The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been called many things, including an American icon, a symbol of freedom, a holiday tradition, and the greatest choir in the world. Why is the Choir universally recognized and lauded? Of course, it makes great music, but perhaps more central to its success is the ability of its 360 members to lift the spirits of people of diverse cultures, ages, and religions all over the world.
One of the oldest and largest choirs in the world, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed before presidents, sold millions of records, won scores of awards, and enthralled audiences in more than 28 different countries.
The Choir is composed of volunteer singers ages 25–60—all exceptionally talented musicians. Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Choir is composed of faithful members of the Church. They practice and perform weekly and are accompanied frequently by the Orchestra at Temple Square.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir was formed in the mid-19th century in Salt Lake City. As the Latter-day Saints moved west, Church President Brigham Young included musicians among members of the advance parties. Consequently, a small choir first sang for a conference of the Church in the Salt Lake Valley on August 22, 1847, just 29 days after the first group arrived. The origins of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir may be found in the desire and commitment of early converts to include appropriate music in both sacred and secular events. In fact, there has always been a standing choir at each Church headquarters—from early Church locations in Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Illinois, to the current headquarters in Salt Lake City.
Odds are that you have. The Choir is best known for its weekly radio and TV program, Music & The Spoken Word. First aired in 1929, Music & The Spoken Word is a weekly, 30-minute broadcast of choral music and inspirational words. The program has become the world’s longest-running continuous network broadcast. It is broadcast to over 2,000 radio and TV stations and cable systems. Lloyd Newell has served as the voice of Music & The Spoken Word since 1990. You may have heard the Choir’s music in patriotic selections and holiday songs, for which they are well known. You may also have seen them on PBS, where their annual Christmas concert is always among the top-rated specials.
The Orchestra at Temple Square, Temple Square Chorale, and Bells on Temple Square are distinct groups that complement the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and also perform on their own. The Orchestra at Temple Square is made up of 110 outstanding volunteer musicians, many of whom also have professional music careers. Founded in 1999, it has become one of the best volunteer orchestras in the nation. The Orchestra has its own concert schedule and performs frequently with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on Sundays for Music & The Spoken Word.
The Temple Square Chorale was also organized in 1999 and replaced the Mormon Youth Chorus. It is the training choir for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. New members of the Choir initially become members of the Temple Square Chorale as part of their training for choir membership. Additionally, many longtime Choir members rotate in and out of the Temple Square Chorale to hone their musical skills. The Chorale is directed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s associate music director, Ryan Murphy.
The Bells on Temple Square handbell ensemble was organized in 2005. It has 28 members, who ring English handbells and chimes. The bell choir enhances the concerts and recordings of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and performs its own concerts twice a year.
Just west of the temple in Salt Lake City stands the historic Mormon Tabernacle, completed in 1867 after four years of construction. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir got its name from the structure, which has been home to the Choir since its earliest years. It is said that Brigham Young suggested the Tabernacle’s unusual design after contemplating a hollowed-out eggshell cracked lengthwise. Brigham Young wanted the Tabernacle roof to be self-supporting, without pillars or posts to obstruct audience views. (The balcony with its supporting pillars was added later.) Because of its groundbreaking design and historical significance, the Tabernacle has been designated both a national historic landmark and a national civil engineering landmark. The Tabernacle’s design also accounts for its extraordinary acoustics—another reason the Grammy Award-winning Mormon Tabernacle Choir calls the Tabernacle home. The Tabernacle is so acoustically sensitive that a pin dropped at the pulpit can be clearly heard at the back of the hall—170 feet away. Accompanying the Choir in the great auditorium is the 11,623-pipe Tabernacle organ, featuring prominent golden pipes made of round wood staves, hand-carved from Utah timber.
The organ’s unique sound has become synonymous with the Choir’s music. Located in the Tabernacle building in Salt Lake City, the organ is a massive yet intricate instrument with more than 11,000 pipes. Together with the Tabernacle itself, the organ is in no small way responsible for the signature sound of this world-renowned choral ensemble. The Choir often tours with a special digital organ that helps recreate the Choir’s signature sound of voices accompanied by the organ.
The first organ installed in the old adobe Tabernacle—a predecessor to the existing Tabernacle—was shipped by boat from Australia to California by its builder, Joseph Ridges, in the 1800s. Twelve mules then pulled the organ across the brutal terrain from San Bernardino to Salt Lake City. When the current Tabernacle was constructed in 1867, Ridges built a new organ for the new hall. Since 1867, the Tabernacle organ has been enlarged or renovated five times and has grown from its original 2,000-pipe frame to its present size of 11,623 pipes. Today, 132 pipes are still functioning from the 1867 Joseph Ridges organ. The Tabernacle organ is one of the largest and most elaborate organs in the world.
Currently the Choir has five organists: Richard Elliott, Clay Christiansen, Andrew Unsworth, Bonnie Goodliffe, and Linda Margetts. The organists perform weekly with the Choir and play daily organ recitals in the Tabernacle—a year-round tradition since 1915.
Many of the Choir’s rehearsals are free and open to the public. Weekly public rehearsals are held on Thursday evenings (7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.) and Sunday mornings (8:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.). Sunday rehearsals culminate with the broadcast of Music & The Spoken Word. The rehearsals are regularly held in the Tabernacle except for several occasions during the year when the Choir is either on tour or performing across the street in the Conference Center of the Church. (Click here to visit the calendar of events.)
U.S. President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Mormon Tabernacle Choir “America’s Choir” in 1981 when the Choir sang at his inauguration. The name has remained because it truly embodies the purpose of the Choir. The Choir began in the mid-1800s on the American plains as the Mormon Pioneers trekked across the country to reach Salt Lake City and has been part of American tradition ever since. Over 150 years later, the songs and sounds of the Choir continue to delight people in the United States and all over the world. It is interesting to note that this American choir’s focus—ever since its early days in the dusty desert of Utah—has been to reach out to the entire world. The music of the Choir is universal to people of every faith and culture. Indeed, the music of “America’s Choir” resonates throughout the world.
During the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City (February 8–24, 2002), the Choir performed at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, in four concerts featuring guest artists of international acclaim, and in Light of the World, the Church’s multimedia musical presentation performed at the Conference Center. In addition, the Choir performed in concerts free to the public following its traditional weekly broadcasts of Music & The Spoken Word from the Tabernacle.
Dancing, singing, and celebrating have always been a part of sacred life. After the Book of Mormon, the next official publication of the Church was the Church’s first hymnbook, compiled by Emma Smith.
From the early pioneers of the mid-1800s to the present day, music has been an important part of religious life for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In every wagon company that crossed the United States to Utah, there was a cooper to fix wagon wheels and a musician to lift the spirits of each pioneer. The Choir has profoundly affected music throughout the Church. Its consistently high artistic standard, frequent use of hymns and hymn arrangements, and exemplary service through music continue to inspire, instruct, and encourage Church musicians and the members they serve.
Since it was established more than 150 years ago, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed and recorded extensively in the United States and around the world. In that time, the Choir has had many noteworthy performances and achievements.
- The Choir has released more than 200 recordings.
- Two of the Choir’s recordings have achieved “platinum record” status (in 1991 and 1992).
- Five of the Choir’s recordings have achieved “gold record” status (two in 1963, one in 1980, and two in 1985).
- The Choir’s 1959 recording of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” won a Grammy Award, given to its conductor, Richard P. Condie.
- The Choir won an Emmy Award in 1987 for “Christmas Sampler,” a musical special with Shirley Verrett.
- The Choir has appeared at 13 World’s Fairs and Expositions.
- The Choir has sung for 10 presidents of the United States, beginning with President William Howard Taft.
- The Choir performed over 20 times at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
- Music & The Spoken Word—the longest running radio broadcast in the world—has been voted into the Radio Hall of Fame as well as the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Dr. Mack Wilberg is music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Ryan Murphy is associate music director. Igor Gruppman is conductor of the Orchestra at Temple Square. LeAnna Willmore is conductor of the Bells on Temple Square. Ron Jarrett has served as president of the Choir since August 2012.
No. All 360 members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and all 110 members of the Orchestra at Temple Square are unpaid volunteers who practice and perform weekly. Choir members rehearse and perform about five hours in an average week—Thursday nights for two hours and Sunday mornings for more than three hours. This does not include touring, for which members often take time off from work, sometimes foregoing personal vacations. All members must attend a minimum of 80 percent of rehearsals and performances.
The Choir accepts applications for new singers from July 1 to August 15 every year. Before members join the Choir, they undergo a rigorous audition process consisting of three phases, which take place over approximately six months. Prospective Choir members must also be active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, be recommended by their bishops, and live within 100 miles of Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Applicants must be between 25 and 55 years of age. Tenure in the Choir is 20 years or until age 60, whichever comes first.
In the first step of the audition process, applicants submit an unaccompanied recording of a song selected by the music director. The second stage of the audition, a musical skills test, measures musical ability and aptitude. Applicants with an acceptable test score then advance to the third stage, where they perform a hymn of their choice, sight-read a piece of music, and test their vocal range in person before the music director and associate music director.
Even after selections of new singers are made, the evaluation process is not quite complete. The selected singers are brought into the Temple Square Chorale for a four-month period during which they attend musical training classes and sing with the Chorale. If they successfully complete the training program, they become members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The Choir has performed in concerts around the world and throughout the United States. They have traveled to places such as Russia, many nations in Europe, Brazil, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand. A notable example, in 2003 the Choir kicked off the celebration of its 75th year of broadcasting with a tour of major musical festivals in the northeastern United States. Performance venues included Chautauqua, Wolftrap, Tanglewood, the Lincoln Center, and Boston’s Esplanade on July 4th with the Boston Pops Orchestra. In 2013 they will tour the upper midwest of the United States with stops in Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The Choir has formed its own recording label, Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Prior to this new label, the Choir recorded for Telarc, Sony Classical, CBS Masterworks, and many other labels. The Choir’s recordings are available at Deseret Book stores, Seagull Book stores, or wherever fine music is sold. Click here to purchase choir recordings at deseretbook.com, iTunes, Amazon, or store.lds.org.
In the past, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir office received a vast number of unsolicited musical works. Although the efforts and interests of the composers are very much appreciated, we find that our schedule does not allow the time to properly review each piece. Also, given the specific needs and limitations of our programming, few, if any, of these works are usable for the Choir’s purposes even though the music may be appropriate in other church or performance settings. For these reasons, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir office does not accept unsolicited music. This is not intended as a judgment of the worthiness of the music received, but is simply a reality of our time constraints and the Choir’s particular musical needs.
Yes, the Choir is actively reaching out to audiences all over the world and of all ages. The Choir launched a Facebook page in 2008 and a Twitter account in 2009. Its YouTube channel premiered in October 2012, and its Google+ page followed shortly thereafter. Click here for more information on how to connect with us.
Choir Notes is a free, weekly e-newsletter published by the Choir containing announcements of upcoming concerts, recordings, tours, and behind-the-scenes information about the organization. Click here to subscribe. You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive weekly updates about new videos, and you can follow us on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.