The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography

9780252039089[1]

Review of Michael Hicks, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015). 210 pages with Notes and an Index. Part of the Music in American Life series.

Michael has been posting teasers from his book manuscript for many months now, and so when my volume finally arrived in the mail my interest had been fully piqued and I consumed it in just two days.

As the subtitle suggests, this book tells the tale of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (in this review, sometimes MTC for short), told mostly chronologically from its beginnings in the 19th century to the present. The writing is engaging, and the subject is (to my eye, at least) quite fascinating. So much so that I could not help but wonder why no one else had thought to take on this project previously. That sense of wonder is short-lived, though, as I realize that, perhaps in his own way Liam Neeson-like, Michael has a very particular set of skills: experience in archival, historical research, professional knowledge on the music side, and being a long-time member of the MTC’s sponsoring Church. An historian could have taken this on, or a musicologist, or an outsider to the tradition, but to come up with this result it really required someone (like Michael) who blended all of those things together, and that is a rare combination.

I know that Michael has taken some heat for being less than 100% glowing about the MTC at all times and all places throughout the manuscript, but that is something that I particularly appreciated. The (ample) praise of the choir in certain contexts would ring hollow if it were unremittingly constant. A good example of this has to do with the MTC’s second-place finish at the 1893 Chicago eisteddfod. Some church leaders felt the choir had obviously won and that the crown had been snatched from them out of sectarian prejudice. But Michael carefully reports Evan Stephens’s own defense of the justice of the verdict, and he further puts the result into context by explaining how utterly remarkable it was that the choir was able to take even second in such a contest. Unremitting boosterism might be appropriate for an in-house coffee (urgh, Postum?) table production on the choir, but not for a serious treatment intended for the general market.

My own, very limited knowledge about the MTC pretty much began with the bright line of that 1893 trip to Chicago. So I was very interested in the early material in the book, which traced how in the world these pioneers struggling to survive in the Great Basin began to put together the precursors for what would eventually become the famous choir. A critical factor was all of that missionary success in Great Britain and northern Europe, which brought many immigrants with substantial musical talents.

Most of the narrative in the book is organized around the succession of directors of the choir, which to me seemed a sensible way to approach the history. Almost inevitably the transitions from one conductor to another were not happy ones, and it was interesting to read about the various factors that came into play on such occasions.

Throughout the choir’s history, and so accordingly throughout the book, there are two related struggles that play out: is the primary purpose and claim of the MTC to musical artistry, or is its purpose a more propagandistic one, as a missionary arm of the church? And what kinds of music should the choir be performing? Great master-works and classics, popular music, or hymns (only)?

I was particularly interested by the extensive details about the choir’s recording projects and radio (and later television) programs. I had sort of naively assumed that the acoustics of the Tabernacle were excellent for the choir’s purposes, but it is more accurate to say they were unusual, which sometimes could be a good thing and other times a bad thing. The primitive sound technology involved in trying to record the choir in such a setting was really interesting to me.

As I read, I could not help but reflect on some of my own (mostly remote) experiences with the MTC. For instance, I have a relative who used to sing with the choir, and I’ve always been a bit in awe of that (just as I admire my friend Eric Huntsman for his participation with the choir).

I saw the MTC in person as a fresh-faced missionary in the old Salt Lake Mission Home in October of 1977. Getting seats at the broadcast was part of the experience there. Then, when I had just about an hour before I had to go to the airport for my assigned area in Colorado, at the last minute I walked across the street to Deseret Book and bought tapes of the MTC Messiah with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (which Michael talks about at length in the book). And those tapes seriously were my salvation many times as I struggled with being a missionary; listening to that music always calmed my troubled soul.[1]

Suffice it to say that I highly recommend the book. It is a very well told glimpse into this Mormon–and American–institution, and utterly fascinating.

[1] I didn’t realize at the time that the recording was selections only. These days I listen to the Academy of Ancient Music version, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for that old MTC recording.

Comments

  1. maustin66 says:

    Great review, Kevin. But Postum–is that still a thing?

  2. I suppose that I would use “abridgement” to describe the MTC/Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording of Handel’s Messiah rather than “selections.” It seems that they intended to present a unified, but shortened, production. Why? To fit on two LPs? Because the choir/soloists couldn’t get those parts right? I don’t know–but if the book tells why, I’m going to have to buy it!

    Thanks, Kevin, for the review.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Mark B. you’re right that “abridgement” is a more accurate word than “selections.” I only meant to highlight my own youthful ignorance of the oratorio; I just naturally assumed it was complete. The book doesn’t say why they did it that way (although your guess about the space on two LPs seems plausible). If Michael sees this perhaps he’ll have some insights on this point to share.

  4. Michael Hicks says:

    Complete performances of Messiah are actually rare, though the recent trend is to be novel and do the whole thing (as the Choir did last Easter, for, I believe, the first time). The standard Schirmer score, from which the Choir worked for a century, even marks the movements that are not generally performed. By tradition, omitted movements typically include: [from Part II] “Unto which of the angels”; “Let all the angels of God worship Him”; and “Thou art gone up on high”; and [from Part III] “Then shall be brought to pass”; “O death, where is thy sting?”, “But thanks be to God”; and “If God be for us.”

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for coming by and answering that question, Michael. And thanks again for the book; I really, really enjoyed it.

  6. Let me just call attention to two of Michael’s other books which are both well-written and interesting as well.

    “The Street Legal Version of Mormon’s Book” which is a Joseph Smith style “translation” of the Book of Mormon, full of wit and wisdom. Also, “Mormonism and Music”

  7. Alf O'Mega says:

    Speaking of unhappy transitions from one conductor to another, I don’t suppose there’s any new insight available on Craig Jessop’s sudden departure?

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