Mormon Tabernacle Choir Organists Share Thoughts about Iconic Organ

Contributed By Marianne Holman Prescott, Church News staff writer

  • 25 May 2017

Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott practices at the Tabernacle prior to a concert with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City held on April 15, 2011. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News. 

“The Tabernacle organ, like all great musical instruments, seems to have a soul and personality all its own, which inspires all who play it. My spirit is fed and nourished every time I sit down on the bench." —Richard Elliott, Mormon Tabernacle Choir organist

With the recent opening of an exhibit highlighting the Tabernacle organ’s 150th birthday, the Church News asked the current Mormon Tabernacle Choir organists a few questions about their experience playing the iconic instrument.

There are five choir organists who rehearse with the choir, perform during the weekly Music and the Spoken Word broadcasts, travel with the group on tour, and perform for organ recitals on Temple Square. The five musicians include three full-time organists—Richard Elliott (principle organist), Clay Christiansen, and Andrew Unsworth—and two part-time organists, Bonnie Goodliffe and Linda Margetts.

Included are responses from Richard Elliott and Andrew Unsworth.

You’ve played on organs around the world. What makes the Salt Lake Tabernacle organ special?

Elliott: “The Salt Lake Tabernacle organ has a remarkable history that is intertwined with two epic stories: that of the pioneers in early Utah and that of the coming forth of the Church out of relative obscurity to becoming a worldwide church, which is mirrored by the history of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

“Those of us who regularly play the Tabernacle organ have a keen sense of the sacrifice and ingenuity of the pioneers, as well as the sacrifices of so many individuals that have been made over the past 150 years and that have contributed to the fame of the organ and the choir.

Tabernacle organists Clay Christiansen, Bonnie Goodliffe, Richard Elliott, and Andrew Unsworth at the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 21, 2011. Photo by Mike Terry, Deseret News.

Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott practices at the Tabernacle prior to a concert with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City held on April 15, 2011. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott practices at the Tabernacle prior to a concert with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City held on April 15, 2011. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott practices at the Tabernacle prior to a concert with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City held on April 15, 2011. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

“Aside from that, the Tabernacle organ is one of the most refined and lovely organs I have ever played. There isn’t a single pipe that sounds ugly or out of place. The acoustics are the ideal blend of warmth, bloom, and clarity. It is certainly special because of its iconic status as one of the world’s most famous instruments. And we are very fortunate that it is without question the best maintained pipe organ on the planet.”

Unsworth: “We Tabernacle organists sometimes refer to the Tabernacle organ as having a ‘signature sound.’ There are certain colors of the Tabernacle organ—such as the sounds we use for ‘As the Dew from Heaven Distilling’ at the end of the choir’s broadcast, the lush string choruses of the instrument, and the noble reed choruses—that are quintessentially ‘Tabernacle organ.’

“When I hear them, I know right away what instrument I’m listening to. Another thing that makes the Tabernacle organ special is that it is so impeccably maintained. I’ve never played another organ that is kept in such consistently good condition.”

Tell me about the first time you played the Tabernacle organ.

Unsworth: “I grew up listening to the Tabernacle organ on choir broadcasts and at conference. As a young, aspiring musician, I had studied the large specification of the organ with my mouth drooling over the sonic possibilities available there to a player. When I finally got the chance to sit down at the Tabernacle organ at age 17, it was [like] Christmas Day and [I’d] ‘died and gone to heaven’ rolled into one. I was so excited! I remember thinking, ‘So this is how an organ is supposed to sound!’”

Elliott: “I first played the organ in the summer of 1980 as a brand-new convert to the Church. I flew out from Philadelphia and attended a Music and the Spoken Word broadcast, after which Robert Cundick, John Longhurst, and Jerold Ottley were as gracious as could be.

“I remember Brother Cundick running back and forth between his office and the console to bring various pieces of music for me to try out. The Tabernacle organ is fairly similar to the organ on which I had spent the previous years taking lessons—same builder, same number of keyboards, same tonal design, but a bit larger—so I felt right at home.

“It was a magical experience on many levels. I was awestruck by the choir and the organists, and even as a new convert I sensed the great spirit of Temple Square and the Tabernacle. I don’t remember every detail, but I will never forget how I felt and how thrilling it was on a musical, emotional, and spiritual level.”

The organ is an iconic symbol of the choir and the Church. What kind of influence have you seen the organ have on the community, Temple Square, the world?

Elliott: “The Tabernacle organ’s influence in the community, on Temple Square, and in the world has been profound. On Temple Square, it is something that visitors consistently mention as a highlight of their time on the Square, whether they are experiencing it during a choir function, during an organ recital, or even just catching a glimpse of it or hearing a few notes as they pass through the building.

“In the community, it is a pillar of musical life along the Wasatch Front. And in the world outside of Utah, the Tabernacle organ has not only inspired millions and millions of listeners through its majestic and refined sound, but has also been responsible for launching literally hundreds of musical careers. I have lost count of how many professional organists and church musicians have told me over the years that their interest in playing the organ was sparked by a broadcast or recording of the Tabernacle organ. It transcends all boundaries of creed, age, nationality, and socioeconomic status. Very few musical instruments on the planet have that kind of a following.”

Unsworth: “The Tabernacle organ is not just an icon or symbol for the Church; it is an icon for the instrument! As an organ nerd, people often give me mugs, tote bags, and other paraphernalia with the word ‘organ’ emblazoned on it, accompanied by a picture of the Tabernacle organ. For many people, when they think of the organ, it’s the Tabernacle organ they think of first.”

Elliott: “The Tabernacle organ, like all great musical instruments, seems to have a soul and personality all its own, which inspires all who play it. My spirit is fed and nourished every time I sit down on the bench. When you add to that the fact that, during the waning hours of the day, from the organ console one can see the luminous Christus statue in the North Visitors’ Center through the beautiful glass windows on the north side of the Tabernacle, you have a recipe for a truly heavenly experience.”

Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott practices at the Tabernacle prior to a concert with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City held on April 15, 2011. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott practices at the Tabernacle prior to a concert with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City held on April 15, 2011. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.

Tabernacle organist Richard Elliott practices at the Tabernacle prior to a concert with the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake City held on April 15, 2011. Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News.