstrated this, because he created fascinating chords and very fine melodies.”
- “We need music which is pleasant to listen to as much if not more than in former times, especially since the world seems to be in constant turmoil and the newspapers report dreadful things every day. I’m always wanting to hear something new.”
- “I want my music to depict the pleasant things of life. Why go way out and supposedly give it a deeper meaning? I have learned that, for me, it is best to write music, which I can either play myself or use in my teaching.”
- “For some reason, I have written mostly for piano or organ. I have written a few choir numbers, one piece for orchestra, several songs (sacred and secular), one piece for piano trio, a few violin pieces, and one for cello.”
- “It has been said that one should write for the instruments that one knows best. That is why I write for the piano and organ. I have a considerable understanding of the technical possibilities of both the piano and organ.”
- “Most of the organ music that I have written has been composed to play in church for preludes, offertories, or postludes. However, some of it is only good for recitals.”
- “The piano music that I have written was created with the idea that it may be taught to pupils to improve their technical skills, tone, and musicianship.”
- “I’m interested in three things: melodies, harmony, and rhythms. All the music, which is usually accepted, happens to have pretty good themes. They often have a quality about them, which cannot be defined other than they stick in your mind. The theme seems to be important as is so not one note can be changed.”
- “Many lesser Baroque and Classical composers wrote almost as well as the masters, but usually their themes were too commonplace. A high percentage of that style of music has dull and grotesque harmonies. Bach, Mozart, and Haydn did better, especially Bach. Bach showed us how to make a melody, and especially a harmony, move on, go someplace, not become static.”
When discussing music of the Twentieth Century, Johnson expressed his feelings toward various composers. Though Debussy influenced his compositions, Webern, Berg, Copland, and Schoenberg were mentioned in relation to his “new” music. “Perfection was strived for rather than an avant-garde approach.” He once commented that he was “nothing as a composer if not a lyrical composer.” He felt that his themes “might not attract you, but they were appealing.”
Johnson Contrasts His Composing Skills to Other Twentieth Century Composers:
When talking about composing, Johnson had so many ideas to share. He began the discussion with the comment, “I would be content if only something that I compose lives beyond me.” He felt that “the world would have been better off if Stravinsky had never lived.” He believed that “beginning with Stravinsky, who emphasized rhythm and great dissonance, music has never been quite the same. As long as Stravinsky could use themes patterned after folk songs, he was successful. But, In Johnson’s perspective, invented his own themes, he was not as successful.” According to Johnson, “Stravinsky knew everything about how to write, except knowing how to write ‘tunes’ with meaning to others.”
“Schoenberg saw Stravinsky’s success and realized that he had to be different. Hence, the 12-tone technique evolved, which doesn’t require a musician to write and which is like abstract painting, because to each listener, it may mean something different or even nothing at all.” Johnson went on. “Bartok realized that he must shock people in order to be known. So, he developed very dramatic rhythms and strange dissonances. If he had been able to write a good tune, I would have liked him better. Sometimes, he did write good tunes. After he shocked you, however, nothing was left. Take the rhythm and dissonance out of Bartok’s music, and what do you have?”
“I’m not interested in shocking the listener,” said Johnson. “On the other hand, I am interested in hearing something new. I listen to lots of new music to hear new sounds, which I think are musical sounds (not just noise.) Occasionally, I am rewarded.” “I’m not interested in music that does not develop original ideas or themes in a manner in which one can hear what is going on. Twelve-tone music does develop (repeat) the tone row. But, because of the changes of rhythm, the listener cannot hear (or identify) what is happening.”
“A good share of the pleasure of listening to music is in hearing what happens to the themes. If this can’t be discerned, it is like looking at an abstract painting. Of course, some people say that being able to see different things in a painting at different times makes it more interesting. But, what about the person, who can see nothing in the painting at all?”
“Beethoven, the greatest of all composers, saw no reason to make his music sound obscure. Why should others? Beethoven occasionally made his music so ‘straight forward and obvious’ that it bordered on being ‘corny.’ But, obviously, he put much thought into it. From the sketches, which he left, his original thematic material was often much changed in a finished product.”
When asked, “What do you think is the greatest contribution to Twentieth Century Music?” He replied, “Perhaps the only truly significant thing that came out of the Twentieth Century is the African rhythm!” Johnson went on to say that “almost all of the music, which has been universally accepted from the past, has been accepted because of the quality of its themes and the interesting way in which they are developed. Generally, if the harmony accompanying themes is original, and the form, in which the thematic material evolves, is such that one is unable to anticipate what is coming next, then, the music is successful.” When talking about fine compositions, Johnson felt that the quality of themes and the interesting way in which they were developed determines the success of the music. Generally, the harmony accompanying the themes has to be original and the form, good enough that you did not know for certain what was going to happen next.
Johnson was a great admirer of employing originality and new ways of writing that achieve lyrical continuity. He believed that organ music was more useful if it was somewhat controversial in style, though he felt that most organ music was written merely to be played for church on Sunday. Therefore, his organ music was generally characterized by appealing themes, which can be developed in a manner that is easy to understand.
He once wrote, “Over a period of years, I have come around to the style of music I wish to write. When I was young, I was fascinated by every new musical style and manner of writing. But, not in the Twentieth Century, music has exploded in all directions. Until the Twentieth century, music seemed to develop naturally and logically.”
Johnson particularly enjoyed composing piano works, used primarily for teaching. His organ works were composed primarily for his church services.
Johnson’s Composing Reputation:
Jack L. Noble, Professor of Organ and Acting Chairman of the Music Department at the University of South Dakota, wrote in 1969 regarding Merritt Johnson’s reputation in South Dakota:
“When I first came to the University of South Dakota in 1944, became aware that Merritt Johnson was an authority in the state, as Dean W. R. Colton wrote to him for advice on our practice organ situation. And, of course, Mr. Johnson responded with helpful ideas. On several occasions, Susan Vaughan was privileged to play works of Merritt Johnson on the ‘South Dakota Composers’ Concert’ for the South Dakota Music Teachers State Conventions, as well as for the Creative Arts Festivals sponsored by the University of South Dakota.”
“I know that [Merritt Johnson’s] work was highly respected by professional musicians within the state and also within the larger area of M.T.N.A. regional conventions, where I have heard Katherine perform his piano works. Many of us, who attended the last Aberdeen convention of the South Dakota Music Teachers Association, remember warmly the Johnsons for a dinner in their home. They graciously managed to serve an excellent buffet dinner to 50 or 60 people. The warm friendship which Merritt and Katherine extended to everyone was highly prized by all who know them. It is one of those special things that made me eager to attend each yearly convention within the state or regional M.T.N.A. conventions.”
Through his years of teaching and performing, Johnson composed prolifically, primarily as a tool for his teaching. His compositions have been used as far away as the Moscow Conservatory of Music and throughout Europe, as well as in Turkey, Alaska, and Canada. This may be in part due to concerts that he would give, such as a 10-day event in Anchorage in 1949. Merritt was honored as the first South Dakota composer commissioned to create a work for the National Music Teachers Association. In addition to teaching and performing, he also served as Dean of the South Dakota Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Johnson was a board member of the Music Teachers Association of South Dakota, and he served as a board member of the North Central District for two years.
In 1972, Johson was commissioned to write a composition for the South Dakota All-State Orchestra and Chorus Festival, a piece that was ultimately titled, “The Prairie.” Johnson’s wife, Katherine, set the text to the piece a year before her death and a year before its premier. Johnson felt that “The Prairie” was a very moving work, rich in the finale of the program. He believed that its success as a composition was entirely aligned with the unity of the chorus and orchestra. The work was a “salute to the wideness of the South Dakota sky, the feeling of serenity in space where the quiet shifts into song.” He felt that the performance was done especially well for him at All-State, a tribute to his work and that of Katherine for the event. The Fall, 1973 issue of the “South Dakota Musician” was dedicated to Johnson, and as Professor Emeritus, he was named “Teacher of the Year” in 1973, just as he retired from a lifetime of college work.
Originally, Johnson’s piano and organ pieces were written for teaching purposes to facilitate his church work as organist and later as choir director. Mr. Johnson composed choral works, a choral and orchestral work, secular and sacred songs, a piano trio, violin works, and one cello composition. He played piano, cello, violin, guitar, trumpet, and clarinet. But, the organ remained his favorite instrument.
Johnson’s Technic Books, based on lessons from Petri, sold over 2,400 copies from the NSU bookstore. He referred to the two Technic Books and the three Chord Studies books as his most important works. Johnson also sold over 300 copies of his recordings within the Aberdeen, South Dakota area.
Johnson was a member of Pi Kappa Lambda and honored by Theta Nu of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia. He was a past Dean of the South Dakota Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, a forty-year member of the Aberdeen Rotary Club, and a member of the Aberdeen Masonic Lodge, the Scottish Rite Temple, and the Yelduz Shrine.
Johnson noted that there were several other highlights in his career: 1) The work, “Divertimento,” commissioned by the South Dakota Composers Forum Concert, was performed in a piano and organ concert by Katherine and him in 1965. 2) By the fall, 1971, the “South Dakota Musician” featured an article about his life work and dedicated the issue to him as Professor Emeritus. 3) In 1972, the All-State Orchestra and Chorus Festival work, “The Prairie,” was performed for All-State Orchestra and Chorus.
Leading up to its premiere, “The Prairie,” five thousand students auditioned for a chorus of 1000 and an orchestra of 125 students. Johnson worked hard to create lyrics “that provided continuity and melodic logic in construction. He once said, “I try to depict the pleasant things of life.” And, “I like music to work itself out tone by tone.” Themes may come easy to Johnson, but he noted that “the second theme is twice as hard to create as the first.” He would “be content if only something that he composed could live beyond him.” When asked to comment about his students, Johnson remarked: “An excellent student learns the first time, a good student the second time, and the average student three times or more.” When asked, Johnson said that his favorite works were the “Schumann g minor Sonata and the Fourth Symphony of Sibelius.”
Merritt Johnson as Husband and Parent:
Merritt Johnson adored his wife, Katherine, and the role that she played on his performing and composing was very significant. Katherine, formerly Katherine Van Walker, was born on March 30, 1915 in Miller, South Dakota. Her family moved to Aberdeen when she was quite young, when her father joined the faculty at Northern State Teachers College. She received both B.A. and M.A. degrees in music/piano performance at NSTC (today called Northern State University). While she was in her senior year at NSU, she was a student of Merritt Johnson. She joined the NSC music department faculty before marrying Johnson in 1938.
Katherine Johnson frequently presented Chamber Music Workshops at Humbolt State College in California, and she was a member of the University of Colorado faculty for two years while commuting from Aberdeen. She served as director of the Westminster Choir of the Presbyterian Church for two years and as junior choir director for Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Katherine was a member of NSC Faculty Wives, the South Dakota Music Teachers Association, and P.E.O. She was a past president of Monday Musicale and a member of the S.D. Music Teachers Association. In 1952, she was honored with the “Old Joe” instructor award at NSU. Katherine conducted piano workshops in the area and judged college and high school contests over a large area. She was a judge for the National Guild of Piano Teachers at Augustana College and concertized in more than 20 states including Alaska, the New England States and the Midwest. This included performing at the national convention of the National Federation of Music Clubs, the Thursday Music Club of Minneapolis, the Schubert Club of St. Paul, and NSU for a Beethoven bicentennial birthday concert series of sonatas. She won the Northern Lights District contest three years in a row, an event for young artists sponsored by the National Federation of Music Clubs.
Katherine once performed the best-loved Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in two recitals, February 22 and March 1, 1970 including Sonata Opus 31, No. 2 (The Tempest), Sonata Opus 2, No. 3; Sonata Opus 57 (Appassionata), Sonata Opus 53 (Waldstein), Sonata Opus 13 (Pathetique), Sonata Opus 27 No. 2 (Moonlight). Kathrine passed away at the age of 55 on January 3, 1970 due to a sudden illness that was treated unsuccessfully in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The day that Katherine was buried was also the thirtieth birthday of their daughter, Mitta. In the year that she passed, the church installed a new organ at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. And, in that same year, the Johnsons were to start a music camp together in Hot Springs, something that never materialized.
The Johnson Family, Entertaining, and Concertizing:
Katherine and Merritt Johnson frequently played individual and teamed recitals playing Merritt’s original compositions. A critic once remarked about their performance, “They contrived to convey the impression that two persons were playing one instrument which had both the keenly percussive and accentual properties of the piano, and also the variety of color and sustaining power of the organ…one plus one, still making one” (July 28, 1947). For example, on December 8, 1945, Katherine and Merritt presented a duo recital in Anchorage, Alaska for the Fairbanks Concert Association and another recital on December 11 in Fairbanks. The critic for the Fairbanks newspaper referenced the performance: “They contrived to convey the impression that two persons were playing one instrument, which had both the keenly percussive and accentual properties of the piano and also the variety of color and sustaining power of the organ, one plus one still making one.”
The Johnsons recalled that the weather in Alaska was much like that of South Dakota. And, Merritt recalled having a dogsled ride, which was the highlight of the trip for him. Marcy, who was only three weeks old at the time, stayed in South Dakota with a dear family friend while her parents traveled and concertized. The Johnsons loved pets, which included their favorite cocker spaniel, “Cookie,” and two ducks, “Nip” and “Tuck,” who lived for well over five years. Johnson wrote a work for his dog, “Requiem for Cookie,” which was recently added to the handwritten score collection.
At the invitation of former student, Susan K. Vaughan, on the occasion of May 3, 1970, Merritt and Katherine drove to Hibbing, Minnesota, where they performed Merritt’s original organ and piano works at the First Presbyterian Church. Susan was a member of the music and art faculty at Hibbing Community College at the time, and her band performed Johnson’s work, “Divertimento,” a work originally commissioned for the South Dakota Composer’s Concert in 1965. Johnson commented in one of his letters that he thought that he music sounded a little like Poulenc. Johnson used to write letters on occasion to Susan K. Vaughan, and in one of the last letters she received, he referenced his final compositions: “Three Pieces, Arabesque, Serenade, and Toccatina.” After a brief illness, Merritt Johnson passed away May 10, 1978, in Aberdeen, South Dakota. He is survived by his two daughters, Mitta and Marcy, who followed him in musical careers of their own.
Merritt Johnson and Katherine Johnson’s Children: Mitta Angell:
Mitta Johnson Angell was born on January 6, 1941 in Aberdeen, South Dakota, the daughter of Katherine and Merritt Johnson, professional musicians and beloved music educators. She began piano studies with her mother at the age of three and violin at the age of seven. Mitta always referred to her father, Merritt Johnson, as “Daddy.” She fondly remembers sitting on his lap, while being quizzed on naming the notes of the staff. As long as she could see the keyboard, she answered his questions accurately. Floyd Glende, Mitta’s first violin teacher, was a colleague of her father at Northern State Teachers College. She was neither a reluctant music student nor an inspired one until she attended the Pacific Music Camp at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California. While there two summers, she saw many other young aspiring musicians competing for positions in the orchestra, which made her realize how important music was. By the second summer, Mitta made the top concertmaster position. While at Central High School in Aberdeen, South Dakota, Mitta was concertmaster of the Central High School Orchestra and concertmaster of the Aberdeen Civic Symphony, which rehearsed at the college. During this time, she concentrated on the violin, but she was equally proficient in the piano, participating in competitions, and accompanying the Central High School Choir. She also played in All-State Orchestra in 1958 and 1959 and Mitta graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, in 1963 with a Bachelor of Music degree with a double major in violin and piano. In the summer, 1960, following her freshman year, she attended the Congress of Strings, an American Federation of Musicians Music Camp at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, where she first began to study the viola. While there, she had the good fortune of studying with William Lincer, principal violist of the New York Philharmonic. In that same year, she joined the faculty of the Cleveland Music School Settlement as a violin teacher.
After graduating Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Music Degree in 1963, Mitta continued teaching violin at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. At the same time, she also served on the piano faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music and accompanied and coached in the music theatre department as a staff member of Karamu Theatre in Cleveland. It was during this time in 1964 that she began to study the viola with Abram Skernick, principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra. She taught violin at the Cleveland Music School Settlement from 1960-1965 and piano at the Cleveland Institute of Music from 1963-1965. Mitta taught piano at El Centro College in Dallas from 1967-1970 and was appointed second keyboard of the Dallas Symphony in 1980.
In 1992, Mitta received the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music Achievement Award as an Outstanding Alumnus. And, in 2011, she was inducted into the Aberdeen, South Dakota High School Hall of Fame for Fine Arts. While attending those festivities, she performed the Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 37 by Ludwig van Beethoven with the Northern State University Orchestra and held Master Classes for the strings students at the college. Mitta studied at the Aspen Music Festival with Eunice Shapiro, piano with Beveridge Webster in Aspen in 1963, piano with Theodore Lettvin from 1963-1964 and Alexander Uninsky from 1970-1972 and viola with Abram Skernick (principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra) in 1964-1964. Ms. Angell joined the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1965 and is the longest serving musician in the Symphony. She often plays second keyboard with the Dallas Symphony and teaches viola and piano privately. In 2001, she was appointed assistant artistic director of the Dallas Chamber Music Society, a position she held until 2005. Mitta was recently appointed head of the Music Department of the Dallas Woman’s Forum, which raises money to aid the music department of the Birdie Alexander Elementary School. Mitta has two children, Deanna and John, who live in the Dallas Area. Concerto performances include Music in the Mountains Festival in Purgatory, Colorado; Piano Concerto soloist with the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra, 1990, Piano Concerto soloist with the DSO, 1991 and 1994, Piano concerto soloist with the Aberdeen Civic Symphony in 2010; Piano and cello recitals with Marcy Chanteaux in Detroit, Michigan in 1974 and 1982; Dallas Chamber Music Society in 2004; and the Aberdeen Community Concert Series in 2006.
When asked to think back on her fifty-year career as a violist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO), Mitta attributes her love of music and performing success to the influence that her parents had in her life and their shared passion for music. Music was their life, and she honestly says that music is central to her life as well. Mitta has two children, Deanna and John, who, while not musicians themselves, share her love of music.
Marcy Johnson Chanteaux: Youngest daughter of Katherine and Merritt Johnson, Marcy Johnson Chanteaux has also enjoyed a long and rewarding career as a classical musician. She recalls that her mother was a concertizing piano virtuoso, and her father was an outstanding composer, teacher, and musician playing and teaching the organ and piano, as well as teaching theory and composition. At their home, someone was either taking a piano lesson or practicing the piano, violin or cello, sometimes all three at once. If no music was being played, then the record player of classical literature was being played. By the time that Marcy reached college age, she had already absorbed a large lexicon of recorded music. She began studying piano at the age of seven with her parents and cello at the age of ten with a local strings teacher. Her parents, her sister, Mitta, and she rehearsed weekly with the Aberdeen Civic Orchestra at Northern State Teachers College, where her father served as a piano and organ professor, composer. They often took their dog, Cookie, to rehearsals, and Marcy recalls the dog’s making the rounds through the orchestra chewing gum off the bottoms of chair seats. Since it was a small orchestra, with a regular missing player, one of her parents would often play the “missing” instrumental part. Because of this experience, the Johnson daughters were “blessed with the opportunity of hearing their parents learn how to play many diverse parts.”
At the age of sixteen, Marcy won first prize in the string division of the Music Teachers National Association, and she also won a competition with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. This enabled her to receive several full scholarships at top music schools. Marcy chose to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she studied cello with Ernst Silberstein and piano with the Arthur Loesser. Marcy always maintained that she learned the most about playing from the renowned Loesser. After college, Marcy married another musician, who was stationed in Washington, D.C. A few months later, when there was a cello opening in the National Symphony, she auditioned and was selected. While serving as a cellist for the National Symphony, staff discovered that she played piano well and asked if she would like to take over the orchestral piano parts. She continued to play cello and piano in the National Symphony for two years after which her husband was awarded a position with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. They moved to the Detroit area, and after several months there were two openings in the orchestra: piano and cello. Marcy auditioned for both positions, and the conductor, Sixten Ehrling, decided she’d get more exposure as the orchestral pianist. She held that position for four wonderful years. And, when Ehrling left the orchestra, she auditioned for and won a seat in the cello section. Two years later, after intense competition, she moved to first stand cello, where she played both Associate Principal and Principal Cello positions. This position was maintained for the majority of her forty-two-year career.
Marcy always said she had the best of all musical worlds. She taught cello at Wayne State University and also taught privately at home while serving as a soloist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. She had many occasions to premier the Witold Lutosławski, Victor Herbert, and Erich Korngold concerti. Of course, chamber music also sustained a huge presence in her life. She played in the St. Clair piano trio with DSO concertmaster, Emmanuelle Boisvert, and pianist, Pauline Martin. They collaborated on several recordings, in which she had the good fortune to work intensively with Mischa Mishakoff, who was Arturo Toscanini’s concertmaster, as well as the past three concertmasters of the Detroit Symphony, which included chamber music performances with Isaac Stern. Marcy also performed regularly with the Lyric Chamber Ensemble with pianist, Fedora Horowitz, performing much of the chamber music repertoire. Along the way, there were many solo appearances as well as solo performances with other orchestras. One of her most memorable collaborations was with Bernard Katz (who referred to himself as Bernardo Gatos), who played extensive Spanish repertoire. Bernie arranged a beautiful series of Granados dances for cello and piano derived from one of the solo piano works. They made a very successful recording of this suite. Marcy curtailed her performing after a fall injured her hand, but she still teaches and accompanies her cello students. She also coaches people who are preparing orchestral auditions. Though her second husband, whom she fondly recalls as “the love of her life,” passed away in 2016, Marcy recognizes their thirty-two years together as deeply rich and rewarding years. Dr. William D. Stine, professor of philosophy at Wayne State University, passed away in 2016, after years of travel, history, arts, and culinary discoveries with Marcy. Throughout her career, Marcy fondly recalls that she possessed two marvelous Italian cellos. One was made by Matteo Gofriller in Venice in 1697, and the other was made in Cremona in 1675 by Francesco Ruggeri.
Marcy Chanteaux and Mitta Angell
Mitta Angell recalled, “One of the great joys in my life and career was when Marcy and I were invited to play a duo-recital in Aberdeen, South Dakota (our family hometown) for the Community Concert Series. Because Marcy lives in Detroit, I in Dallas, it was a rare that we could collaborate in a joint recital. We had a wonderful time, enjoyed a receptive audience, and during our time in Aberdeen, Susan Vaughan first approached us about the Merritt Johnson Project, as she called it. It was definitely a successful venture all around!”
Students of Merritt Johnson
A future goal of this project is to identify other students of Johnson, who lead successful lives as musicians, teachers, and composers. “Japanese Haiku,” for example, was composed by composition student, Steve Bruns, and the work was dedicated in memory of composer-music teacher, Merritt Johnson. Bruns performed the works at NSU on April 29, 1979.
Allan Jacobson had a Johnson work dedicated to him in 1976 while Allan was on the piano and music theory faculty at NSU. The work was converted to Finale for this project as a gift from Jacobson. Jacobson studied piano with Johnson for six years-both in high school and in college before receiving his BS in Education from NSU in 1966. Jacobson received a MM in 1968 and DMA in 1982 from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin. Jacobson joined the NSU faculty in 1976 and taught applied piano and theory concertizing regularly until his recent retirement. Other students, who may wish to comment on Mr. Johnson and their work with him include: Bonnie Ottenbacher, Dona Lee Mitchell, Jack Holstead at Iowa Teachers College in Cedar Rapids, Tom Malchow, and Jan Pierson.