History of History of Tabernacle Choir, Utah
Courtesy of Utah History Encyclopedia. (Links Added)

The Salt Lake Mormon Tabernacle Choir, 320 voices strong, is the official choir of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is named for its permanent home in the historic Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. One of the world's most renowned choral ensembles, the choir maintains an intense rehearsal and performance schedule, singing at least twice weekly in the tabernacle and touring frequently to the major music centers of the world. The choir is featured on a weekly radio/TV program, "Music and the Spoken Word," carried by approximately 500 stations worldwide and heard live on Sunday mornings by many of the several million people who visit Temple Square annually. In addition to its regular open rehearsals and broadcasts, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings for the semiannual LDS general conferences and various other church and civic functions.

A widely recognized institution of American culture, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed at four presidential inaugurals--Bush (1989), Reagan (1981), Nixon (1969), and Johnson (1965)--as well as many other significant national occasions, including the bicentennial celebration of the American Constitution at Constitution Hall in Philadelphia (1987); the American Bicentenary in Washington, D.C. (4 July 1976); the "Tribute to the Stars" gala preceding the summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles (1984); nationwide radio memor services for John F. Kennedy (24 November 1963) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (12 April 1945); and the first worldwide television satellite broadcast, from Mt. Rushmore (1962). The choir was featured in the first "Cinerama" movie (1952) and in the first public demonstration of stereophonic sound at Carnegie Hall in New York (1940).

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir's reputation has been greatly enhanced through its numerous tours and recordings. In its first national tour, the choir captured second prize in the national choral invitational held in conjunction with Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition. Since that first venture outside the Mountain West, the choir has performed throughout the United States and Canada as well as in major concert halls in Central and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Beginning with the first European tour in 1955, eleven international tours have taken the choir to Western Europe (1955, 1973), Central America (1968, 1972), the Far East (1979), Brazil (1981), Scandinavia (1982), Japan (1985), Australia/New Zealand (1988), Central Europe and the former Soviet Union (1991), and Israel (1993).

Often informally representing the United States abroad, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was an official cultural ambassador in its 1988 concert tour of New Zealand and Australia celebrating the Australian Bicentenary. The 1991 tour was also significant, marking the choir's first appearances in Eastern and Slavic Europe, coinciding with the announcement of legal recognition for the LDS Church in the (then) Soviet Union. Audiences in Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, Moscow, and Leningrad responded emotionally to Americanfolk music and their own national songs in the highly charged atmosphereof new-found freedoms. The 1993 Israel tour, including performancesof the Berlioz Requiem with the Jerusalem Symphony for the latter's Liturgica festival, was also unprecedented for its impact on the diverse cultures of the Holy Land at a time of intense ethnic and religious strife.

The choir's numerous citations and awards have included the Peabody Award for service to American Broadcasting (1944, 1962) and the Freedom Foundation's "George Washington Award" (1981, 1988). "Music and the Spoken Word" was voted America's favorite classical and religious program for 1958-59. Over 100 record albums include a National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences "Grammy" award (1959) for Wilhousky's arrangement of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and Grammy nominations in 1967 and 1987. Five "gold" and two "platinum" records have been awarded to the choir.

Although choral singing was an integral part of LDS worship in the early Mormon communities in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, the real history of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir coincides with the establishment and progress of the Mormon settlements in the Great Basin region beginning in 1847. Singing was a part of the first general conference of the church in the Salt Lake Valley on 22 August 1847, less than one month after the arrival of the pioneer company. The quality of such singing was significantly enhanced by the arrival of a group of 85 Welsh converts in 1849. Brigham Young invited their leader, John Parry, to organize a choir for the next general conference, and this choir formed the nucleus around which the church's choral tradition grew. The first, or "Old," Tabernacle was completed in 1851, and a small organ handcrafted in Australia and brought to Utah by Joseph Ridges was installed in 1857. In 1867 the present dome-roofed Tabernacle was completed, including a new and larger organ built by Ridges and Niels Johnson. This organ was subsequently rebuilt and enlarged by the Kimball Company (1901) and by the Austin Company (1914-15) before being almost entirely replaced by the present Aeolian-Skinner organ in 1948.

In 1869, following a succession of short-term conductors (including Parry, Stephen H. Goddard, James Smithies, Charles John Thomas, and Robert Sands), English convert George Careless, a professional musician from London, was appointed director of the choir, with Joseph J. Daynes as organist. Under Careless, the choir assumed a more permanent character, with many of the unique features that would ultimately define its role in the church and distinguish it from similar choirs in other Mormon communities. His successor, British-trained Ebeneezer Beesely (1880-89), further shaped the choir's identity and began the tradition of touring with the choir to neighboring communities, keeping the choir together during the intense difficulties associated with the practice of polygamy.

During the long tenure of Welsh director Evan Stephens (1890-1916), the Mormon Tabernacle Choir achieved new levels of discipline and excellence; the present choir loft was built in the west end of the Tabernacle, choir membership swelled to 600, and the choir took the first of its many national and international tours. After this tour, membership in the choir was recognized as an important church calling which could take precedence over other church responsibilities. Under Stephens, the first recording of the choir was made on 1 September 1910. Succeeding him in 1916, Anthony Lund, who had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, brought a twentieth-century mentality to the choir, replacing the robust but eccentric character of Stephens's choir with a more refined, European sound. Lund recorded with the choir in 1927 for the Victor Company and conducted the first nationwide radio broadcast (NBC) of "Music and the Spoken Word" on 15 July 1929. Moving to CBS in 1932, the program has continued as the longest uninterrupted network broadcast in American radio history.

J. Spencer Cornwall, who succeeded Lund in 1935, vastly expanded the choir's repertoire and conducted its first, highly successful, European tour in 1955. Under him the Mormon Tabernacle Choir achieved the warm, homogeneous sound that characterized its ensemble for many years. Continuing in this tradition, the choir, under Richard P. Condie (1957-74), recorded award-winning albums with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. Condie conducted the first television broadcast of "Music and the Spoken Word" on 14 October 1962.

Jay Welch, who replaced Condie in 1974, remained only briefly. He was one of the most gifted and popular conductors the choir has ever had, and his sudden and unexpected resignation brought a number of administrative problems to the surface. Though regarded as a tragedy at the time, this resulted in many important changes which have worked to the advantage of the present organization, including placing the choir under the direct supervision of the First Presidency of the church. Welch was succeeded by present conductor Jerold Ottley later in the same year. Under Ottley's leadership the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has achieved new standards of excellence, becoming stylistically more versatile and varied in its repertoire. Touring has vastly expanded and the choir's role in the church has changed substantially. On one hand, its musical mission has been simplified, with an emphasis on hymn singing for the general meetings of the church. On the other hand, its role as a cultural and spiritual ambassador has led to a greatly expanded repertoire consisting not only of the great classical masterworks but also of many forms of ethnic and folk music, requiring much broader linguistic experience and training. Such added responsibilities led in 1990 to the appointment of Donald Ripplinger as the first full-time associate conductor. The masterful "Spoken Word" vignettes of long-time choir commentator Richard L. Evans inspired generations of listeners from 1930 until his death in 1971, at which time J. Spencer Kinard became the "voice of the Tabernacle Choir." Lloyd Newell replaced Kinard in 1990.

Organist Alexander Schreiner (1924-77), who devoted the greater part of outstanding career to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, was especially influential in the choir's rise to musical maturity. Schreiner was also the moving force behind the installation of G. Donald Harrison's magnificent Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, recently renovated (1988) and enlarged (11,623 pipes in 206 ranks) under the careful supervision of organists Robert Cundick (1965), John Longhurst (1977), and Clay Christiansen (1982). Richard Elliott was appointed in April 1991 to fill the vacancy created by Cundick's retirement later that year. The virtually round-the-clock schedule of the choir's current programs resulted in the appointment of two associate organists--Linda Margetts and Bonnie Goodliffe--in 1984. Originally unpaid volunteers, both have since been given part-time salaried positions, placing them on similar footing with the three full-time organists. Other organists for the choir have included John J. McClellan (1900-25), Edward P. Kimball (1905-37), Tracy Y. Cannon (1909-30), Frank Asper (1924-63), Wade Naisbitt Stephens (1933-44), and Roy Darley (1947-84). Henry E. Giles, Katherine Romney Stewart, Walter J. Poulton, and Moroni Gillespie have also served as assistants at various times. Karl G. Maeser, Fannie Young Thatcher, Sarah Coke, Orson Pratt, Jr., and John M. Chamberlain served as organists in the "Old" Tabernacle.

The Tabernacle organ has long been an independent attraction on Temple Square. Regular free recitals were initiated in 1901 by John J. McClellan and have continued to the present. At first, they were given only on Wednesdays and Saturdays, then on Tuesdays and Fridays. By 1908 the recitals had become so popular that it was decided to give them daily, except Sundays, during the summer season. Various schedules were subsequently adopted to accommodate the increasing number of visitors to Temple Square. At present, Tabernacle recitals are presented daily at noon, except Sundays, when they are presented at 2:00 P.M. Two other recital organs complement the resources of Temple Square: a 1983 tracker instrument by Robert L. Sipe of Dallas, Texas, in the Assembly Hall, and a 1993 Casavant organ in the chapel of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

See: J. Spencer Cornwall, A Century of Singing (1958); Charles Jeffrey Calman and William I. Kaufman, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (1979); Gerald A. Petersen, More Than Music: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (1979); Barbara Owen, The Mormon Tabernacle Organ: An American Classic (1990).

Roger L. Miller

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