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I sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Of course, I am generally lolling around on a couch with CD accompaniment while the rest of the gang are holding forth in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, in the Conference Center or in some distant land where the applause resounds around the world.
I’m certain the choir would have welcomed me into its immediate ranks, but they don’t have a section for “sopraltos” and that seems to be where my voice fits. Or doesn’t fit, as the case may be. No doubt there are many “tenbasses” who also wouldn’t find a seat in the choir. But, remember, there has to be audience, and we all fit into that section.
My point here is that the choir is one of those appurtenances of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to which we all lay claim. It is a source of pride and reflected accomplishment that makes us all richer.
Over the course of its evolution from an 1849 “conference choir” to its present status as one of the world’s premier singing groups, thousands of men and women have lent their voices to its harmony. Maybe one of them is your kin. In your own family search for ancestors, it would be a point of interest to find one who had been a choir member, an excellent defining tidbit to add to a relative’s story.
One way is to go to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s website at mormontabernaclechoir.org, selecting “About Us” and then “Mormon Tabernacle Choir” from the list. Then, click on “Choir Historical Roster.” Not every person who has ever been a choir member will appear on the list, since there are gaps, according to the choir’s secretary, but certainly it’s worth a try.
The history of the choir is a singular tale in the world of music. Several books have been written, and it is the subject of the most recent edition of Pioneer, the magazine of the National Society of the Sons of Utah Pioneers. The 2017 Vol. 64, No. 2 is a carefully researched and lavishly illustrated history with a timeline that captures the choir over its “frontier-to-fame” climb.
According to writers Lloyd D. Newell and Heidi S. Swinton, the choir actually had its embryonic start when some of the thousands of Welsh converts organized a choir to sing aboard the ship they boarded to begin their travels to Zion. As the ship left port, “Their sweet voices resounded throughout the city, attracting the attention of and causing amazement to thousands of spectators,” one of the travelers recorded.
George A. Smith, a cousin of the Prophet Joseph Smith, reported that the Welsh in his wagon train company crossing the plains formed a choir that became a gentle spur to those who endured the daily grind of the trail. Asked about the penchant of the Welsh to sing for any and all occasions, one of the choir members said, “The hills of Wales were the schoolhouse, and the Spirit of God was the teacher.”
When Zion turned out initially to be an inhospitable wilderness where crops struggled, music became the balm that kept the pioneers going. In 1849, with the ranks of pioneers growing constantly, second LDS Church President Brigham Young appointed John Parry to organize a choir to sing for general church conferences. Parry was one of the Welsh converts who had been a minister in another church before his conversion.
The choir was so popular that it often entertained at community celebrations as well as at conferences. If there was sagebrush and other desert detritus in their fields, there was music in the souls of those first settlers.
Initially, the choir was assembled from local groups that learned the assigned songs in their own locale then united for performances. In a time when music was not always written as it is today, it was not uncommon for the groups to learn different musical versions of the same song, and the director had little time to get them all on the same page.
By the time the “New Tabernacle” was ready for its first general conference in 1867, the choir, led then by Robert Sands, performed a hymn written by Eliza R. Snow, with newly appointed Joseph J. Daynes playing the still-unfinished Tabernacle organ. (The miraculous advent of a pipe organ in the desert is fine accompaniment to the story of music among the Mormons, but that’s a different story for another time.)
Long a beloved staple of the Mormon culture, the choir got its baptism by fire in its September 1893 appearance during the Welsh eisteddfod competition held during the Chicago World’s Fair. The Welsh entry in the competition had expected, based on previous experience, to walk away unchallenged. Who would have guessed that 250 singers from what was still a territory located in America’s rapidly filling West would provide the challenge? The Mormon Tabernacle Choir came in second in the contest, provoking then-church President Wilford Woodruff to suggest that perhaps the judging had not been entirely unbiased.
On July 15, 1929, at 3 p.m., the united voice of the choir flew over NBC radio wires into the homes of many Americans. It was sent over telephone lines to the station WJZ in New York and rebroadcast to a network of 30 stations, including KSL in Salt Lake City. As the agenda was repeated weekly, the choir ultimately claimed the title of the longest-running continuous network program in history. The weekly Music and the Spoken Word program now is carried over 2,000-some radio and TV stations and cable systems.
The awards, plaudits and general acclaim all have multiplied over the years.
Wouldn’t you like to find that someone in your family is or has been part of it all? I’m going to take a peek. Maybe some less musically impaired relative can claim a bit of this history.
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