For a century and a half, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been a goodwill ambassador for the Church. Formed in the mid-nineteenth century, the choir rose from obscurity to fame partly because of its many sound recordings—the earliest of which were made a century ago this month. According to the Deseret Evening News, an “epoch in musical history” began when the Columbia Phonograph Company captured the majestic sound of the Tabernacle Choir and organ in September 1910.1
Standing at the crossroads of the American West in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, the historic Tabernacle drew many overland travelers, some of whom commented on the quality of the fledgling choir and the great organ they heard there.2 Still, the choir received little formal acclaim until its trip to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 earned it a second-place finish in a choral competition.
Even after that achievement, the choir remained largely unknown because few people around the world heard it perform. But the growing popularity of recorded music would soon enlarge the choir’s audience.
Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, the year President Brigham Young died. Three major recording giants eventually came to dominate the record industry: Columbia, Victor, and Edison. Each sought to add the world’s best musicians to its growing list of recorded artists.
Yet the early days of sound recording presented many challenges. The microphone had been invented but was not refined enough for recording music. Instead, artists had to stand in front of a large, flared horn that focused sound into an acoustic recording device. This technology worked well for solo artists and small ensembles but made it hard to record large performing groups.
Columbia was intent on recording such groups and sought to invent a machine for that purpose. By the fall of 1909 technology had made sufficient progress that the company agreed to record the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and organ. With further development, the company was able to transform a 500-pound recording machine into one that was one-fifth that size—a machine small enough to be transported from New York to Salt Lake City.3 The final product did not arrive until August 29, 1910.
At the time, the choir had a loose membership of 600 people, some of whom took part only on special occasions. Tabernacle Choir conductor Evan Stephens encouraged a good turnout for the recording session, hoping a claim to fame might entice more singers.4 Three hundred choir members responded.
Recording the organ would be difficult, but Alexander Hausmann, the recording engineer, was undaunted. His greatest challenge was determining where to place the recording machine in the Tabernacle so it would record both loud and soft passages clearly. On Tuesday, August 30, Hausmann tested the machine in a number of positions until he found the location that would work best.
With the device in readiness, Hausmann recorded Tabernacle organist J. J. McClellan playing several bars of music, which Hausmann then played back to him using a “reproducer.” Satisfied, McClellan performed the closing section of Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture. It was one of the earliest recordings ever made of a large pipe organ. After the Deseret Evening News declared the experiments “a complete success,”5 Hausmann and McClellan returned the following night to make 10 “excellent” recordings.6
Although capturing the organ’s sounds had been an exacting task, recording a choral group the size of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir presented a new set of challenges and entailed relocating the recording machine.
Hausmann, with the aid of his assistant, spent two hours on Thursday, September 1, trying to find the best location for the machine’s two long recording horns. “Finally,” the Deseret Evening News reported, “he suspended them from a rope stretched across from gallery to gallery, the flaring bells of the two horns covering [the required area]—the one the sopranos and altos, the other the tenors and basses, the small ends connecting directly with the machine where the choir leader stands at the east of the organ console.”7 This meant the machine was positioned in front of the organ console, “with the two large horns spread out toward the body of singers.”8
The actual recording began at 8:00 p.m. At Hausmann’s request, the women took off their hats, and the 300 singers clustered together as closely as they could while facing the horns. Because of the distance of the recording equipment from the organ pipes, McClellan had to play the accompaniment double forte. Meanwhile, soloists Lizzie Thomas Edward and Horace Ensign were arranged “with their faces in one of the horn bells.”
“Of course,” a newspaper critic observed, “fine shading work was out of the question; massive effects were the principal thing.”
As with the earlier efforts to record the organ’s sounds, the first order of business was to capture a few measures of music and play them back. The choir sang a few bars of the initial number to be recorded—“We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet”—and then paused as critics listened at the opening of the “reproducing horn.” When the first recorded sounds of the choir reached the ears of those around the horn, they “expressed their delight, as the work was just what had been hoped for.”
The newspaper reported that the choir members “sang with a vim, a wholesouled vigor, an earnestness, a wonderful unison and attack that carried Professor Stephens and those who were there to listen, almost off their feet.” After the choir recorded its numbers, Hausmann expressed to them his cautious optimism. Record-making, he said, was intricate and included work yet to be done in the factory. Their efforts appeared to be successful, but he would have to see how the recordings turned out in New York.
The Deseret Evening News exulted in the story. “What may, without stretch of the imagination, be considered the most interesting event in local musical history, occurred Thursday evening, in the tabernacle,” the newspaper trumpeted. “It was the successful recording for phonographic reproduction, of 12 numbers sung by the tabernacle choir of 300 singers within two hours, by expert Hausmann of the Columbia Phonograph company of New York City.”
For readers unfamiliar with the technology race, the paper explained the significance of Thursday night’s recording session: “The achievement is the more remarkable from the fact that for the last four years or more, the three great phonograph companies have been endeavoring to secure acceptable records of large bodies of singers. Fortunes have been expended in all kinds of experiments with mechanisms and horns, principally the latter, but to no purpose.”9
The final recording session in the Tabernacle took place on Friday, September 2. As on the other days, placement of the recording device was a major issue. On this day, the machine was positioned inside the organ case—the wooden structure housing the pipes. Violinist Willard E. Weihe had no choice but to climb inside the case too, so he could play his instrument near the horn flare. Doing so, commented the Deseret Evening News, “made performance in unison between violinist and organist difficult and embarrassing.”
Despite the challenges, Hausmann reported that he was “entirely satisfied” with his work.10 In a final tally, the Salt Lake Herald-Republican reported that he recorded 12 selections by the choir, 10 by McClellan, 2 by McClellan and Weihe, and 1 by former Tabernacle organist Joseph J. Daynes Sr. Six of the recordings would be discarded due to poor quality, while several others apparently were never issued as records. The rest would be duplicated and distributed for public sale.11
Though it is not known exactly how many finished discs were sold or how broadly they were distributed, the public response was positive, and listeners reported that the recordings touched hearts. For example, J. A. Vernon, a missionary serving in Larned, Kansas, USA, wrote in a letter dated December 20, 1910: “We recently received some phonograph records containing songs and solos by the Tabernacle choir and organ. On hearing them played, the people become inquisitive, which gives us many opportunities to explain the principles of the gospel.”12
The 1910 recording session significantly expanded the choir’s listening audience. Together with a series of concert tours, the sessions helped lay the foundation for a widely distributed set of recordings in 1925, as well as for a nationwide choir broadcast that began in 1929. To this day, millions worldwide listen to the broadcast, known as Music and the Spoken Word.
Since those first rudimentary recording sessions in 1910, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been showcased in more than 175 albums, including 5 that reached gold record status and 2 that achieved platinum recognition. One of the choir’s recordings received a Grammy Award in 1959, and another album garnered two Grammy nominations in 2007. More important than awards and honors, however, is the impact of the choir’s music upon its listeners. Now through greatly improved technology, the recorded music of the choir continues to move and inspire, just as it did in 1910.