Merritt Johnson was a composer, who represented compositional styles and genre from the early 1900s to the late 1970s employing a global perspective with an integration of South Dakota traditions utilized in compositions during the middle to the late Twentieth Century. Johnson worked for most of career from the Northern State University campus as a teacher and composer.
He continuously expanded his compositional studies with internationally acclaimed pianists, pedagogues, and composition teachers throughout his career. His experiences in teaching composition, in utilizing his own compositions during teaching and for performances, and in setting high performance standards are demonstrated in his compositional works.
Originally, Merritt’s piano and organ pieces were written for teaching purposes to facilitate his church work as organist and later as choir director. He composed choral works, a choral and orchestral work for All-State Choir and Orchestra, secular and sacred songs, a piano trio, violin pieces, and one cello composition. His Technic Book 1 sold over 2400 copies from the NSU bookstore, and over 300 copies of his recordings were sold locally.
His music has also been used at the Moscow Conservatory of Music and throughout Europe, Turkey, Alaska, and Canada. He was the first South Dakota composer commissioned to create a work for the National Music Teachers Association.
The work, “Divertimento,” commissioned by the South Dakota Composers Forum Concert, was performed in 1965 in a piano and organ concert. By 1972, he was commissioned to write the All-State Orchestra and Chorus Festival work, “The Prairie.” In the fall, 1971 South Dakota Musician featured an article about Merritt’s life work and dedicated the issue to him as Professor Emeritus.
In 1973, he was selected Teacher of the Year as he retired from a lifetime of college work at NSU. He was also honored as past Dean of the South Dakota Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.