A century ago this month, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and organ were first recorded in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. To mark the anniversary, the choir has released a three-disc set, 100: Celebrating a Century of Recording Excellence, including selections from its 100-year history of recorded music.
Today, many would agree with famed director Eugene Ormandy, who said, “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is the greatest choir in the world.” 1 But in the first few decades after it was formed in the mid-19th century, the Tabernacle Choir remained largely unknown because few people around the world had heard it perform. Then in 1909—32 years after the invention of the phonograph—the Columbia Phonograph Company agreed to attempt to capture the majestic sounds of the choir and organ. It would be a difficult task given the limited technology of the time, which worked well enough for soloists but generally failed to produce quality recordings of large groups. 2
Over three days in late August and early September 1910, Alexander Hausmann, the recording engineer who supervised the operation, suspended two long recording horns “from a rope stretched across from gallery to gallery, the flaring bells of the two horns covering—the one the sopranos and altos, the other the tenors and basses.” 3
The Salt Lake Herald reported that Mr. Hausmann made 25 recordings: 12 selections by the choir, 10 by Tabernacle organist John J. McClellan, 2 by Brother McClellan and violinist Willard E. Weihe, and one by former Tabernacle organist Joseph J. Daynes Sr. 4
While it is not known how many finished discs were ultimately sold or how broadly they were distributed, the public response was positive. J. A. Vernon, a missionary serving in Larned, Kansas, USA, reported in a letter printed in the February 1911 Improvement Era: “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.” 5
Since those first rudimentary recording sessions in 1910, the Tabernacle Choir has released more than 175 albums, including two that have sold more than a million copies each. One of the choir’s recordings received a U.S. Grammy Award in 1959, and another album garnered two Grammy nominations in 2007. More important than awards and honors, however, is the effect of the choir’s music upon its listeners. Though technology has changed dramatically over the past century, the recorded music of the choir continues to move and inspire, just as it did in 1910.
Choir Recording Milestones
1910: First acoustic recordings made.
1925: First electrical recordings made.
1949–50: First two albums released. An album was originally a collection of individual records (one or two songs to a side) that were packaged together in a binder.
1959: Recording of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” included on the album The Lord’s Prayer, won a Grammy Award.
1963: The 1959 albums The Lord’s Prayer and Messiah reached gold record status in the United States, selling more than 500,000 copies.
1979: The 1963 album The Joy of Christmas reached gold record status in the United States.
1981: First digital recording, The Power and the Glory, released.
1985: The 1965 album The Mormon Tabernacle Choir Sings Christmas Carols and the 1970 album Joy to the World reached gold record status in the United States.
1987: Christmas Sampler, a musical special starring opera singer Shirley Verrett, received a regional Emmy Award.
1991: The 1989 Hallmark album Carols of Christmas, which featured the choir as well as other artists, reached platinum record status in the United States, selling more than one million copies.
1993: The 1992 Hallmark album Celebrate Christmas!—which featured the choir as well as other artists—reached platinum record status in the United States.
2003: The choir founded its own recording label, which has issued nearly 30 titles to date.
2007: Spirit of the Season released. This Christmas album, which featured Norwegian singer Sissel, reached number one on the Billboard Classical Charts and was nominated for two Grammy Awards.
Photograph courtesy of Church History Library
In Charles Jeffrey Calman, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (1979), 178.
See “Big Choir Sings into Phonograph,” Deseret Evening News, Sept. 2, 1910, 5.
“Music and Musicians,” Deseret Evening News, Sept. 3, 1910, 15.
See “Last Records Secured,” Salt Lake Herald-Republican, Sept. 3, 1910, 14.
“Messages from the Missions,” Improvement Era, Feb. 1911, 354.