Tour Diary 3—A Nuremberger Helped Make the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Famous
Special Contributor, Gernot Hesselbarth, Nuremberg
Nearly every American knows the “Mormon Tabernacle Choir,” often called “America’s Choir.” It received this nickname from U. S. President Ronald Reagan, whose inauguration was one of six where the Choir has been invited to sing.
The Choir, which was founded in 1847, got its name from the Salt Lake Tabernacle, a prominent egg-shaped building which stands next to the Temple in the Utah capital Salt Lake City which was founded by the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormons. The Tabernacle is home to the 360-member choir that regularly practices and sings there, accompanied by one of the great organs of the world, the 11,623-pipe Tabernacle organ.
Every Sunday in an uninterrupted sequence of nearly 88 years the program Music and the Spoken Word has been broadcast from Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Thousands of radio listeners and television viewers follow this half-hour broadcast every Sunday on radio and television, and now which is now streamed over Internet on mormontabernaclechoir.org and on YouTube. Alexander Schreiner, a Nuremberger born and bred, contributed to the popularity of the broadcast and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for over 40 years by his virtuoso organ playing.
Alexander, who was born on July 21, 1901 in Nuremberg, showed his talent as a pianist and organist from an early age. His parents supported him from the outset and set up a music room in the house where he was born in Ackerstrasse, not far from the main railroad station. Alexander practiced with great enthusiasm and was able to play as pianist for his Nuremberg Mormon congregation by the age of 8.
The Schreiner family originally came from Kattenhochstadt, a suburb of Weissenburg near Nuremberg where the house Alexander’s father, Johann Christian Schreiner, was born still stands. Over the frame of the front door you can read the inscription of Alexander’s grandfather “G. Mich. Schreiner” who was also born in that house and had it renovated in 1870. He was mayor of Kattenhochstatt for 12 years. During that time, the Kattenhochstadt church was built opposite the Schreiner family home and dedicated in September 1877.
In February 1889, at the age of 18, Johann Christian Schreiner left his family home in Kattenhochstadt and learned the trade of a cabinet maker. After several years of travel, the young bachelor settled in Nuremberg in 1897. He built a multi-story house with 21 apartments and a workshop at 21 Ackerstrasse on Stone Hill. After his wedding to Margarethe Schwemmer in May 1899 at St. Leonard’s church, the young couple moved into the first floor of the house themselves. This was where the later organist Alexander Schreiner was born.
As Alexander’s father later described it, tragic events and a miracle led to the parents to become Mormons. Despite all the parents’ efforts, their first son Herbert died of whooping cough at barely one year old. Their second son, Alexander, was born in July 1901 and a year later, their first daughter, Hedwig.
When she was barely three months old, Hedwig became so sick that there was little hope that she would survive. From an old nurse, the mother learned that Mormon clergymen gave blessings to the sick by the laying on of hands. Despite grave doubts, at the mother’s pleading, the father allowed the sick baby to be blessed at a Mormon meeting. When she rapidly healed after that, the parents began to be interested in the Mormon doctrine. In May 1903, Alexander’s parents were baptized members of the Church in the Pegnitz river. Thus Alexander grew up in a Mormon family.
In 1912, the Schreiner family emigrated to America and settled in Salt Lake City. The first and only piece of furniture in the new, empty parlor was a piano. One of Alexander’s teachers in America was the then Tabernacle organist. Alexander earned money to pay for his music studies by playing piano for silent films. By the age of 20 he was already giving his first organ recital in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.
His talent quickly became widely known and he was frequently invited to dedicate new organs with his playing. He also composed his own organ pieces and hymns. Nine of his hymns are now in the English hymnbook of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the church is officially called.
The performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the Meistersinger Hall in Nuremberg is also a homage to Alexander Schreiner and the City of Nuremberg which produced this great organist and composer. Through his 40 years of service, he contributed significantly to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir becoming well-known and well-loved.