Major influence on Church music

Tabernacle organist Alexander Schreiner, one of the most popular organists in America during the middle decades of the 20th century, was remembered Sept. 8-9 at the Alexander Schreiner Centennial Celebration, a series of lectures, a banquet and a recital on the Tabernacle Organ that he helped acquire more than half a century ago.

Alexander Schreiner performs during 1950s, a period when he presented concerts across the nation.
Alexander Schreiner performs during 1950s, a period when he presented concerts across the nation. Photo: Deseret News file photo

Because of the large turnout from the music community, some of the events held in honor of Schreiner's 100th birthday were moved to larger rooms, an indication that the virtuosic performer is well remembered nearly 15 years after this death in 1987.

"More than any other, he has influenced LDS music in this century," said lecturer Dan Berghout, who completed his doctoral dissertation on Alexander Schreiner, and who is the author of a new book, Alexander Schreiner, Mormon Tabernacle Organist, published by BYU studies.

"Alexander Schreiner left behind a remarkable legacy," said Brother Berghout. "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, provide countless church musicians with music that was easily accessible. His tireless crusade for an Aeolian-Skinner organ in the Tabernacle in the 1940s resulted in the creation of the masterpiece. . . .

"Alexander Schreiner's faith in and commitment to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was undeniably apparent throughout his career, and, as [former Tabernacle Choir director] Jerold Ottley said, 'With his reputation, he could have done anything.' "

A native of Germany, young Alex developed an early interest in music and the organ, starting playing at age 5, and became branch organist at age 8. When his family immigrated in 1912, they lived near Temple Square, where the young man often attended recitals. By age 13, he was under the tutelage of Tabernacle organist John J. McClellan, sitting on the organ bench to turn pages, but was "sometimes so preoccupied with the music that he forgot to turn the pages," said Brother Berghout. In his late teens, Alex began playing theater organs to accompany silent films, and received offers that took him to Montana and Oregon. At age 22, he turned down an Oregon offer of $300 a week to accept a mission call, which he filled in Southern California 1921-24.

Alexander Schreiner applauded by First Presidency and others after final recital in 1977.
Alexander Schreiner applauded by First Presidency and others after final recital in 1977. Photo: Deseret News file photo

After his mission, he was invited to the Tabernacle, where he performed his first recital as a Tabernacle Organist in 1924. Shortly afterward, he took one of his many leaves of absence and studied in France under three renowned organists including Louis Vierne, organist of the Cathederal of Notre Dame. All were impressed with his abilities.

Upon returning, he applied for the position of "chief organist" but was declined, not obtaining the elusive title until 1963, following the retirement of faithful Tabernacle organist Frank Asper. In later years, he often performed with the Tabernacle Choir and was at times the choir's accompanist as well.

During the 1930s, he performed in California and was associated with UCLA, teaching on a year-to-year basis. He returned to Salt Lake City in 1939 to marry and rear a family, and resumed his post at the Tabernacle, also playing at the Capitol Theater. During the war years, when the Tabernacle was closed for security reasons, he performed on radio and won an international following. He placed second in a national poll of organists from 1944 to 1952, competing with his 5-minute slot on alternate weeks with well-known performer E. Power Biggs, who had a weekly half-hour show and was always voted first. He produced and performed a half-hour radio show in the 1960s, and often was featured on television.

In 1939, Brother Schreiner enrolled as a freshman at the University of Utah, where his celebrity status was disconcerting to professors. One professor teaching freshman English asked him to withdraw, and he willingly complied and found another class. In one month, he tested through 20 music classes. He graduated with high honors in 1942, later returning to receive in 1954, the first Ph.D. diploma in organ music from the University of Utah.

Also during this time, he began concertizing across America, performing one year in 109 cities and 35 states, making annual trips to packed houses. He continued this until about 1960.

In 1943 he began a campaign to acquire a new Tabernacle Organ, which was realized 1945-49 under the direction of expert G. Donald Harrison of the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company of Boston, Mass. It is recognized as one of the best such instruments in the country.

Photo taken in 1920s was used on theater program in California.
Photo taken in 1920s was used on theater program in California. Photo: Deseret News file photo

In the early 1940s, he became chairman of the general Sunday School music committee and later was chairman of the Church's music committee. Here, although admitting he may have been "a bit Teutonic" at times in the way he ran the committees, he exercised vast influence over the Church's music. He also wrote regular advice to Church organists in the Instructor and was considered Salt Lake's voice to the Church on organ music. He influenced the Church hymnal and teamed with Anna Johnson to write some 100 children's songs during the young years of his and his wife, Margaret's, children.

Toward the end of his career, he received four honorary doctorates and numerous awards, including the Officers Cross from his homeland, the Federal Republic of Germany for "contributing to international understanding."

He played his last recital at noon, Dec. 30, 1977, following a bout with cancer, after which he was named emeritus chief Tabernacle organist.

The congenial musician died 10 years later on Sept. 15. At the time, the First Presidency issued a statement that referred to his "long and productive life" that "left a legacy which will continue to lift those who love beautiful music."

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