Having been given some lessons by Schumann in his youth, Merkel spent most of his career in Dresden, concentrating on organ-playing from 1858. A Lutheran himself, he nevertheless held an appointment at the Catholic Cathedral of Dresden from 1864 until his death. During the same period he taught the organ at Dresden's Conservatory.
His compositions include nine organ sonatas (which have been recorded several times, as well as occurring quite often in organ recitals), of which the first sonata (Op.30) is written for two organists, and several dozen miniatures (some of them based on Protestant chorale melodies). In these works, his style is broadly conservative, very much influenced by Mendelssohn, and with similarities to the output of his younger contemporary Josef Rheinberger. He also produced choral and piano pieces; his salon piece "Schmetterling" ("Butterfly"), Op. 81, No. 4 is particularly well-known.
- Paul Janssen, Gustav Merkel: Ein Bild seines Lebens und Wirkens (Leipzig, 1886).
- Magdalene Saal, Gustav Adolf Merkel: Leben und Orgelwerk (Frankfurt, 1993).
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