“Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s History Ranges from Sagebrush to Royal Halls,” Liahona, Jan. 2005, N6–N7
From its beginnings under a crude, sagebrush-roofed bowery, to its performances in grand halls for presidents and kings, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has created for itself a fascinating history.
Last year marked the 75th anniversary of the choir’s radio program, Music and the Spoken Word, making it the longest continuously running network broadcast in radio history and earning it a place in the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. But this history is just one of the many pieces that completes the whole picture of the choir.
In an effort to create a complete portrait of the choir, director and producer Lee B. Groberg and writer Heidi S. Swinton completed a documentary detailing the history of the choir. The documentary, titled America’s Choir: The Story of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, was aired on PBS stations throughout the U.S. in November 2004.
The film blends concert performances, personal interviews, reenactments, and archival footage, and it includes narration by Walter Cronkite and special appearances by celebrities as it tracks the choir’s role in special events throughout its 158-year history.
The choir had its first performance at a general conference of the Church on August 22, 1847—just 29 days after Latter-day Saint pioneers first entered the valley. The choir now consists of 360 voices and is typically accompanied by a 11,623-pipe organ and a 110-member orchestra.
Every member of the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square is an unpaid volunteer. Some even travel up to 100 miles each way to attend rehearsals and performances in Salt Lake City. But choir members think of their sacrifice as a blessing.
“Many of us attend full-time jobs before we go to choir practice in the evenings,” says choir member Cindy Staheli. “Sometimes, after a long day, it’s hard to imagine singing for two and a half hours. But no matter how tired I am, by the time I leave that practice, I could sing for two and a half hours more. It lifts my soul and rejuvenates me.”
It may be hard to make sacrifices to be in the choir, but it is even more difficult to get in. The documentary describes the long process of becoming accepted into the choir. The process usually lasts nine months. Interested singers first submit a recording that demonstrates their vocal range. They then must pass a test that assesses their knowledge of musical concepts. If they score 80 percent or higher, they are invited for an in-person audition. If they are selected from their auditions, they are then invited to join the Temple Square Chorale, which serves as a training school for the Tabernacle Choir. Choir members range in age from 25 to 60 and can have a maximum of 20 years of service in the choir.
Today the choir has opportunities to tour the world, far beyond where early members would have thought possible. The choir’s first tour was to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Their first performance for a U.S. president was in 1911 for President William Howard Taft, and their first European tour was in 1955. Since then they have performed in places as varied as Russia’s Bolshoi Theater and London’s Royal Albert Hall, as well as with the Jerusalem Symphony in Israel.
They have also performed for special events such as inaugurations and funerals. On September 11, 2001, the choir was scheduled to perform in the Tabernacle on Temple Square for a visiting group of conventioneers. Because of the terrorist attacks on the United States earlier that day, the performance was changed to a memorial concert. As a show of respect, President Gordon B. Hinckley asked the audience to refrain from applauding.
“Midway through the concert we sang ‘America the Beautiful,’” says choir member Stephen Stoker. “Unable to applaud, the audience stood as we began to sing. When we got to the third verse, where we sing, ‘Oh, beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years, thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears,’ we were all crying. … It was a powerful experience for all of us.”
They also performed with popular musician Sting during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Upon hearing the choir sing for the first time, Sting said that it reaffirmed his “belief that music really can express the highest of human ideals.”
The documentary also goes back in time, capturing a reenactment of the choir’s first Music and the Spoken Word radio broadcast, which debuted on July 15, 1929. The segment recreates early radio equipment and has 150 current choir members in period costume. The announcer had to stand on a tall ladder through the entire program to reach the one and only microphone.
However, throughout the choir’s history one thing has remained the same—its ability to touch people’s hearts.
“It’s been said that words make us think of ideas, and music makes us feel,” says choir member Stan Smith. “But a song, which combines the two, makes us feel an idea.” Sister Staheli adds, “I think music can touch people’s hearts where sometimes words don’t even reach us.”