The Tabernacle Choir: 300 Testimonies in Harmony


Every Sunday morning more than three hundred men and women gather in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, Salt Lake City, to sing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s “Music and the Spoken Word” radio and television broadcast. They come from all walks of life: school-teacher, homemaker, doctor, translator, advertising executive, secretary, and computer programmer. But one thing they have in common is the opportunity to participate musically in the most well-known choir in the world.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has its roots in a choir that was formed almost as soon as the Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. In those early days the choir sang for meetings under the temporary shelter of the Bowery on Temple Square. Ten years later, the choir moved to an adobe tabernacle which had a pipe organ. Then in 1867, when the now famous Tabernacle on Temple Square was completed, the choir found its permanent home, and a permanent rifle.

The choir’s regular, weekly broadcasts began in 1929. Now, fifty-seven years later, it can claim to have the longest continuing network radio series in broadcast history. As of the end of June, 1986, the choir had been heard on 2,967 Sundays. Barring any interruptions, it will reach its 3,000th broadcast in February, 1987. Since that first broadcast in 1929, the choir has brought beautiful music and spiritual uplift into the lives of millions of people throughout the world.

Every week, especially during the summer tourist season, thousands of people fill the Tabernacle to hear the choir’s performance in person, but many thousands more hear the choir on the radio or watch it on television for the broadcast is carried throughout the United States and Canada, over the U.S. Armed Forces network and other radio networks throughout the world.

Record albums and concert tours of the choir bring the choir’s music to an even larger audience. They also provide financial sustenance for the choir; moneys for the choir’s operation do not come from the funds of the Church, but from the proceeds of record sales and performance fees and from contributing sponsors.

The choir has produced more than fifty record albums which sell in more than forty different countries. Five of the albums have received Gold Record awards from the U.S. recording industry for selling more than 500,000 copies each. The choir’s most popular album, selling one million copies, is The Joy of Christmas, a selection of Christmas carols.

The choir is heard not only on record and through radio and television transmissions but also in person; it has traveled all over the world beginning with its first tour in 1893 to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. Its more recent tours have included Japan in 1979 and 1985, Europe in 1955, 1973, and 1982, and Brazil in 1980. The choir has toured widely in the United States and Canada, having sung at the inauguration of three United States’ presidents, at North American world fairs in Spokane, New York, and Montreal, and at various music festivals and special events. (See accompanying article: “Moving the 500.”)

In 1984, in a special pre-Olympic Games television broadcast telecast worldwide via satellite, the choir was introduced as “our national treasure.”

While the Sunday broadcast is perhaps the most well-known of the choir’s regular performances, it is by no means their only weekly activity. Jerold Ottley, director of the choir since 1975, says that people often ask him “Well, what do you do the rest of the week after the Sunday broadcast?” Brother Ottley responds, “The Sunday broadcast is usually the only thing apparent to most people, but we do concerts and have recording sessions and there is a great deal of planning that has to go into these things before they become a fact.” He usually spends sixty to sixty-five hours a week in choir-related work. He adds, “There is also a lot of public relations work with television, radio, newspapers, and magazines, and there is a great deal of personnel work when you are working with a group that’s nearly 350 strong. In addition, we are constantly surveying new talent and auditioning potential choir members. All of those things take time.”

The choir is often called the “greatest missionary tool of the Church.” Brother Ottley would agree for he sees the choir’s major role as being “an ambassador for the Church on all fronts—both within the Church and outside the Church. Our primary responsibility is not to the internal church, however. It is to the external world.

“We are a missionary arm of the Church. While we don’t make a big fuss about our missionary work, it is missionary work nonetheless. We often feel that if we do nothing more than neutralize negative feelings that may exist about the Church we have accomplished something. We are often responsible for creating an atmosphere in which a person can look at the Church more dispassionately and see the truth.”

The choir’s effectiveness as missionaries for the Church can be attested to by their August 1985 trip to Japan. Choir members made a commitment to do more personalized missionary work, and distributed more than a thousand Japanese copies of the Book of Mormon. In addition, they distributed more than 3,000 brochures about the choir, and approximately 3,200 Articles of Faith cards.

Within two months of the choir’s visit, Elder William H. Bradford, Area Administrator in Japan, “told us that several baptisms had been traced directly to the copies of the Book of Mormon that had been distributed by choir members,” related Brother Ottley. “We may never know the total number of people we influence through our music or through the personal contacts we make.

“While in Japan, I met and talked with one lady who had been studying the gospel for months but committed to baptism that very night at the concert. That’s the most gratifying part of our work. While we like to do things that are musically viable and important, if we can touch someone’s heart and spirit through our music and cause them to feel about the gospel of Jesus Christ the way we do, then we are doing what we are supposed to be doing.”

As an example, on the 1985 trip, Marilyn Smith was introduced to a Japanese woman who attributed her membership in the Church and the mission she just completed to the spirit she felt when Marilyn sang a solo during the choir’s previous trip to Japan.

Members of the choir rejoice that they are singing in “the Lord’s choir.” Duffie Hurtado, who has been singing in the choir for the past ten years, remembers, “After the choir sang at the dedication of the Washington D.C. Temple visitors’ center, we had the opportunity to be greeted by President Spencer W. Kimball, who shook our hands and thanked us for singing. At that point in my life, I was making some really serious decisions, and because of personal problems I was having, I felt it might be best if I left the choir. When I reached President Kimball, he took my hand and said, ‘This is the Lord’s choir, and this is where he wants you to be.’ I hadn’t told him I had a problem, or asked for his counsel. He just knew. With the other choir members around me in the line he just shook hands and said hello or thank you or God bless you. But when I stopped that’s what he said, and I will never forget it. I know that that man was a prophet of God, and I am so touched that the Lord would answer my prayers in such a special way.”

Duffie and Victor Hurtado’s friendship developed through their acquaintance in the choir, and they eventually married. Singing together in the choir is a “beautiful experience” although it does create some hardships on the family with both parents being away. However, the Hurtados have largely solved that problem as Victor’s mother, who, like Victor, joined the Church in Peru, lives with them. She cares for the two children when Victor and Duffie are rehearsing or performing with the choir.

Edna Alba, a woman of Mexican descent who has sung in the choir for the past twelve years, feels that the choir is “like a big family.” She loves her association with other choir members. In Brother Ottley, she sees “a perfect balance of spirituality, musicianship, and good humor.”

In speaking for choir members, Brother Ottley says, “Of all the things that the choir does that seem glamorous and exciting and wonderful, there is nothing that we enjoy more than singing at general conference sessions in April and October. We feel that we are a part of preparing and setting the right atmosphere and keeping things moving in terms of the spiritual outpouring of conference.”

Jerold Ottley, Jerry to his friends and associates, is a remarkable leader. Gifted musically, he is also gifted in relating to people. He understands the dynamics of a large group and states that “one of the ways that I stay personally involved is to constantly keep the names of the choir members on the tip of my tongue so that I can call them by their first names. I work hard at it because I feel it’s important. It’s very easy in a group this large for the sense of responsibility to be dissolved when you’re just one of over 300 people. But I find that if I can ask a question pointedly to a specific individual or call them by name in the hallway, they feel a little more personally responsible not only to me but also to the entire organization.”

His interest in the individual members of the choir is returned 300-fold, for as Marilyn Smith comments, “Brother Ottley is very much beloved by his choir. He is everybody’s favorite person. Every inch a musician, he is extremely knowledgeable about the music we sing. His conducting techniques are flawless. And with his quick wit he has the ability to release the tension that can build up.”

He does know the value of humor and has the ability to laugh not only at situations but also at himself. Brother Ottley says, “We have a lot of good times when we sing together. The hard work is broken up by these humorous times. And I’ve found that a very good technique in working with the dynamics of a group this large is to allow myself to become the target of a joke or a situation, so I laugh at myself with them a lot.” In fact, “the choir loves to lie in wait for me to get my foot in my mouth, which I do quite often. And they don’t let me get away with it.”

One of the experiences that Brother Ottley still laughs about occurred several years ago when the Tabernacle Choir was performing with the Utah Symphony Orchestra at the University of Utah commencement exercises. As he was conducting the two groups, he recalls, “Somehow my baton got away from me and flew clear over the orchestra and dropped down in front of the choir. We just continued with the performance, and I noticed my baton coming along the floor as orchestra members kicked it forward toward me. The principal violist picked it up to hand it to me but realized that at that moment he had to play so he dropped it. Then the concert master picked it up and handed it to me just at the time I was to cue the choir for a big entrance. It got us giggling to the point where we almost didn’t make the entrance.

“But that wasn’t the end of the story; that was only the beginning. The next day my brother, who had been at the commencement exercises, gave me a tube of glue and instructions on how to stick the baton to my fingers. Then a day or two later a choir member presented me with a glove with the index finger cut out of it so that I could slip the baton in through the hole. Several weeks later a lady member of the choir stopped us in the middle of a rehearsal (and you have to remember that our rehearsals generally have a lot of observers), walked down to me and said, ‘Brother Ottley, something must be done before we can proceed.’ On behalf of the choir, she presented me a package which I was forced to unwrap in front of everybody. In it was an archer’s quiver containing a whole bunch of batons so that if I lost one I could grab another one quickly.”

Brother Ottley carries on a tradition of talented, dedicated leadership. A predecessor, Richard P. Condie, served as an assistant choir director for twenty years, and then eighteen years as director. Brother Condie succeeded J. Spencer Cornwall, who served as choir director for 22 years.

An integral part of the choir are the organists. Currently, they are Robert Cundick, John Longhurst, and Clay Christiansen. German-born organist Alexander Schreiner was well-known as a Tabernacle Choir organist for 53 years until his retirement in 1977.

Whether it’s participating in the annual First Presidency Christmas Fireside in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, singing at the inauguration of the President of the United States, taking part in non-religious music festivals, or airing its weekly broadcast, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir brings more to its music than finely trained voices and much-rehearsed choral numbers. What touches the hearts of millions of people is the spirit of 300 testimonies of the gospel musically united in what is indeed “the Lord’s choir.”

Moving the 500

Just how does the choir contingent of 500 people move from Salt Lake City to Europe, Central America, or Japan?

It isn’t easy, but it is carefully planned by choir president, Wendell M. Smoot, and business manager, Udell E. Poulsen. Usually planning begins two years ahead of a scheduled trip. However, for the August 1985 trip to Japan, advance notice was shorter, and the choir had only a year and a half to make the arrangements. And because August is a busy month for the airline industry, the choir could not get a charter flight from Salt Lake City to Osaka. Instead, they traveled on four different commercial flights to cities on the U.S. West Coast and then took three different flights to Osaka via Tokyo. Once the 300 members of the choir, the spouses who accompanied them—at their own expense—and the management and technical staff finally arrived in Osaka, 297 hotel rooms were required to house them. According to Brother Poulsen, shipping the 1,000 pieces of choir luggage is always “the most difficult aspect” of a trip. But through detailed planning and previous practice, he has streamlined a system in which the right pieces of luggage end up in the right choir member’s room.

The choir members’ enjoyment in taking special trips and the added opportunity of spreading the gospel through music makes all the planning and effort more than worthwhile, he says.

[photo] Brother Jerold Ottley stands ready to direct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during a General Conference session in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, home of the choir since 1867.

[photo] Two famous tourist attractions came together in Paris, France, in this photograph taken during the choir’s 1955 European tour.

[photo] In July, 1935, the Tabernacle Choir was invited to sing twice a day for seven days at the California-Pacific International Exposition in San Diego, California. The ladies of the choir posed with assistant director Albert J. Southwick in front of the train that carried them from Salt Lake City.

[photo] King Ludwig’s castle in Bavaria provided an elegant setting for the choir during its 1973 European tour.

[photo] Posing stiffly for the slow-speed camera of its day, the Tabernacle Choir is seen in an unusual setting—the Kirtland Temple, Ohio—during a 1911 tour to sing in New York City. The Temple, now refurbished, is owned and operated by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

[photo] Participating in the nation’s 200th anniversary celebrations in 1976, the choir visited New York City, and sang on the steps of historic Federal Hall where U.S. President George Washington took the oath of office in 1789.

[photo] To the delight of new friends, some choir members tried on traditional Japanese robes during their visit to Osaka in 1985.

[photo] Osaka, Japan, audiences not only saw the choir in person in 1985, but also on a larger than life video screen, as seen in this rehearsal photograph.