Tabernacle Organist Leaves Resonating Legacy

By Molly Farmer, Church Magazines

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    Under the domed roof of the Tabernacle on Temple Square, 11,623 pipes reach heavenward, comprising the world-renowned Tabernacle organ. The vast combination of sounds the instrument is capable of can have an incalculable effect on listeners.

    Considered the pinnacle of the profession by many, the responsibility of commanding the keys from the organ console has been entrusted to a limited group of elite musicians throughout the organ’s history.

    Only 13 people have served as Tabernacle organist since the Tabernacle opened in 1867. An additional six have served as assisstant or associate organists. These gifted organists have composed hymns, performed for millions via radio and television broadcasts, and been recognized the world over as masters in their field.

    John Longhurst, whose service began in 1977, has been an integral part of this storied history. After 30 years of service, Brother Longhurst retired from his post as senior organist in December 2007. Though his absence will be felt by all who associated with him, his legacy as a musician and leader will live on.

    Millions Touched

    Known for his extensive performance career, Brother Longhurst has reached millions of people through the demanding full-time schedule he maintained. Over the course of his tenure, his adept accompaniment and solo work has been heard in 59 general conferences, hundreds of recitals, and has been broadcast via radio and television to millions through the Tabernacle Choir’s Music and the Spoken Word.

    “His life has blessed millions of people around the world both in and out of the Church,” said Craig Jessop, director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

    In addition to his performance work, Brother Longhurst is well known for his gifted composition. Among the 39 hymns written or composed by Tabernacle organists, one of the most beloved, “I Believe in Christ” (Hymns, no. 134), was put to music by Brother Longhurst and published in the English hymnbook in 1985. Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–1985) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote the text, which he included in his April 1972 general conference address. The hymn has now been translated into 22 languages and is included in every international hymnbook.

    Brother Jessop believes that hymn alone will continue to influence members of the Church for years to come.

    A Sound Project

    Even with all his remarkable creative contributions, Brother Longhurst may be best remembered for his administrative role in bringing about the impressive organ in the Conference Center. “The Lord saw to it, in my mind, that he was in place for that project,” said Clay Christiansen, Brother Longhurst’s fellow Tabernacle organist and close friend.

    Throughout the organ’s planning, selection, and installation, which took several years, Brother Longhurst was involved in reviewing every detail. He traveled the country testing organs installed by various companies, then worked with the selected builder, Schoenstein & Co., to determine the tonal direction the organ would take.

    “John’s masterful administrative skills as well as his thorough understanding of the needs that an organ must fulfill in that most important building were a great blessing,” Brother Christiansen said.

    In addition to directing the design of the Conference Center organ, Brother Longhurst worked with former Tabernacle organist Robert Cundick in overseeing the Tabernacle organ renovation in 1988 and the installation of the organs in the Assembly Hall and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building chapel, as well as the three small practice organs used by the organists.

    Brother Christiansen said he believes Brother Longhurst’s hand in creating instruments on Temple Square is one contribution among many that he will be remembered for.

    “With that beloved hymn in the hymnbook, his work with the Conference Center Schoenstein, and his 30-year legacy playing for the Tabernacle Choir and recitals on Temple Square,” Brother Christiansen said, “ ‘John Longhurst’ is going to be a name that is not soon forgotten.”

    Where Words Fail

    Thirty years of service have had as profound an impact on Brother Longhurst as his kindness and talent has had on others.

    “I suppose that if an organist had the opportunity to write a script for his or her career,” Brother Longhurst said, “one could not possibly have written a script that would be more exciting, challenging, and rewarding than the career I have experienced. To come here to Temple Square and have the opportunity of performing in world-class facilities on world-class instruments has been like a dream.”

    While his fellow collaborators can’t say enough about Brother Longhurst’s legacy, he was at a loss for words when he tried to express his feelings about his associates and experience.

    “You come to a point where words finally are inadequate to say what you feel,” Brother Longhurst concluded after several attempts. “I think that’s the beauty of art. When it’s all said and done, art can take the human spirit beyond the point where words fail.”

    Senior Tabernacle organist John Longhurst retired in December 2007 after 30 years at the console.