Frank Merrick

The Frank Merrick Archive at Bristol University

An Introduction by David Hackbridge Johnson

A chance purchase of 2 LPs led to my visiting the Special Collection department at Bristol University Library to view a new deposit of scores, letters and memorabilia relating to this Clifton born composer/pianist.  I bought the LPs on the strength of my having heard Merrick mentioned by two composer/pianist friends: Michael Garrett and Ronald Stevenson.  Garratt had been a Merrick student in the early 1960s whilst Stevenson got to know him in the early 1970s.  Upon seeing the two LPs I eagerly seized upon the chance to listen to Merrick’s music for the first time.  Two piano concertos are on the LPs as is the slow movement of a piano sonata. 

After being so impressed by the music I found what few biographical details exist on Merrick.  He was born in Clifton in 1886.  He studied with Leschetitsky and taught in Manchester and later at the Royal College of Music  During World War One he was imprisoned for his beliefs.  He later had a distinguished teaching and performing career.  He won a competition to complete Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.  His book ‘Practising the Piano’ was published in 1960.  He died in 1981.

After making contact with Stephen Banfield and Hannah Lowery at Bristol, I made a visit to the archive on 20th October 2008.  What follows is a brief outline of what the archive contains thus providing an overview that should lead to further research.  I looked at many Merrick compositions.  The music has already been sorted to a certain extent, but Merrick presents problems for the scholar in that he does not provide opus numbers and at most only half of the works at Bristol are dated.  A chronological worklist is therefore someway off.  I was obviously keen to find scores of the piano concertos and the piano sonata; the works on the Merrick LPs.  They are not at Bristol (the piano sonata at Bristol is clearly a work other than that which Merrick recorded) so more searching will have to be done to locate these and perhaps other works.  Tantalisingly there is a 2 piano version of 3 movements of a Symphony in D minor, but the full score is not in the archive. 

Despite these missing works there are many riches.  I examined over 20 songs set to Esperanto texts.  Merrick was a keen student of this synthetic language.  There are many songs for voice and piano as well as several for ‘a cappella’ choir.  Some of the latter were clearly written for Esperanto events.  Perhaps the most significant Esperanto work is the cycle ‘La Kvar Sezonoj’ (The Four Seasons).  That Merrick thought highly of it himself is hinted at by the fact that he made 3 versions of the work: for voice and orchestra; voice, clarinet, piano and strings; and voice and piano.  All 3 versions are in the archive.    

Chamber groups may one day relish the challenge of playing 2 important scores by Merrick: Piano Quartet in G minor and Piano Trio in F# minor.  The latter work is represented in the archive by 2 exquisitely written copies – the days of photocopying were some years off.  Like a number of scores these copies have the composer’s address on the front enabling a picture to emerge about the his movements.  This information might prove useful in dating undated works.  Many other chamber works exist including an important sounding Sonata for Cello and Piano.

In addition to the music (of which the above is but a taste) there are a large amount of concert programmes, photographs and hundreds of letters.  I found many striking photos of the composer including some fine studio portraits.  His concert programmes show the breadth of his repertoire; many concerts seem to be modelled on Anton Rubinstein’s historical concerts of the late 1800s.  Works by the Tudor keyboard masters lead to a classical group, followed by Chopin or Liszt, then Debussy, Bax or Ireland to represent the modern school.  Of the letters only a cursory glance could be made in the time I had, but by chance I came across a letter in German from Glazunov to Merrick.  There is also a large amount of material relating to Merrick’s first wife, fellow composer Hope Squire.  Her charming Edwardian ballads are here and, most intriguingly, an atonal pastiche that Merrick describes in a marginalia as being Schoenbergian.

The most startling find of all however relates to Merrick’s First World War experiences.  In an unassuming little box I found a whole series of letters, trial transcripts and documents that reveal the saga of Merrick’s military life in detail.  From these it can be deduced that upon being called up he did not refuse as a conscientious objector straight away, but when ordered to remove his civilian clothing in order to don the uniform of the Lancashire Fusiliers, he refused.  He was subsequently arrested and arraigned before a military court.  This resulted in court martial and imprisonment at Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth Prison.  Many documents relate to an appeal process that was pursued on the grounds that Merrick would not fight on moral grounds.  The appeal was refused and he remained in prison.  Hope Squire-Merrick’s letters to the prison authorities include impassioned protests against the fact that her husband’s wedding ring was forcibly removed from his finger.  There is also a polite note from the prison chaplain that lists the extent of the vegetarian diet the prison was able to provide for Merrick.  At one point in the drama it is clear that Merrick’s behaviour fell short of the required level that would allow him to receive letters.  However he was allowed manuscript paper since there is a booklet containing works written in prison.  In addition, on the back of a short sketch in D minor, there is a letter head for the United Suffragists, Manchester Branch.  Merrick is listed as Hon. Treasurer for the branch.  Merrick was finally released from prison in mid-1919; this would seem to be a date chosen to coincide with general demobilization.

The archive at Bristol clearly represents a vital store of material that illuminates Merrick both professionally and personally.  I look forward to more research into this neglected musician.