The Tabernacle Choir—Beyond the “Crossroads of the West”


The countdown to 9:30 A.M. begins, and a hush floats like a wave, row by row, through the Tabernacle. There is a momentary burst of last-minute muffled coughing. Then the fidgeting stops. You could hear the famous pin drop now—but you don’t. Low vibrations from the organ are felt almost before they are heard, and then 320 voices unite in singing, “Gently raise the sacred strain.”

The key word is gently. The audience responds comfortably to the sound that monograms the world’s most recognizable choir.

Performed live from Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Music and the Spoken Word is the longest-running network radio program in the world. On 16 July 1989, CBS Radio heralded the Choir’s unprecedented sixtieth year of continuous weekly performances.

On the occasion of the Choir’s 3,000th broadcast in 1987, John Burrows, vice president of the CBS Radio Network, wrote: “The chances of a program that started on a national network in 1929 still being broadcast … are very, very slim. But you have done it. In fact, you’re the only ones to have done it.”

This feat is all the more astounding since neither CBS nor any of the other stations worldwide that carry the broadcast make money with it. Indeed, they donate the millions of dollars of air time as a public service.

Why the enormous commitment to a church choir from Utah?

“People demand the Tabernacle Choir,” says Frank D. Murphy, vice president of programming for the CBS Radio Network. “We have an obligation to provide the kind of program that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir provides. It’s very hard to quantify the value of the Spoken Word broadcast to us.”

Worldwide Appeal

“Millions of people around the world experience the choir every week,” says Ailsa Williams, media representative for Music and the Spoken Word at Bonneville Media Corporation. Tabernacle Choir programs are carried on approximately 450 radio stations in the U. S. and Canada and are broadcast on radio and television stations in some countries of Europe and the South Pacific. The Armed Services Radio Network also carries the Choir into twenty-two countries. The program is taped live by KSL Television in Salt Lake City and then aired on a one-week delayed basis on more than 280 television/cable systems (the number increases weekly) in the U. S. and Canada. (For information about broadcast times and locations in your area, call Bonneville Media Communications, 801-237-2468. Within the U.S., call toll-free: 1-800-247-6655.)

As incongruous as it may seem, this nonprofit group of volunteer singers has truly become a superstar in the entertainment world. The Choir has produced more than one hundred albums, five of them “gold”—signifying that more than 500,000 copies have been sold. (Only seventeen “gold” albums have ever been earned in classical music.)

In addition, the Choir annually gives concerts, not only in Salt Lake City and the United States, but throughout the world. It has performed to packed audiences in some of the world’s greatest concert halls in eighteen countries. Tabernacle Choir concerts, featuring internationally famous guest artists, are taped and later broadcast as major television specials around the world.

Trying to Please the Folks Back Home

Latter-day Saints love their choir, too. Yet if there is criticism given, it generally comes from Church members. The most common complaint is about the Choir’s musical repertoire: some feel it’s too classical; others say it’s too secular. Some feel the Choir should sing more hymns, others want more contemporary LDS music.

The spoken portion of the weekly radio broadcasts also has its critics, mostly a few Church members who feel it’s too generic—that it isn’t specific enough to unique LDS doctrines and beliefs.

Those who voice these complaints, say Choir personnel, may not be looking beyond the “Crossroads of the West” to the wider mission of the Choir.

“I realize that there are members of the Church who do not understand that the Choir has a specific mission to the world, nor do they comprehend the enormous good the Choir does out there for the reputation of the Church,” says Jerold D. Ottley, director. “The Choir works under the direct supervision of the First Presidency, and our repertoire and daily operations keep pace with that direction.”

Taking into consideration the enormous diversity of cultures that exist in the world, the director and organists often choose their Sunday-morning repertoire on an eclectic basis: People in most countries recognize classical works; thus, pieces, either vocal or organ, come from such great composers as Bach, Mendelssohn, or Handel. Secular works—taken from Broadway musicals, traditional spirituals, nostalgia, folk music, or slices of Americana—are also typically chosen. Finally, sacred pieces that appeal to both LDS and non-LDS audiences are selected. The broadcast is not a worship service, but a program of inspiration. Because of the Choir’s heavy performance schedule, music often appears on the broadcast in preparation for other events. It follows, then, that not all selections heard on the broadcast are appropriate for worship services.

Similarly, the spoken portion of the Sunday-morning broadcast is not intended to be a forum for proselytizing. Developed in 1930 by Richard L. Evans, who later became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and who was the Choir’s announcer for forty-one years, the “Spoken Word” is a three-minute sermonette of Christian thought. The same format is now used by J. Spencer Kinard, the Choir’s current announcer. He and five other writers are careful that the pieces address a general religious audience and deal with universal principles and concerns.

The Federal Communications Commission loosely supervises the guidelines governing public-service broadcasting, giving individual stations the right to judge for themselves what public service is. If the Choir violates what is considered to be a prudent or reasonable approach to religion, the station has the option to drop it from its list.

“If we were doing a hard sell on Mormonism, they’d cut us off,” says Wendell Smoot, Choir president. “They don’t say that you can’t talk about religion, but you have to be very eclectic and appeal to a very broad audience.”

A Two-Fold Mission

“If the people of the Church fully understood the way we work to achieve the mission of the Choir,” says organist Robert Cundick, “I think they would be in awe of the inspiration involved.”

According to director Jerold Ottley, the Choir’s mission is two-fold:

First, the Choir is to be a missionary, with a special calling to reach out to the world. Almost anyone in the world with access to a free broadcasting system or a record player has heard of—and loves—the Salt Lake Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a beneficiary of the Choir’s reputation.

But even though the Choir is a missionary, its unique mission is to warm people’s hearts, rather than to warn them. People who love the Tabernacle Choir are more inclined to respond positively to a direct missionary contact later.

Iain McKay, a musician from New Zealand whose conversion to the Church came about as a result of hearing a recording of the Choir, is the official liaison between the Choir and Bonneville Media, the arm of the Church that produces and markets Choir programs. He has traveled the world over many times in that ambassadorial capacity.

“Without fail,” he says, “no matter what country of the world I’m visiting, when I introduce myself as being from Bonneville Media Corporation in Salt Lake City, the person will respond, ‘Ah, Salt Lake City—the Mormons. I’ve heard your choir!’ It always happens that way.”

President Gordon B. Hinckley has often told the Choir that, except for the Book of Mormon, there is no greater missionary for the Church than the Tabernacle Choir.

Wendell Smoot, president of the Choir, agrees: “The Choir is the band that leads the parade, as far as the public relations image of the Church is concerned. Wherever we go in the world, literally everywhere, people know us. They associate the Choir with that which is good, wholesome, and uplifting.”

“A survey taken during a three-week period in July and August of 1988 shows that 72 percent of the more than four million annual visitors to Temple Square were non-Mormons, 23.8 percent from other countries,” says Quig Nielsen, director of public relations for Temple Square. “Nearly all came specifically to see the Mormon Tabernacle and to hear the Choir.”

Choir members themselves have had countless marvelous missionary experiences as they have met people on Temple Square and on concert tours. During a recent tour to the Pacific, individual members of the Choir gave out more than 1,200 copies of the Book of Mormon, 9,900 Articles of Faith cards, and 1,300 souvenir Choir tapes. “I hear many stories of conversions to the Church that come about because the Choir opened a door,” says Josephene Foulger, Choir historian.

Second, the Choir is to be an ambassador for the Church, with a charge to bring credibility and goodwill to the Church in all areas of the world. It is to “ameliorate dissent and misunderstanding in areas where there has been antagonism toward the Church,” says Brother Ottley.

Indeed, the Choir has won many friends for the Church. In a recent Reader’s Digest article, the chairman of ITT Corporation tells that the greatest gift his father gave him was the companionship they shared, cemented by their mutual love for a favorite radio program, Music and the Spoken Word. (See Rand V. Araskog, “My Father’s Greatest Gift,” Reader’s Digest, Dec. 1988, pp. 177–82.)

The music emanating from the Tabernacle has inspired many aspiring musicians in their careers. Typical of hundreds who have communicated their appreciation, Douglass Haas, director of music for St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada’s largest Presbyterian congregation, writes, “It was many years ago in my teens that your broadcasts … inspired me to pursue a life in church music.”

Peter Averi of New Zealand Broadcasting listened to the Tabernacle organ as a child and decided then to study music. He is now a prominent organist in New Zealand.

Officials from Colombia, South America, petitioned the Choir to record its national anthem, obviously eager to capitalize on the appeal of the Choir’s unique sound.

Kent G. Oleson, a young non-Mormon businessman in Denmark, was captivated when he first heard the Choir. He embarked on a personal crusade to import Choir recordings into Denmark. He eventually started, at his own expense of time and money, the Danish Society in Support of the Salt Lake Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The society, which now has nearly five hundred members, more than half of them non-LDS, has been instrumental in opening doors to concert tours and broadcasting all over Scandinavia. As a result, Music and the Spoken Word is rerun on thirty-plus television stations in Denmark alone. Mr. Oleson even had the Choir included in the Guinness Book of World Records.

In December 1988, Mr. Oleson fulfilled a lifelong dream by coming with his wife to Salt Lake City, at the request of Bonneville Media, to supervise the Danish translation of some Spoken Word material. He said, “The Tabernacle Choir is enormously popular in Europe. I’m not a Mormon, but I feel the Choir has a spiritual quality that touches people’s hearts. It has touched mine. It is the voice of God to millions.”

In addition, the Choir has become something of an unofficial ambassador for the United States as well. On the occasion of the Choir’s 3,000th radio broadcast, Ronald Reagan, then president of the United States, sent a letter to the Choir in which he identified the Tabernacle Choir as “an inspiring American landmark of musical achievement. For many years, the choir has been a source of pride not only to its Church sponsors but to all Americans. It has become an esteemed part of the cultural life of our nation, combining outstanding musicianship with dedicated service to God.”

Dubbed “America’s Choir,” it has sung at four U. S. presidential inaugurations—for Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush.

A “Spiritual” Dimension

“Even though the Choir’s musical standards have never been higher,” says Iain McKay of Bonneville Media Corporation, “its impact goes beyond that. I believe people are influenced most by its spirituality. Broadcasters from all over the world annually go out of their way during stateside trips to visit us in Salt Lake City. I’m talking about broadcasting giants, technocrats, people who know music. I do whatever I can to get them into a Choir broadcast; and without fail they are overcome by the Spirit. Some cry openly. Hundreds of people from every part of the world—Catholics, Protestants, Jews who survived the Holocaust, some of them bitter, defensive, angry people—have come out of the Choir broadcasts visibly touched, with their spirits subdued. It’s absolutely marvelous to see.”

John Longhurst, Tabernacle organist, has written about that spiritual quality: “In its 140-year history the Tabernacle Choir has performed for royalty and heads of state from the world over, but never has it lost the common touch, the ability to stir the hearts of all mankind as it lifts its collective voice in singing of the values we all cherish and in praising the God who created us all.” (“The Salt Lake Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” The American Organist, Dec. 1988, p. 62.)

Added to the spirit of the Choir is “the sacrifice of the individual lives of those who serve it,” says Udell Poulsen, business manager. “They take their callings as the Lord’s representatives very seriously. They are loving, patient under duress while traveling, supportive of each other—and fun-loving besides,” he says.

On the occasion of her retirement from the Choir, Sister Connie Crofts wrote a letter to her associates: “As great as my testimony is of the gospel we share, so is my belief in the goodness of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, both as a group and individually. This is a great choir family.”

Sister Louene Lee, a choir member, says: “Am I being selfish because I enjoy this experience so much? It is exquisite joy to serve through music. Our choir leaders tell us that every piece we perform is carefully and prayerfully chosen. I know it’s true.”

A visitor from Leningrad, U.S.S.R., recently signed a comment card on Temple Square. He had just attended a Tabernacle Choir broadcast during which he was deeply moved by the performance of two numbers in Russian—his native language. “Have been extremely happy to receive such a marvelous gift of heavens—the Mormon Tabernacle Choir!!!” he wrote. “Thousand thanks! If we could, we’d listen to you forever!”

The Choir—Then and Now

Brigham Young commissioned a choir to sing on 22 August 1847, just twenty-nine days after the pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. This choir, with no name and no regular conductor, began the tradition of a Church choir in Salt Lake City. The Tabernacle itself was not completed until twenty years later.

The magnificent Tabernacle organ was originally built by Joseph Ridges with great skill and pioneer ingenuity. Ridges used native lumber for the organ, some of it hauled about three hundred miles from Pine Valley in the southern part of Utah Territory. Other parts and materials, not available locally, were obtained from organ builders in Boston. Through the years, several expansions and modernizations have been undertaken, including a renovation completed earlier this year that brought the organ to a total of 11,623 pipes.

In its emerging years, the Choir shared the dramatic hardships of the early Church itself. It is a tribute to its importance that the Choir not only survived but was nurtured during that time. From its first concert invitation to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the Choir has seen its worldwide popularity snowball. Its first concert tour of Europe in 1955 has been followed by many succeeding international tours.

The Tabernacle Choir at the turn of the century

The Tabernacle Choir at the turn of the century.

Today, the Choir’s membership at 320 is greater than the entire population of the earliest Salt Lake settlement. Singers are members of the Church in good standing between the ages of thirty and sixty. (Retirement is mandatory at age sixty or after twenty years of service, whichever comes first.) Since the Choir performs 350 to 400 pieces of music annually, with a full repertoire of more than 1,200 pieces, prospective choir members must be able to demonstrate a thorough knowledge of music fundamentals, as well as exceptional voice quality.

The degree of commitment required is extremely high: even though they serve on a volunteer basis, Choir members are required to attend at least 80 percent of all rehearsals and performances—as many as 140 a year. In 1987 the Choir met an average of once every three days for a minimum of two hours, not including travel and preparation time.

Twenty people staff the Tabernacle Choir organization. Many of them are unpaid volunteers who average twenty or more hours a week running behind-the-scenes details. The Choir supports itself through contributions and residuals from concerts and recordings; no tithing funds are used for the purchase of music, uniforms, concertizing, or travel.

[photo] Photo by Craig Dimond

[photos] The Tabernacle Choir has traveled throughout the world, singing the songs of Zion as well as classical and secular works. Here they are shown at Teotihuacan, Mexico (left, inset), at Linderhof Castle in the Bavarian Alps, and at the Hollywood Bowl (right, inset).

[photo] In March 1989 the Choir sang at Disney World in Florida, and in 1988 they toured the South Pacific, performing at the Sydney Opera House (photo courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Jerold Ottley has directed the choir since 1974.

[photo] Known as “America’s choir,” the Tabernacle Choir (shown here in 1988) supports itself through concerts and recordings. (Photo by Michael Shoenfeld, Bonneville Media Communications.)

[photo] In January 1989, the Choir sang in inauguration festivities at the U. S. Capitol in Washington, D. C. (Photo by Thomas Smoot, Deseret News.)

[photo] Choir president Wendell M. Smoot (back) and Jerold Ottley with the choir’s “gold” albums.

Renon Klossner Hulet is a counselor in the Relief Society presidency, Butler Fourteenth Ward, Salt Lake Cottonwood Heights Stake.