The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s beginnings

This essay first appeared in Pioneer Magazine’s Vol. 50, No. 1 (2003).

by Michael Hicks

For Brigham Young and his supporters, a Saint’s musical training can lead them to Zion. Vocal music was a “useful art,” a pursuit that made people feel good. Along with improving the body, it also enhanced the spirit and understanding. Benjamin Rush, the most well-known American physician at the time, had advocated singing as a way to increase lung capacity and obtain the full draft of fresh air that mountain dwellers would need to ward off “consumption” (especially Young, who had battled bouts of what he called “lung fever” for years). Singing in a chorus, however, had a special virtue beyond its advantages to the individual: the harmony of voices represented the beauty of teamwork, Zion’s guiding ideal.

The Saints needed some time to reacquaint themselves with the rich cultural diversity they had discovered down the Mississippi after starting over in the remote Rocky Mountain wilderness. The Midwest’s excellent, dark soil was a far cry from the loose, rocky soil of the Salt Lake Valley. For a few years, crops rotted, and the desire for musical art was overshadowed by the necessity for survival. However, the Mormons’ ongoing meetings required sacred vocal music. Within a week of arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, the first company of pioneers selected a location for a new temple and built a bowery there for the community to use for both religious and civic gatherings. The bowery was made of thick timber poles and branches. In front of possibly several hundred people, a  tiny choir directed by Stephen Goddard performed at the first conference of the Saints in the region they dubbed “Deseret” in August 1847. “Deseret” is a Book of Mormon word for the honeybee, a sign of work and collaboration.

Such choirs performed hymns at early religious services as well as quasi-religious events like the Deseret Theological Institute convocations. For the two major public holidays—the Fourth of July and July 24 (the anniversary of the Saints’ arrival into the valley), they also sang patriotic and religious songs. Choirs of some kind arose in almost every town due to the obvious necessity for singing ensembles. Brigham Young frequently asked for the formation of these choirs, and he made sure that each new batch of colonists in the area included musically talented church members.

Following significant growth in Wales, hundreds of Welsh converts emigrated to the Great Basin in 1849. Strong choral traditions among the Welsh led to the inevitable formation of a sizable number of these immigrants. They presented brand-new devotional songs, typically in dialect, and arranged to well-known Welsh tunes, such as “Wend ye with the Saints today,” and songs about heroes, including Joseph and Hyrum. 

The Welsh choir had the ability to “exhilarate those present by singing one of their hymns, to one of their lovely, wild, romantic airs,” according to a visitor to a Church meeting in 1852. 1 At the site of the bowery, an oblong, arched adobe building holding 2,500 Saints had been erected for that conference in order to spare the transplanted Nauvoo choir from having to perform outside. The previous Nauvoo choir, which had welcomed several Welsh singers into its ranks, started referring to itself as the “,” taking its name from the new structure.

Charles John Thomas, also known as “C. J,” was the first of several highly skilled British emigrant choir conductors. The only information we have regarding the shift in direction comes from inference. In a concert that featured the Tabernacle Choir, David Calder’s singing school chorus, and the Fourteenth Ward choir, Brigham Young had heard Thomas leading the choir. Two weeks later, Young invited Thomas to take over as conductor of the latter group after James Smithies was fired. Despite its limited size—the choir had only “about a dozen persons” in it as of 1861, according to one report—Thomas gladly agreed and had success with his new choir. 2 That meant that in Salt Lake City, it was dwarfed by a number of ward choirs, including the one he had left in the Fourteenth Ward, and a number of singing school choruses: The choir’s growth in size (and notoriety) may have started with the appointment of its new director.

George Careless, a small young violinist from Britain, arrived in the Salt Lake Basin in 1864. He received his training at the relatively new Royal Academy of Music in London, where he finished the four-year program in three years while studying under instructors like Manuel Garcia. Additionally, he performed under the direction of Wilhelm Ganz and Luigi Arditti.  Careless was eventually persuaded to immigrate to Utah by church elder William Staines after being converted by Mormon missionaries in Utah in 1850. (In the middle of the nineteenth century, this was, of course, the conventional advice offered to all Mormon artists and craftspeople.) When he got there, he discovered that a small group of his compatriots were in charge of the music in Utah. Careless promised to try to make a livelihood off of music for two years unless he went hungry first3 because his pay was only that of a private teacher.

Young called Careless discreetly to his office a few months after he came in Utah, according to what Careless said throughout his life, and instructed him to “build a foundation of fine music.” “the Deseret Young joked, “Oh, you will have to make that,” whereupon Careless replied that he would “do the best I can with the resources I can acquire.”  The two men then engaged in a discussion about fashion. 

While Careless argued that Mormon music occasionally needed to be ferocious and forceful, Young urged the promotion of “sweet music,” his phrase for romantic pop tunes and joyous dances. Young agreed and assured Careless that everything was fine. 4 Regardless of how true Careless’s account was, Young did send C. J. Thomas to southern Utah in 1865 on a mission to establish singing schools, direct bands, and teach basic harmony. Young also appointed Careless director of the Salt Lake Theatre orchestra (which had been Thomas’s position) and was in charge of the Tabernacle choir. 5 Careless initially met the choir there, in the original (“old”) Tabernacle, where he found the place to be cold and dismal. Careless sought more choir members, heat, and light for their Friday night rehearsals. Young complied,6 and the small group of singers wore candles to read their rectangular part books and stay warm.

When the Church held its semi-annual conferences in the new Tabernacle, a strange, oblong dome building that one of the Mormon apostles compared to “Noah’s ark turned bottom side up,” Careless temporarily imported choristers from distant settlements. By the 1870s, the Tabernacle Choir, now numbering about eighty-five members, had become the core of several enormous “monster choruses.”7 

For instance, the Tabernacle congregation in 1873 enjoyed a choir made up of 304 people who came from fifteen different villages. 8 Handel’s Messiah, the highlight of numerous city choral jubilees, was presented for the first time in the western region by Careless in 1876. Other than the “Hallelujah” chorus, which had been sung in Utah at least since 1853, it appears that none of the combined forces for the work had ever heard it before, with the exception of Careless’s wife. Therefore, since the piece was so obscure, studying the music “by note” for the performance was essential (instead of by ear). Edward Tullidge believed that the phenomenon of an oratorio in the frontier city marked the beginning of “supreme” musical culture in Mormonism since it drew large people to the Salt Lake Theatre for two nights. 

Careless left the choir in 1880 despite his success, or perhaps because of it, in part to pursue professional touring engagements with his own orchestra, which unhappily also went by his own name: the Careless Orchestra.   The choir elected Thomas Griggs to be its new conductor at that point, based on firmly democratic ideals. But Ebenezer Beesley, who is best known as a hymn writer, bandmaster, and music arranger, took over as conductor when Griggs was gone on a mission to spread the Gospel. The general response to Beesley’s first practice with the choir was reflected in one chorister’s diary: 

The general response to Beesley’s first practice with the choir was reflected in one chorister’s diary:  George is sorely missed.10 

10  To the choir’s amazement, when Griggs returned in 1881, he declined to unseat Beesley and instead opted to take on the role of group treasurer. As a result, Beesley managed the choir for another ten years. The Tabernacle Choir had 101 singers enrolled by that point (according to the 1882–1883 minutes): 39 sopranos, 13 altos, 15 tenors, and 34 basses.11

The Tabernacle Chorus had substantially improved its skills, according to the Logan Utah Journal in 1884 “promises to improve until it rivals the caliber of our Logan choir. Utah will then be home to two excellent choral organizations. ” 12 In the face of such unintentional accolades, Beesley found it difficult to restore the reputation of his choir. He criticized several of his singers, saying they lacked the talent to join the official Mormon choir, while also lamenting how much music his group had to prepare for church conferences. He called it an “ordeal.”

He developed recruiting campaigns to draw better voices, ordered that all singers go through auditions, and established a perpetual benefit fund for the choir to make joining the choir more alluring.

Beesley’s initiative to raise standards, unfortunately, coincided with the federal campaign against’ “cohabits.” By February 1885, the majority of the choir’s notable male singers left out of fear of being tracked down by federal agents looking for polygamists or prospective informants. Rolls after that show shocking absenteeism. Despite recruitment efforts, the choir’s membership remained consistent at roughly 100 by 1886. Another local musician also claimed that the choir’s performances were still marred by mistakes. 13

As the decade came to an end, a raging debate about polygamy engulfed the church. While some young Mormons were moving away from “The Principle,” as plural marriage was known, and from religious fundamentalism in general, anti-Mormons continued to campaign against it. Meanwhile, many of their elders defended the status quo and defied the government to further tamper with the church’s practices. In the same month that Woodruff removed Beesley from his responsibilities and appointed a young Welsh bachelor named Evan Stephens to direct the Tabernacle Choir, the church announced in October 1890 that polygamy would no longer be tolerated. 14 The choir’s present period actually began with that calling.

The Mormons were looking for a place in American culture around the end of the nineteenth century. Fortunately, Mormons would have the opportunity to demonstrate to the world what musical beauty could be generated by a faith that many Americans still saw as a stain on the country thanks to America’s own quest for cultural identity. Chicago residents staged the “World’s Columbian Exposition” in 1892 to honor American innovation and creativity on the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the West Indies. They planned a large choral competition (Eisteddfod) as a component of the exhibition that took place in 1893. 

Stephens’ Welsh ancestry helped secure him an invitation to the competition, which would provide the first significant public success of a new American musical institution: the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Tabernacle choir had over 550 enrolled members by the end of 1892, many of whom had come from Stephens’ well-known singing schools in Salt Lake City. However, rehearsal absenteeism averaged a staggering 45 percent, keeping the trustworthy numbers at slightly over 300. (not far from the size to which we are now accustomed). Even though not many people showed up to rehearsals, the choir had plenty of chances to practice in public. The choir’s performance at no less than 31 dedication services for the Salt Lake Temple in April of the previous year may have been the biggest help to their competition in Chicago, in September 1893. 

The Tabernacle Choir finished second out of the four choirs who competed in Chicago that September. It was a remarkable accomplishment, but Stephens, the choir, and even the church’s president Wilford Woodruff thought (and even spread) the allegation that the Welsh contest organizers had rigged the results. Although the Utah choir “truly and honestly” deserved first place, Apostle Joseph F. Smith wrote to his wife that “this was too much glory to heap upon Utah and the Mormons.” The “seed sown will be a good fruit in a day to come,” he acknowledged, “will be a good fruit in a day to come…. I feel it has done more good than five thousand Sermons would have done in an ordinary or even in a spectacular way.” 15

This epiphany, which was shared by many church officials, altered the choir’s standing for all time. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir had once served as a highlight for the Saints to enjoy in their seclusion, but it has since demonstrated its potential as a potent missionary organization. It had the ability to both win over listeners to the Latter-day gospel and increase Mormons’ standing in the eyes of a still-skeptical world. From that point on, the choir did everything it could to broadcast its voice internationally, including touring, recording, and eventually broadcasting on radio and television. The choir would start to carry out Brigham Young’s dream that one day “we can sing the gospel into the hearts of the people,” starting from its humble beginnings. 16

m Young’s dream that one day “we can sing the gospel into the hearts of the people,” starting from its humble beginnings. 16

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