1973
The Tabernacle Choir: 106 Years of Missionary Singing
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“The Tabernacle Choir: 106 Years of Missionary Singing,” Ensign, Nov. 1973, 84–88

The Tabernacle Choir: 106 Years of Missionary Singing

What a choir trip to Europe is, as judged from the tour made by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir August 22 to September 1, is a demanding, strenuous assignment.

Imagine flying in a plane all night, getting little or no sleep, and then going directly from an airport to a rehearsal. Or imagine rising at 4:00 A.M. after a hard day and a late concert the night before at the Louvre, and leaving at 5:00 A.M. by bus for the Paris airport. Imagine waiting three and a half hours for the fog to clear in London, flying across the channel only to wait another two hours for lost baggage, reaching your hotel about 2:00 P.M., then being ready to leave by 2:30 for a rehearsal, television taping, and recording sessions, before returning to your hotel about 10:30 at night!

But missions are never easy; success requires sacrifice, devotion, and discipline. And the Church owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to the choir, its leaders, and its staff, who give of their time so freely for these missionary services. Not only do they devote at least one evening a week to rehearsals and every Sunday morning to rehearsals and their CBS broadcasts, but they also use vacation time and, in some cases, time off work without pay to fill these special, extended missionary assignments.

It has ever been so. Since the choir made its first trip 80 years ago to sing by invitation at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (a tour on which it sang 50 concerts), it has made 26 major tours outside Utah and its members have given tens of thousands of hours to Church service time to carry on the work of the Lord. (See accompanying list of tours.)

The Tabernacle Choir had its beginnings in 1847 soon after the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. In a crude shelter called the Bowery, they practiced and sang praises to God in church services.

In 1857 the Church completed a tabernacle made of sun-dried adobe which became the second home of the choir. Here they sang to the accompaniment of their first pipe organ, a small but fine instrument built in Australia by a convert, shipped across the Pacific to California in 1855, and hauled by mule train to Salt Lake City.

Ten years later the choir moved into the current Tabernacle, its home for 106 years. The choir has since rehearsed and sung for general conferences and other events in this historic structure.

Each Sunday morning millions of people from coast to coast in the United States, as well as thousands personally present at the broadcast in the Tabernacle, listen to the singing of the 375-voice choir. Since its first broadcast on July 15, 1929, it has never missed a single appearance: summer or winter, peace or war, prosperity or depression, no matter what the weather. And years ago the broadcast became the oldest coast-to-coast sustaining radio program in the United States.

Through all those years, while the organization has remained intact, its face and the faces of its leaders have been constantly changing. The choir is made up of people of all ages and from all walks of life. A mature doctor or business executive may sing alongside a young farmer or glassblower. A high school girl may sit next to a grandmother, a contractor next to a carpenter. There are some 40 husband-wife teams, and more than half the choir members are themselves conductors of church, community, or school choirs or choruses.

Nine noted conductors have led the choir. Its leader since 1957 has been Richard P. Condie. At 75, he is still vigorous and conducted all the concerts, TV tapings, and recording sessions on the European tour.

Going to Europe was going home for Alexander Schreiner, chief Tabernacle organist, who was born in Nuremberg, Germany. His knowledge of German and French often came in handy on the trip. Assistant choir director Jay E. Welch, organist Robert Cundick, and commentator J. Spencer Kinard also made the trip.

Ordinarily when we think of the Tabernacle Choir, we think of 375 singers, the director, the organist, and the commentator. But the choir is much more than that.

It is supported by a substantial group of wardrobe experts, engineers, technicians, and secretaries. At its head stands a president, a man called by the First Presidency to direct the affairs of this great organization on a church-service basis. Since the choir is a self-sustaining organization, receiving no money for its operation from the general funds of the Church, its president has to be a top business man and manager.

Such a man is Brother Isaac M. Stewart, who before his call was a practicing attorney and vice-president of a large manufacturing company. He has served faithfully since being called to this position in 1962.

In February when President Harold B. Lee invited the choir to sing at the regional conference in Munich, everyone concerned voted enthusiastically to accept. Then they all went to work to make sure the proposed journey would be a success. Although every appearance the choir makes and every song they sing accrues to the good of the work of the Lord, still it takes money to make trips, and since the choir’s only sources of income are from concerts and royalties from albums, the president has to look at all “outside” activities from a practical point of view. Uniforms must be made, transportation and lodging provided, and food paid for.

So on two trips to Europe, assisted by Stanford P. Darger, choir secretary, Paul Evans, producer, and Jay Welch, associate director and stage manager, President Stewart negotiated with the British Broadcasting Company for two programs to be taped in London for airing in December, for two albums by Columbia Records to be recorded by the Royal London Symphony Orchestra, for a concert in the Royal Albert Hall in London, and for television programs to be taped in conjunction with Lutz Wellnitz, noted German producer.

Because the choir is not only a missionary for the Church but also an ambassador for the United States, President Stewart acquired the services of the Honorable Kenneth Rush, deputy secretary of state, an old friend and former associate, to help open doors. He rendered indispensable assistance. Concerning this Mr. Rush wrote: “It is gratifying to know that this distinguished group of singers will be demonstrating American cultural achievement abroad, thereby establishing increased interaction between ourselves and citizens of other countries. We are certain this tour will strengthen our efforts to build international communication and mutual understanding. … I think the choir is one of our most successful ways of selling America to the world.”

And so with the untiring efforts of Brother Stewart and many others, plans went forward. Concerts were arranged for the Marienplatz Square in Munich, the square at the Louvre in Paris, the plaza of the Oberammergau Passion Play House (the first cast or choir ever to perform on the Passion Play House stage other than the Passion players themselves), and the 102-year-old Royal Albert Hall in London. It was no easy task to clear the nights for concerts at the Louvre and at Royal Albert Hall. For instance, the British Broadcasting Company gave up a scheduled event so that the choir could present its concert.

Since spouses were invited to accompany choir members at their own expense, the final count, including engineers and staff, was 601. The trip also required some 3,000 pounds of recording and amplifying equipment. Four hundred and twenty-one members of the group flew to Munich in a 747-C jet, stopping only in Bangor, Maine, for refueling, while the remainder of the party went by charter to New York, then transferred to another charter flight to Munich.

The flights themselves resulted in interesting publicity. The huge jet was the first plane of its kind ever to take off from the Salt Lake airport with a load of passengers. While powering down the runway, someone remarked, “Well, if we get past North Temple, we’ve got a story.”

It was true. A World Airways press release reported, “Not since the cow jumped over the moon has milk played such an important role in air travel. … Since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints forbids the use of tobacco, coffee, tea, or alcoholic beverages, World Airways director of catering, John Ferrar, found his job surprisingly uncomplicated. ‘We are stocking the plane with 300 quarts of milk,’ he said. ‘That’s ten times the amount required for regular two-meal flights serving coffee, tea, or alcoholic beverages.’

“In fact, it will probably be the largest amount of milk ever consumed in the air.”

In spite of delays, fog, a bomb scare as part of the group was leaving the hotel in London, and lightning striking the plane’s lightning rod as it was flying homeward over the Uintah Mountains, everything that was planned to be accomplished by the group was done. It seems remarkable indeed that in that short period of time the group could have gone to three countries in Europe and returned and accomplished the following:

1. Singing at the Sunday morning session of the Munich area general conference, where some 14,000 members of the Church were in attendance. For most of these, it was the first time they witnessed a personal appearance of the choir.

2. Singing an outdoor concert in Marienplatz Square in Munich. The large audience included the mayor of Munich to whom President Stewart presented a choir album and a copy of a book by President Harold B. Lee. At this concert, as at all other concerts, Brother Stewart noted that the Tabernacle Choir was an integral part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and read a letter from President Lee identifying the choir members as “volunteer musicians,” who sacrifice even vacation time “as an evidence of our fellowship and as though we were reaching hands across the sea to extend to you who live in this great land, the assurance that we desire to stand shoulder to shoulder with you in all matters that induce to an everlasting peace; that peace which can only come, as the Master said, in overcoming the things of the world.

“Thank you for coming, and may you now enjoy this concert with our blessings that it may accomplish the purpose of our coming.”

3. Singing to an audience of some 3,000 people from the stage of the famed 300-year-old Passion Play House in Oberammergau. Of this, the director of the Passion Play, Helmut Gallist, wrote: “Our country is still talking about the outstanding performance you made in Bavaria. For us in Oberammergau it was a remarkable day, not only for the people of Oberammergau and their guests, but also for the Passion Play House. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir was the first one from abroad singing in our Passion Play House. Besides the Passion Play we twice presented in the Passion Play House the Mattheus Passion, but also then natives from our village were singing.

“The concert your world-famous choir gave to our people will be unforgettable and we already expressed our thanks to President Stewart from the choir. We all hope and wish that we will have the pleasure of welcoming the choir again soon.”

It was only the night before the performance that President Stewart had gained final permission for the choir to sing on the stage of the play house.

4. Taping for television by Lutz Wellnitz, internationally known and recognized producer, programs at the Linderhoff Castle, the Olympic stadium, Oberammergau, and the Marienplatz. (Mr. Wellnitz and his crew came to Salt Lake City following the tour to finish his program, taping the choir singing on Temple Square, at “This Is the Place” monument, on the steps of the Utah State Capitol building, on Bonneville Salt Flats, on the shores of Great Salt Lake, at Pioneer Village, and at Arches National Monument. Negotiations were also completed with Mr. Wellnitz for a filming of a regular Sunday morning broadcast. In Salt Lake Mr. Wellnitz said to the choir: “I am very thankful to have this opportunity. I am finding here more than I expected. … Each of you is hereby an ambassador to millions of people. … Our work will in the years ahead be transmitted from important television stations all over the world.”)

During the concert at the Marienplatz Square, a large number of missionaries circulated among the crowd passing out programs for the concert, engaging people in gospel conversations, and making friends for the Church.

Through the efforts of President Stewart, an agreement for exclusive rights to televise these programs in the United States was obtained.

5. Presenting a concert at the Louvre in Paris. Missionaries and Church members in Paris brought many investigators and friends to hear the concert.

6. Singing at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The 7,000 seats in this famous hall were all sold, and perhaps as many as 500 additional people stood during the entire two-hour-and-five-minute concert. This program, as the others, was received with thunderous applause. One could see tears in many eyes throughout the audience during the singing of “Come, Come Ye Saints.”

7. Recording two half-hour television programs for BBC. Again, these programs will be seen by millions of people throughout the British Isles and in other English-speaking countries. One was a general concert that may be aired in early December; the other was a Christmas program that may be shown on Christmas Eve. These programs were taped in the Central Hall in London before a large and enthusiastic audience that gave the choir, its leader, its organist, and the 44-piece BBC orchestra numerous standing ovations.

8. Completing a recording of the Messiah by CBS of London, partly with the Royal London Symphony Orchestra and partly with the CBS Symphony Orchestra.

After all of the concerts, the feelings of the Saints, mission presidents, and missionaries ranged from enthusiastic to exuberant. “What a great boost for the work this will be!” was an expression often heard. One can picture the missionaries and members of the Church in Germany, France, England, and wherever else the programs will be shown on television encouraging all they come in contact with to listen to the programs of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

And after the programs are over, one can hear them asking people they meet, “Did you see the program featuring the great Mormon Tabernacle Choir?” The concerts, the television programs, and the favorable articles in the newspapers are not only great morale builders for the Saints but should open the doors to thousands of homes for missionaries. The effects of the tour for good on untold numbers of people and its value in opening the hearts and minds of people to the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be estimated.

Now the tour is history. The choir members arrived home on Saturday, September 1, some of them after another all-night flight. One would think that maybe they would have had a little rest, but bright and early on Sunday morning they were in their places in the Salt Lake Tabernacle rehearsing for and presenting their weekly broadcast. One week later they were again busy giving extra time for the completion of the filming of the German television program.

Tabernacle Choir Tours

1893

Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois; Denver, Colorado; Independence and St. Louis, Missouri; Omaha, Nebraska.

1896

Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose, California; Denver, Colorado.

1902

San Francisco, Sacramento, Berkeley, and Palo Alto, California.

1909

Seattle, Washington; LaGrande, Oregon.

1911

New York City (Madison Square Garden). Traveled 5,500 miles and sang 50 concerts.

1926

San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland, Hollywood Bowl, San Diego, and Pomona, California.

1934

Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, Illinois; Denver, Colorado.

1935

California-Pacific International Exposition at San Diego at invitation of Ford Motor Company; Inglewood Bowl, California.

1937

Zion National Park Memorial Day (Utah) at invitation of Union Pacific Railroad.

1941

Sun Valley, Idaho, at invitation of Union Pacific Railroad.

1947

San Bernardino, California (Centennial Celebration).

1955

Glasgow, Scotland; Manchester and London, England; Cardiff, Wales; Copenhagen, Denmark; Berlin and Wiesbaden, Germany; Amsterdam and Scheveningen, The Netherlands; Bern and Zurich, Switzerland; Paris, France.

1956

Red Rocks Musical Festival, Denver, Colorado.

1958

Wichita, Kansas; Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri; Columbus, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Maryland; New York City; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

1959

Los Angeles and Hollywood, California (to receive “Grammy” Award for “Battle Hymn”).

1962

Mt. Rushmore, South Dakota (for inaugural Telstar intercontinental telecast); Seattle World’s Fair (Washington); Tacoma and Spokane, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

1963

Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and Hollywood Bowl, California.

1964

New York World’s Fair at Flushing, New York; New York City; Rochester, New York; Houston, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Atlanta, Georgia; Washington, D.C. (at the White House); Cleveland, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Las Vegas, Nevada (for Nevada Centennial).

1965

Inauguration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Washington, D.C.; American Hospital Association and American Medical Association conventions in San Francisco, California.

1966

Rotary International Convention in Denver, Colorado; American Bankers Association Convention in San Francisco, California.

1967

Phoenix, Arizona; Expo ’67 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Omaha, Nebraska; Saratoga Springs and Chautauqua, New York; Detroit, Michigan.

1968

Dallas, Texas; Hemisfair ’68 at San Antonio, Texas; Mexico City, Mexico.

1969

Inauguration of President Richard M. Nixon, Washington, D.C.; Golden Spike Centennial at Promontory, Utah; San Diego 200th Anniversary at San Diego, California.

1970

South Carolina Tricentennial Celebration at Columbia; Pocatello, Idaho; National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, Washington, D.C.

1971

Nashville, Tennessee; Louisville, Kentucky.

1972

Mexico City, Mexico.

1973

Munich and Oberammergau, Germany; Paris, France; London, England.

1974

(Projected) Expo ’74 at Spokane, Washington.

1 and 2. Choir presented a night concert at the Louvre in Paris. Four hundred and twenty-one members of the choir party flew to Munich and returned from London in a huge 747-C jet. Travel on the 1973 tour to Europe contrasted remarkably with the first out-of-state tour made by the choir some 80 years ago.

3. Brother Isaac Stewart, choir president, and Richard P. Condie, right, choir director.

4. Elders Alexander Schreiner, left, and Robert Cundick, tabernacle organists.

5. The choir sang on the stage of the famous 300-year-old Passion Play House in Oberammergau.

6. A lady missionary from one of the German missions engaged a spectator in conversation between numbers at the famed Marienplatz Square in Munich.

7. Anxious faces of the choir members strained to try to recognize their luggage as hundreds of pieces move by on the luggage belt at the airport.