“Golden Anniversary for Alexander Schreiner,” Ensign, Apr. 1974, 74
What is needed for general conference? The General Authorities, of course; throngs from many nations swarming over the temple grounds; unsettled weather; the Tabernacle Choir; and Alexander Schreiner at the organ to accompany the singing and to bring hushed reverence with his preludes and his warm improvisations.
This April, when he takes his seat at the console, he will mark his 65th year as an LDS organist, 50 of them as Tabernacle organist.
The phone call appointing him to the Tabernacle staff came April 7, 1924, but the groundwork had been laid long before by Bishop Charles W. Nibley, then counselor to President Heber J. Grant, who influenced him away from a career in electrical engineering to one in music.
Alexander Schreiner’s parents, John Christian and Margaret Schwemmer Schreiner, were converted to the Church in the quiet medieval city of Nuremberg, Germany, before young Christian Alexander was two years old. The Schreiners were the only members of the Church with a piano, so choir rehearsals were held in their home. Four-year-old Alexander resisted efforts to send him to bed and watched the pianist absorbedly, then spent his days trying to reproduce what the pianist had done.
At eight, he was playing for Sunday School, sacrament meeting, choir practice, and the Wednesday investigators’ meeting.
The family emigrated to America when Alexander was 11, and he began taking lessons from John J. McClellan, then Tabernacle organist and composer of the hymn, “Sweet Is the Work, My God, My King.” At age 20, he was invited to play a series of Tabernacle recitals the summer before he went on his mission.
When he returned from his mission, he was named to the organists’ staff at the Tabernacle, the beginning of a musical career that took him to study in Paris under Louis Vierne, organist at Notre Dame Cathedral, and Charles Marie Widor.
In his late 30s, after ten winters of teaching at the University of California at Los Angeles, he began an undergraduate degree at the University of Utah for his personal pleasure. He was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies, continued graduate study with Leroy Robertson, and in 1954 received the first Ph.D. in music and esthetics given at the University of Utah. His dissertation, Concerto in B Minor for Organ and Orchestra, was premiered the following season by the Utah Symphony under Maurice Abravanel in the Tabernacle, with the composer as soloist. He is the only music graduate of the University of Utah to receive an honorary doctorate, the Doctor of Humane Letters, and in January 1974 he received his third doctoral degree, an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, from Utah State University.
As he looks back over 50 years with the Tabernacle organ, he notes that the quality of music in the Church has greatly improved in many ways.
The Tabernacle organ has been wonderfully improved in those 50 years, its most recent modifications being made in 1948. Enlargements changed its original plain tonal qualities but Brother Schreiner points out that “it gained more character, more color, more fanfare; a more masculine as well as feminine quality.”
Brother Schreiner and his wife, Margaret Lyman, are the parents of four children. Their oldest son, Richard, took his father’s first professional ambition seriously and is now an engineer at General Motors. John Christian, a talented amateur organist, is chairman of the Department of Finance at the University of Minnesota School of Business. Daughters Gretchen (a mother of three sons) and Julianne are violinists, Julianne now in her third year with the Utah Symphony.
For 50 years Brother Schreiner has been a gracious host to visitors who cluster around the organ. He chats happily in French and German with visitors from overseas.
He recommends that organists begin on the piano. “It will develop finger dexterity, reading ability, and musical understanding. A good organist always has a good piano background.” As for pedal technique, the use of a pedal piano is especially effective in developing an even touch.
He also recommends memorizing—he does a page a day when preparing a concert. “To play from memory lifts you off the ground and into the wide blue sky. The musical expression takes over.”
Despite his obvious pleasure in music, his professional devotion, and his standards of excellence, Brother Schreiner insists on perspective in life. Music is “one of the delights of living,” he says. His philosophy is, “A child should be exposed to many good things. And he might very well be exposed to good music; but it’s far more important that he learn to enjoy his fellowmen, his environment, and progress in the gospel. Beautiful behavior is more important than beautiful music.”