Alexander Schreiner: a Legacy of Music

Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd

When iconic Salt Lake Tabernacle organist Alexander Schreiner played his final broadcast with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of “Music and the Spoken Word” on Dec. 4, 1977, his heart was full. He expressed his feelings in writing: “My blessings have been many: The huge dome of the Tabernacle above me, the gorgeous organ kept in perfect condition, the nearly 400 singers and staff which have poured love on me through the years have been marvelous, to say the least.”

A few weeks later, on Dec. 30, Brother Schreiner played his final organ recital in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. Before a gathering of his family and friends and Church and civic leaders, Church President Spencer W. Kimball said: “Our lives are richer and nobler because of you. We are grateful and thank you, our friend, for your goodness, for your faith, which has made our faith stronger, and for your music, which has made the whole world better.”

Brother Schreiner’s life and career were recounted Aug. 14 in a lecture by music scholar Daniel F. Berghout in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, the latest in the Men and Women of Faith Lecture Series sponsored by the Church History Library. A composer, organist and teacher, Brother Berghout wrote his doctoral dissertation at the University of Kansas on Brother Schreiner.

“Alexander Schreiner left behind a remarkable musical legacy,” Brother Berghout declared in his lecture. “His 53 years of recitals and broadcasts from the Salt Lake Tabernacle and his extensive concertizing influenced generations of organists and reached millions of listeners. His published collections of organ music still in print today provided countless church musicians with music that was easily approachable.

“His tireless crusade for the Aeolian-Skinner organ in the Tabernacle resulted in the creation of [organ builder] G. Donald Harrison’s masterpiece. His quest for perfection and knowledge, his impatience with mediocrity, his gentle humanity and his genuine charisma all contributed to his commanding, multi-dimensional personality.”

Brother Berghout affirmed that Brother Schreiner’s faith in and commitment to the Church was “undeniably apparent throughout his career.”

It was a career that began early, according to Brother Berghout’s account.

Born July 31, 1901, in Nuremburg, Germany, the second son of Church converts Johan Christian and Margarethe Schwemmer Schreiner, young Alexander watched the pianist with fascination as branch choir practices were held in the family home.

“He always spent the next morning at the piano, figuring out the melodies he had heard the night before,” Brother Berhout said.

He was appointed branch organist at the age of 7.

Brother Berghout quoted this reminiscence from him: “Occasionally a visiting missionary would come to Nuremburg. When our local missionaries found out that he could play the organ, they would invite him to play, and they would release me for that meeting, which made me very sad indeed. My mother would say, ‘Sit right by me with the altos and sing with me.’ But that did not please me one bit! I was glad to sit by my mother, but not only would someone take my place illegally, I thought, and unfairly, I always noticed that he could not play nearly so well as I was able to play by that time.”

Brother Schreiner’s healthy opinion of his own ability remained with him after the family immigrated to Salt Lake City. The family attended a meeting for German and Swiss members of the Church, and to Alexander’s delight, there was no organist.

“This delight was not shared by Church leaders, however, who, after learning that Alexander could play, wondered how he could effectively read the music since he spoke only German,” Brother Berghout said. “After much persuasion and assurance from Christian, they reluctantly allowed the 11-year-old to play. Soon, he was appointed organist for the 26th Ward as well as the German-Swiss Branch.”

In his teens, Alexander studied with John J. McClellan, then-senior organist at the Tabernacle. The lessons helped shape his musical thought through the rest of his life, Brother Berghout said.

While in high school he played the organ to accompany silent films at Salt Lake City’s prominent music theaters and later in Butte, Montana, and Portland, Oregon. His substantial income from those engagements funded his service as a missionary in Southern California.

In 1924, the 22-year-old Brother Schreiner was appointed as a Salt Lake Tabernacle organist. From this he was granted a leave of absence to study music in Paris, where he distinguished himself as a pupil of master organists.

For practice, he rented a pedalier, a piano equipped with a soundboard and strings for pedals. “He frequently attributed the outstanding pedal technique of many European organists as well as his own outstanding pedal technique to countless hours spent practicing on this instrument,” Brother Berghout said.

“The extensive training he had received from his French teachers helped prepare him for the job waiting for him at the Tabernacle,” he said. “He later reflected, in France, ‘I might have studied compositions with Nadia Boulagier, but I felt I could not afford the time. I specialized in organ performance because I was already appointed and committed to a life at the Tabernacle.’ ”

That commitment eventually resulted in full-time employment and, ultimately, his appointment as chief organist.

“Amateur musicians throughout the Church looked to Brother Schreiner as the voice of musical authority in the Church,” Brother Berhout noted, adding that his articles on music in the Church, including technical suggestions for organists and music leaders, became a regular feature in Church magazines.

His influence on music in the Church is denoted by the fact that when the Church’s 1948 hymnal was published, it contained 11 of his congregational hymn compositions, more than any other composer represented therein.

His stature was known outside of Church circles as well; Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, identified him as one of the three greatest Christian musicians of the 20th century.

“As Jerold Ottley [former Mormon Tabernacle Choir director] expressed so aptly, ‘With his reputation, he could have done anything. But he chose to remain at the Tabernacle.’ ” @RScottLloyd1

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