On February 15, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will air its regular weekly radio broadcast for the 3,000th time. Its program, “Music and the Spoken Word,” is the longest continuing national network program in the free world.
CBS, the U.S. network that has carried the program since 1932, will honor the choir with a special radio and television broadcast paying tribute to the musical group and its accomplishments. On KSL radio and television, the regular half-hour broadcast will be extended to an hour locally; the first half hour, as usual, will be carried on national radio and local television. It will begin at 9:30 A.M. Mountain Standard Time.
The program will include tributes to the choir by Church authorities and other leaders, along with the choir’s traditional concert music. The second half of the program will feature a historic theme having to do with the Tabernacle Choir.
The choir’s first broadcast was carried live by thirty radio stations on Monday, 15 July 1929, at 8:30 P.M. Conditions were primitive in those fledgling days of radio, and the station’s only microphone was hung high over the pulpit to capture the sounds of the choir. Edward P. Kimball played the organ during that first program and his son, Ted, had to climb a tall stepladder to reach the microphone and announce the broadcast.
To reduce the reverberations in the Tabernacle and help capture the organ music, velour curtains were hung twenty feet behind the microphone. Carpeting that had been removed from the Hotel Utah during a recent remodeling project was laid across the Tabernacle seats to further diminish the echo.
A wire ran from an amplifier in the basement of the Tabernacle to KSL’s control room more than a block away. The starting cue came by telegraph from New York, and was relayed from the control room to the Tabernacle, where a signal light was turned on to alert the program director. The director then signaled the announcer on the ladder to begin broadcasting.
Anthony C. Lund directed the choir, while KSL Station Manager Earl J. Glade produced and directed the broadcast. It was Brother Glade who conceived and promoted the idea of broadcasting the choir nationwide and who arranged for the coast-to-coast radio hookup.
That broadcast was the first of what became a weekly series that has continued uninterrupted for more than fifty-seven years. Today, “Music and the Spoken Word” is broadcast to twelve countries that carry English-speaking programs, by Armed Services Radio into several European countries, and by international radio transmission to many Central and South American nations. The Latin-American broadcasts are translated into Spanish and Portuguese.
In 1930, a part-time KSL radio announcer named Richard L. Evans became commentator for the program. It was his idea to include a short inspirational message with each broadcast. In 1938 Elder Evans became a member of the First Council of the Seventy, and in 1953 a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, but he continued to prepare and present the weekly “Spoken Word” until his death in 1971.
Following Elder Evans’s death, J. Spencer Kinard became commentator for the Tabernacle Choir broadcasts and has continued the “Spoken Word” tradition of inspirational messages.
The choir has long been world-famous. It has performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, and with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. It has presented concerts in Carnegie Hall and other great music halls throughout the world.
The 26 July 1954, issue of Life magazine paid singular tribute to the choir in this editorial:
“Long ago on July 15, 1929, a great 375-voice choir began broadcasting coast-to-coast from the Salt Lake City Tabernacle. Every Sunday morning in the intervening years, winter and summer, war or peace, rain or shine, it has broadcast its half hour of hymns old and new, of Bach and Handel and of all the sweet and stately and spine-tingling sounds from the whole library of Christendom’s sacred music.”
Jerold Ottley is the current director of the choir. The Tabernacle Choir consists entirely of volunteers, and requires a high degree of dedication to meet the challenge of weekly performances. Every choir member must have commitment, talent, and vocal training.
Members are drawn from all walks of life. Today’s choir includes a heart transplant surgeon, a barber, and a brickmason. Other members are Certified Public Accountants, cabinetmakers, composers, full-time homemakers, nurses, university professors, computer engineers, artists, architects, and insurance salesmen. Women slightly outnumber men, comprising 55 percent of choir membership.
The choir met 130 times in 1986, or an average of once every three days. Choir members commit to attend at least 80 percent of all choir rehearsals and performances.
Choir singers are all members of the Church in good standing, between thirty and sixty years of age. Applicants for Choir membership obtain a letter of recommendation from their bishop, and must successfully pass a three-part audition. Members retire from the choir after twenty years of service.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir goes on a major tour every other year, with shorter tours scheduled in alternate years. Last year the choir gave concerts at Expo ’86 in Vancouver, Canada; members toured Japan in 1985.
“The secret of the choir’s success is in the dedication of its members to both the Church and to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said Brother Ottley. “I am constantly impressed that the singers can perform so well under pressure every single week.
“Many musicians from other churches listen to the Tabernacle Choir to get ideas for religious music,” he added. “‘Come, Come, Ye Saints’ is now sung by many congregations in many churches. It is in the Mennonite hymnal.
“Every Tabernacle Choir broadcast has an organ solo, and some organists around the country have told me this is the only organ literature they listen to,” he said. “They listen avidly.”
The anniversary program will conclude with the closing words long familiar to millions of listeners: “Again we leave you. … from within the shadows of the everlasting hills. May peace be with you, this day and always. … In another seven days, at the same hour, ‘Music and the Spoken Word’ will be heard once more from the Crossroads of the West.”