Book Review: Hicks, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography

hicks coverTwenty-five years ago, Michael Hicks published one of the most enjoyable books about Mormon history I’ve ever read. Mormonism and Music still flies under the radar when people compile lists of their favorite Mormon history books, but his analysis of LDS music as influenced by nineteenth and twentieth century culture holds up as a must-read study of Mormon religiosity to this day. He also contributed the entry on Music to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Hicks is adding upon that solid foundation with a new book: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography. And it’s just as fun, lucid, and intriguing as his earlier effort.

After giving a brief rundown of the place of music in the worship of the earliest Latter-day Saints, Hicks introduces us to the proto-Tabernacle choirs, the largest of which ultimately faced extinction as Mormons went underground to avoid prosecution under new anti-polygamy legislation. Mormons had a terrible reputation in the United States and beyond as religious extremists hunkered down in a western quasi-theocracy. After the Tabernacle Choir stole second place at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, Church leaders like Joseph F. Smith became more convinced than ever that the singers “were doing much to remove the prejudices that have existed against” the Mormons (Hicks, 44; pagination from pre-publication copy). Then-conductor Evan Stephens was thrilled with the support, believing that the Choir could signal the high culture of the Mormon people to people beyond the Kingdom, as well as call fellow Mormons to a higher standard within.

It’s here that Hicks outlines one of the core tensions that pervades the rest of the book: “was the Choir a missionary enterprise or an artistic one?” (46). As new conductors would come and go over the next century refashioning the size-shifting choir in their own image, various church leaders, music critics, choir members, church members, and others would debate the Choir’s repertoire, style, and purpose. Following the strong personalities, conflicting visions, musical aesthetics, technological developments (radio, television, satellite), and authoritative tug-of-wars rounds out the rest of Hicks’s narrative. Should the Choir avoid contamination from sponsors and commercial advertising? To what extent are Choir personnel beholden to ecclesiastical supervision? Is the Choir trying to reach too-elite an audience, or is it rather sacrificing high culture in order to appeal to the masses with easily-digestible but frivolous music?

Overall, the biography of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir provides multiple reminders that the LDS Church is a living organization that undergoes much change and development. From 1914 to 1980, the Choir or its leadership was sustained in General Conference alongside other Church officers. Sacred music other than hymns by composers like Bach and Mendelssohn used to be featured in General Conference. And my favorite irony: as an apostle, Joseph Fielding Smith appeared on a local news program exclaiming that it would be inappropriate for the Choir to become involved in Broadway, but the Choir released a collection of Broadway music while Smith served as president of the Church. As for the Choir as a missionary group? Internal surveys suggest they do practically nothing to get others to consider joining the LDS Church, but do much to spread goodwill on the Church’s behalf, a worthy end in its own right.

The book’s supporting cast includes network television executives, big name composers and conductors, union representatives, apostles and church presidents, but rarely any individual Choir members—especially from most recent years, a few of whom seem to have spoken off the record. (Hicks notes that, according to their most recent Handbook of instructions, Choir members are discouraged from blogging about their goings-on or speaking with “the media”) (171).

Nevertheless, Hicks draws on a number of great personal files and archival sources such as choir rehearsal minutes, letter books, interviews, newspaper articles, and other materials to paint an accurate and compelling portrait of what Ronald Regan dubbed “America’s Choir.” The book is filled with interesting tidbits about musical history in the United States and within the LDS Church. Hicks neither avoids nor gawks at more controversial episodes, as when one longtime voice of the Choir’s longest-running-television-program-ever The Music and the Spoken Word) resigned due to apparent improprieties with a female colleague, or when Evan Stevens comfortably and publicly disagreed with high-ranking church leaders in their assessment of why the Choir didn’t take first place rather than second at the 1893 competition, or that later historians have claimed Stephens was homosexual. The most recent point of controversy on current readers’ minds may be the apparently premature resignation of Craig Jessop. Hicks doesn’t solve the mystery here, but makes observations about a few assumed contributing factors and moves on to discuss differences between conductor backgrounds, styles, and expectations, as he does with the other conductors throughout the book.

It is here in the final chapter that the narrative almost gets away from Hicks. I wanted a bit more of the logistics of singing in the cavernous Conference Center compared to the Tabernacle itself, which Hicks describes in detail as a really difficult place to make recordings and broadcasts work, for instance. If it seems somewhat truncated compared to the previous chapters, considering the Choir’s hectic schedule, this is likely because Hicks must have experienced what the about-to-resign-conductor Jessop described as “trying to take a drink from a fire hydrant” (167). Hicks sums the Choir’s current life up with three words: brand, system, spectacle: the first indicating that the Choir has become a national and in some cases international icon that carefully protects its name, the second noting that the massive group runs like a well-oiled machine with all the strengths and drawbacks such systematization entails, and the latter sounding a bit of a warning cry that collaborations with popular actors and singers risks overpopulizing the staid institution of the Choir.

In other words, you’d never find a better biographer for this Choir. Hicks clearly has great affection for his subject, but as an astute music critic he’s not averse to criticizing, either. I guess I’m more of a Philistine, given that I was thrilled with the recent collaboration with the Muppets. I get the impression, even though it occurred after the book had gone to press, that Hicks wasn’t. If hearing Bert and the other Muppets perform “Sing a Song” with the enormous choir doing backup, or seeing members of the Orchestra at Temple Square explain their instruments to Elmo to the tune of “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood” doesn’t warm your heart with the flame of nostalgia, I don’t know what else to say.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography will be available in March 2015. It’s already available for pre-order. Highly recommended.

Comments

  1. Great stuff Blair, as usual. I’ve never read Mormonism and Music straight through, but I’ve corrected that now, it’s my night stand reading. Hick’s thoroughness, given resources available at the time, was admirable. Really looking forward to this volume.

  2. Dang it. Kristine will send me a Howler. Hicks’s. (Or Hicks’ for old schoolers.)

  3. Thanks, WVS.

    I should add, I consider Mike a friend, and we chat occasionally, and although we don’t know each other particularly well you should keep it in mind. And he’s an established professor and I’m a grunt.

  4. Great review, Blair; I’m looking forward to reading the book.

  5. Except for mission-nostalgia-Christmas-albums, I can’t listen to the Choir any more… but this really makes me want to read.

  6. Thanks for the review, Blair. I can attest that Dr. Hicks is a fantastic writer (seriously, people: order a copy of “Mormonism and Music”!). And I agree that he’s supremely qualified to discuss all things music. Plus, he’s no classical music elitist: he writes and teaches 20th and 21st century music, including rock history. (Heck, he’s even on record here at By Common Consent as defending the music of Janice Kapp Perry.) So, with all that, I’m very intrigued to see how he approaches the aesthetics issues — especially the one Blair mentions about how the Choir may be too interested in spectacle and overpopularizing itself.

    Whenever I find myself taking stylistic issue with the MTC, I ask myself: what *else* would you do with a choir of 350? And one that represents the Church? I mean, you’re kinda limited in repertoire and audience and venue, and etc. (I mean, what is Wilberg supposed to do? Program only the Brahms Requiem?) So, I’m very interested to read Dr. Hicks’ take on things, and agree that you couldn’t find a better biographer for the Choir.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Great review, Blair. Thanks. Loved Mormonism and Music, and will look forward to this.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I’m very much looking forward to this one. Thanks for the review, Blair.

  9. Blair, every author should be so well served. Mike’s book sounds great.

  10. Thanks, Gary, Kev, J.!

  11. Christopher J. says:

    Love your reviews, Blair. Looking forward to reading this book.

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