“Has the Latter-day Saint culture produced a truly great composer whose works are definitely Mormon?” New Era, Nov. 1972, 17–18
Answer/Lowell M. Durham
Latter-day Saints know and are justly proud of George Romney, David Kennedy, Billy Casper, Johnny Miller, Harmon Killebrew, and Vernon Law. Most know of the Osmond Brothers, the Lettermen, Welk’s Sandy and Sally, Bob Peterson, Rouvann, and the King Family. Some have heard of Henry Eyring, Philo Farnsworth, and Harvey Fletcher. Still fewer know of Grant Johannesen, Glade Peterson, and Keene Curtis. It is conceivable that one hundred years from now another name—Leroy Robertson—will loom above these others.
Robertson emerged from Utah’s Sanpete County and attracted national attention by the thirties. He skyrocketed to fame in 1947 by winning a Western Hemisphere competition. Every major composer of this hemisphere competed, but the Fountain Green “fiddle-playing, sheep-herding” composer’s photo appeared in the nation’s press and weekly news magazines. “The largest prize in musical history” ($25,000) was presented in a nationwide broadcast from Detroit, where his symphony, Trilogy, was performed.
The previous year Robertson had been commissioned by the Church through the late President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., to finish his Book of Mormon Oratorio then in process. Robertson was granted a sabbatical from Brigham Young University, and the oratorio was completed in Los Angeles in 1946–47.
The history of civilization shows that religion, art, and philosophy endure to enrich future generations while nearly all else crumbles. Robertson combined all these elements in his Book of Mormon Oratorio: Mormon philosophy, excerpts from the Book of Mormon, and his own music.
Handel’s oratorio, the Messiah, is known by everyone and ranks among music’s all-time top ten. Oratorio is the Protestant counterpart of the Catholic mass, most widely used musical form in history. Surprisingly, few are aware of the existence of Robertson’s oratorio or of its composer’s distinction.
After Robertson completed the Book of Mormon Oratorio, six years passed before it was first performed. Under the direction of Utah Symphony conductor Maurice Abravanel, the University of Utah Chorus joined the Utah Symphony to premier the work in April 1953 in the Tabernacle. Other performances followed in other parts of the state. Since that time, this and other Robertson works have been performed throughout the country and abroad.
The Oratorio is available on recordings. Three of its choruses are widely sung by choirs of all denominations, colleges, and high schools. Best known is “The Lord’s Prayer.” The Pastorale, for orchestra alone, was featured by the Utah Symphony as an encore on its 1966 European and 1971 South American tours.
“Mormonism’s composer-laureate” died last summer. He will be remembered essentially as a Mormon composer. An informal survey showed his Book of Mormon Oratorio to be “the most significant Mormon composition” among leading Church musicians. Others mentioned were Crawford Gates’ Hill Cumorah music and Promised Valley. Gates is a distinguished Robertson student. Both his works enjoy long runs in Palmyra and Salt Lake City.
Latter-day Saints interested in Mormon music should get to know the works of Leroy Robertson.