Winifred Merrill's 'Musical Autograms'

In R R Bennett and G Ferencz (eds.), The Broadway Sound. The Autobiography and Selected Essays of Robert Russell Bennett (University of Rochester Press, 1999), Bennett's account of his meeting with Winifred Merrill is described. We note that Bennett married Winifred Merrill's daughter Louise Edgerton Merrill (1889-1982) on 26 December 1919 in Mamaroneck, New York, USA. He refers to meeting Louise at the end of our short extract.

Robert Russell Bennett meets Winifred Edgerton Merrill.

I had never really deserted my connection as a copyist, editor, and arranger at Schirmer's, so I was sitting at my workbench when one of my bosses came in with a most impressive lady named Winifred. Mrs Winifred Edgerton Merrill needed a composer to help her work something out musically, something she didn't describe to me at the time, but she asked me to take home a few page of black dots spread all over musical staves and see what they suggested to me. Completely in the dark I made notes out of all the black dots, chose certain things arbitrarily - such as time, accidentals, etc. The only noticeable characteristic in the resultant melodic line was its tendency to sound Slavic in many spots.

We had an appointment on a certain day and I was interested when she asked me if any of it sounded Russian. Then she tried to clear the charade up a little for me: every form, line or point in nature may be expressed in mathematics by reference axes or coordinates.

We didn't get quite that far in the book at Freeman High School, so I just sat and looked stupid while she went on. What she had given me was the Russian National Anthem (the words) written in Russian and translated into high mathematics, the black dots being at every dot or intersection of lines, one at each extremity of a straight line and three to express every simple curve.

I learned later that Mrs Winifred Edgerton Merrill was the first woman Ph.D. at Columbia University. Her subject was Mathematical Astronomy. It was her hope that a person's signature, written across a musical staff, would furnish a melodic line expressive of that persons character, and possibly his or her mood at the time of signing.

Like all the complexities of science, the whole scheme is relatively simple if you sit still and let the other man talk. It was not hard to take a signature to a letter, or on a check, and reduce it to the points that express it. And if you have the signature on a music staff or draw a staff through it you can take down all the dots, even if you only went to Freeman High School. We prepared a book that Schirmer printed in a fine edition, containing the signatures of twenty of the most prominent men of the era reduced to music.

Mrs Merrill collected the signatures of then-president Woodrow Wilson, ex-presidents Taft and Roosevelt, Enrico Caruso, John Philip Sousa, John Wanamaker and fourteen others. In choosing rhythms, key signatures, harmonies, etc., the musician must find the most simple and satisfying idiom in each case, never allowing any preconceived musical idea to take over.

I remember a review of Mrs Merrill's book in some music magazine where the critic concluded, "But it is on its musical value that one must judge ... " etc. That shows you what you are up against when you face the critics with something new. I always wanted to meet that fellow and ask him what he thought musical value had to do with it.

In the course of helping to prepare the book, Mrs Merrill and I met several times and she invited me to lunch one day at her home. Her "home" was an estate on the shore of Long Island Sound, Orienta Point near Mamaroneck, New York. There she ran a fashionable girls' school with around one hundred pupils in residence. The school was named Oaksmere and housed students from every part of the U.S.A.

At the luncheon I met Mrs Merrill's daughter Kitty (whose real name was Winifred) and her son Captain Hamilton Merrill. The feature of the day for me was the Captain's uniform. In World War I, as it came to be known, a lot of us of military age believed sincerely in our mission. Everything about war was unattractive, but going through it with our orders in our hand gave our lives a meaning that later generations may understand but I doubt if they feel it. I didn't stand in line waiting to get into the enlistment centres, but it added up to several tries, and when the draft came up they marked me for "limited service." I pleaded for a chance to join the big action...

So when I met a captain in full regalia in his own home - it sounds now like a play by Booth Tarkington, but it was a nice day.
One day along here somewhere my friend Mrs Merrill called and asked me to have lunch with her at the Biltmore Hotel. There were two other women at her table, a member of the faculty at the Merrill School and "another daughter that you haven't met"

Mrs Merrill, as a flesh and blood woman, had always frightened me a little. She symbolised a highly educated, socially superior human being with whom I would never attempt to match strides, and yet she was important to me and always would be. I knew, if only vaguely, that I was hungry for her to have a daughter for me to love.

The daughter I had met carried a spear, a shield, and a coat of mail an inch thick as far as I was concerned, but now I consciously felt myself saying, "This game isn't over yet." It didn't sound as ridiculous as it should have.

Last Updated December 2021