Diamond jubilee for America's Choir

Gala concert and landmark broadcast mark 75 years on the air

In what President Gordon B. Hinckley called "a great star-spangled achievement," the Mormon Tabernacle Choir looked back on 75 years of broadcasting July 17-18 and gazed upward at a "majestic summit" rising before it.

With a gala concert on Saturday night to a capacity audience in the Conference Center, and a landmark broadcast of "Music and the Spoken Word" Sunday morning in the same hall, the choir and Orchestra at Temple Square culminated a full year of celebration that began last summer with a concert at New York's Lincoln Center.

Charles Osgood, famed CBS broadcaster who participated in that New York concert, was on hand in Salt Lake City to narrate the concert and give the "Spoken Word" portion of the broadcast, a duty that ordinarily falls to announcer Lloyd Newell.

In remarks given at the concert and repeated again in a mini-concert following the broadcast, President Hinckley extolled the choir's achievements, saying: "You have been recognized and honored by your peers and critics, by presidents and ambassadors, by kings and rulers, and by enthusiastic audiences in the great music halls of the world. But I remind you that you stand today only on the foothills of a great upward climb. The summit rises majestically before you. The past has been but prologue to a great future."

The Church president quoted lines from the chorus of Ruth May Fox's well-known hymn "Carry On," altering it slightly: "Oh you of the noble birth-right, Carry On!"

"Sing to the glory of God," he charged the choir. "Sing to the praise of your Redeemer. Sing with grandeur. Sing with love. Sing with joy. Spread the gospel of peace to a world weary with conflict. Sing, sing until your very hearts burst with pride and gratitude for a great and splendid opportunity."

CBS journalist Charles Osgood performs during a run through practice performance with the Mormon Tab
CBS journalist Charles Osgood performs during a run through practice performance with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir July 18th, 2004 in the Conference Center celebrating their 75th anniversary of their broadcast. | Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret Morning News

President Hinckley traced the history of the choir, noting that the seed was planted in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1835, with Emma Smith's compilation of the first hymnbook and the performance at the 1836 temple dedication of William W. Phelps' "The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning." The seeds took root, he said in the travails of the people in Missouri and Illinois, with the forced exodus from Nauvoo, through the mud of Iowa. "And thence onward to these mountain valleys, burying their dead along the way, they took courage from William Clayton's words, 'Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear.' "

The idea for a Tabernacle Choir, he said, came from singing in the old Tabernacle on Temple Square. "Then came the great new Tabernacle. In the first meeting held there on Oct. 6, 1847, Brigham Young said, 'We can't preach the gospel unless we have good music.' "

George Careless, a gifted convert from England, took the baton in 1869, President Hinckley said. "From that day to the present, the choir has been led by a series of great and able conductors and their assistants," culminating with Craig Jessop and Mack Wilberg today.

President Hinckley noted that the choir in 1893 sang at the World's Fair in Chicago, where it won second place. "The judges, I think, could not bring themselves to award first place to the Mormons. That was the last time the choir has been in second place. Wherever it has gone across this broad world, wherever its wonderful music has been heard, it has been acclaimed number one. And it becomes better constantly."

In his "Spoken Word" commentary, Mr. Osgood quoted choral conductor Robert Shaw as saying that in hard times, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.

"For 75 years, nearly the lifetime of radio, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has exemplified that thinking in its weekly program 'Music and the Spoken Word.' With hearts full of love and voices raised in the universal language of song, the choir has sustained the longest continous broadcast in radio history. In this business, that record is nothing short of a phenomenon," Mr. Osgood said.

The commentary recalled the day the choir joined the airwaves, July 15, 1929. "Salt Lake City's radio station shuttled its only microphone to the Tabernacle more than a block away to capture that first choir program. Thirty stations across the nation tuned in. Since that landmark day, millions have set and reset the clocks of their inner souls by 'Music and the Spoken Word.'. . . . We in the broadcast industry are justly proud of our long association with the magnificent Mormon Tabernacle Choir and 'Music and the Spoken Word.' On behalf of listeners across the globe, we say thank you to the choir for the spirit they have shared week after week for these seven and a half decades."

Introduced at the Saturday night concert was Margarete Stahl Wilken Hicken, 97, the oldest known living former choir member. Today a member of the Monument Park 16th Ward in Salt Lake City, Sister Hicken joined the choir in 1929, but it was some months after that original radio broadcast.

"A friend of mine sang in the choir," she recalled in an interview the day before the concert. "She took me along and said, 'You ought to meet Professor Lund (the choir director). And so he said, 'You sing a scale,' you know, do re mi and so on. And he said, 'OK, you're an alto.' And I was in. That was it at the time."

Musical director Craig Jessop told reporters that when he met Sister Hicken, she said, 'Turn around; I only know you from the back.' "

Among the selections performed at the concert was one composed by Mr. Osgood, a musical setting for the words to the Pledge of Allegiance.

"The words are exactly the same, and they do include the phrase 'under God,' " he noted in a pre-concert interview. He said it was written after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At the concert, he said he thought school children might

sing the song at some time, but he was overwhelmed to hear the choir perform his composition both at Lincoln Center and on this occasion.

Starting with a borrowed microphone in 1929, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir entered the world of broadc
Starting with a borrowed microphone in 1929, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir entered the world of broadcasting with its radio program of "Music and the Spoken Word." | Photo by Gerry Avant

"I sort of feel as if I'm connected to the choir, even though I'm on the East Coast most of the time," he said in the interview. "I've done some narrations with them (specifically, the 1996 Christmas concert in Salt Lake City), and there's stuff in the future."

Mr. Osgood said it is the best choir in the world. "I've heard some wonderful choral organizations, and there's nothing that produces this distinctive, glorious sound. Nobody, as far as I know, nobody, either religious or patriotic or pretty much any other kind of music. It's just so big and gorgeous."

He recalled reporting on a piano competition at Carnegie Hall, where a first prize was not awarded. "I interviewed one of the judges, and I said, 'Weren't they wonderful?' He said, 'Yes, their technique was wonderful. I thought they were all good players.' Why was there no first prize awarded? He said, 'You do not play the piano with your fingers; you play it with your heart.' And I think that's why the choir is so great; they sing with their heart."

Musical director Jessop said the selections for the concert were chosen to reflect the diversity of the choir's repertoire and the different periods of its history. Sunday morning, in tribute to the program's origin, the choir performed one of the selections from that original 1929 broadcast, "The Morning Breaks," with music by George Careless, words by 19th century apostle Parley P. Pratt and arrangement by Mack Wilberg.

"My feelings are of gratitude," Brother Jessop said in an interview. "It's such an honor to be here and to be part of it, to be here at this particular time. I feel very blessed. And I'm especially mindful of all the people who went before we were here. Because the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is not built around an individual. It's a collective effort; it's been shared over 150 years."

That was reflected in the concert and broadcast. Immediate past director Jerold D. Ottley, who led the choir for 25 of its 75 years on the air, and former associate director Donald Ripplinger, conducted some of the selections. And for the inevitable singing of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," former choir members seated in the audience were invited to come forward and join in the performance. The effect was a montage of history, with hundreds of men and women of various ages representing various time periods singing the choir's signature tune.

President Gordon B. Hinckley, seated, with President James E. Faust and President Thomas S. Monson,
President Gordon B. Hinckley, seated, with President James E. Faust and President Thomas S. Monson, greets Charles Osgood, accompanied by Ron Gunnell, at dinner. | Photo by Gerry Avant

And as the assemblage of past and present choir members concluded with "God Be With You Till We Meet Again," names and individual portraits of dozens of people — conductors, organists, administrators and announcers who have been associated with the choir since the mid 1800s — were flashed in alphabetical sequence on the television monitors.

Along with Mr. Osgood's narration, the concert featured footage shown on large television monitors from Lee Groberg's upcoming PBS documentary, "America's Choir," scheduled to premiere on Thanksgiving Day.

The concert itself was recorded for later broadcast. Air dates on KBYU-TV Channel 11 will be July 24 at 8 p.m., July 25 at 6:30 p.m. and July 28 at 10:30 p.m. Also, the concert will air on the BYU Television cable and satellite channel on July 24 at 7 p.m.; July 25 at 11 a.m.; and July 29 at 9 p.m.

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Program for the 75th anniversary broadcast
Program for the 75th anniversary broadcast
Margarete Stahl Wilken Hicken, 97, oldest known living former choir member, responds to tribute by C
Margarete Stahl Wilken Hicken, 97, oldest known living former choir member, responds to tribute by Craig Jessop. | Photo by Gerry Avant
Former members of choir join in performance at gala concert July 17.
Former members of choir join in performance at gala concert July 17. | Photo by Gerry Avant
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