Traveling through the American West in the 1850s was not done for pleasure. The land was vast, the conditions were harsh, and the chances of stumbling upon a friendly fellow traveler were very slim indeed. For these reasons, the sight of fourteen mule teams pulling twelve wagons with no purpose other than transporting the pieces of an organ to Salt Lake City seemed like it could only be a mirage. Yet, in 1857, it was done for the sake of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
In 1979, to honour the choir’s fiftieth year of radio broadcasting, Charles Jeffrey Calman wrote a commemorative book simply entitled, “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir“. In this book, Calman details the history of the choir as linked to the development of the Church: “Early Mormon communities were marked not only by order, industry, and rapid growth, but also by a reverence for literature, music, and art which made them seem strangely out of place on America’s frontier.”
While Brigham Young is perhaps the most recognizable name from the early days of Mormonism, it was the Prophet and President, Joseph Smith Jr., who formally incorporated the Church and set his wife, Emma, the task of compiling its first hymnbook. After Smith died in an incident of mob violence, Young became the second President of the Church and upheld his predecessor’s emphasis on the arts. It was Young who compelled the organ to Salt Lake City in 1857. The first organist, an eleven-year-old boy named Joseph J. Daynes, needed blocks of cork added to the soles of his shoes in order to reach the pedals.
For the choir’s first musical director, Young selected George Edward Percy Careless. Careless had grown up in London. Once he turned thirteen, his father gave him an ultimatum: give up music or leave the family. Careless left. A foreman at the shoe factory where he had apprenticed paid for his education at the Royal Academy of Music. When Careless arrived in Salt Lake City with his fancy credentials, the going rate for a series of music lessons was a hundred pounds of flour.
On October 8, 1873, the first “truly substantial” Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed. Though Careless’ first rehearsal saw only 40 members in attendance, this performance included 304 singers. All members of the choir were volunteers, as they are today. The Choir won national recognition with a cross-country tour culminating in a second place finish at an American choir competition for the 1893 Chicago World fair. With the success of their tour and the knowledge that the firstplace choir had recruited Welsh singers, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir returned home victorious.
At first, Salt Lake City’s KSL-Radio only had one microphone. Broadcasting had to stop while a technician ran one city block from the studio to the Tabernacle. An engineer would then hold the microphone in front of the Choir while standing on a ladder. After KSLRadio became an affiliate of the National Broadcasting Company, the first nationwide broadcast was aired on Monday, July 19, 1929.
“Music and the Spoken Word” premiered in 1932 with Richard L. Evans as announcer (once KSL switched its affiliation to Columbia Radio Network). Evans announced the program for 41 consecutive years and is considered to be “the Choir’s patron saint.” Today, the broadcasts continue with Lloyd Newell as announcer and the Christmas season is a particularly busy time for the Singing Saints.
According to the Choir’s official website, the 2015 Christmas Concert season will kick off with a public dress rehearsal on December 17 followed by two days of concerts. Award-winning Broadway singer Laura Osnes will be guest singing, along with Metropolitan Opera Soloists Erin Morley, Tamara Mumford, Ben Bliss, and Tyler Simpson. PBS will be airing the previous year’s Christmas Concert on the 21st, 24th, and 25th.