Several thousand people gathered at Salt Lake's Union Pacific station to bid farewell to the 250 members of the Tabernacle Choir as they embarked on their first out-of-state tour 100 years ago.
About 3:10 p.m., on Aug. 29, 1893, a 10-car train carrying the singers and about 100 relatives and friends pulled out of the station on a six-day journey to the World's Columbian Exhibition, also called the Chicago World's Fair. On Sept. 8, the choir participated at the fair in the Welsh singing contest, the Eisteddfod, and won the second-place prize of $1,000.It seemed highly appropriate that the Tabernacle Choir be invited to participate in the Welsh contest since converts from Wales played a major role in the formation of the choir.
In 1849, converts from Wales, where vocal talents have been revered for centuries, joined the ranks of singers who were already performing at Church gatherings in the valley. One day, it is said, President Young heard these converts singing in their native Welsh. "I don't understand the words," he declared. "But you should become the nucleus of a great church choir." (Cited in Reader's Digest condensed article of Christian Herald, April 1975.)
While judges, audiences and members of other choruses might have regarded the Tabernacle Choir as just another entrant in a music contest, the Church's leaders and choir members saw their presence at the fair as something more far-reaching and enduring. Initially, the invitation to participate in the contest was turned down, since choir director Evan Stephens already had made plans to go to Europe during that time. But others saw great opportunity in having Utah's own choir represent the territory at the fair.
Brother Stephens was persuaded to postpone his European trip, and efforts were begun to raise funds in that economically depressed year of 1893 to send the choir to Chicago. Not only did the Church support the choir on its trip, but so did Utah businessmen and political leaders who saw in the music contest an opportunity to show the territory of Utah in its best light. Mormons and non-Mormons alike joined forces to raise funds to send the choir "back East."
President Wilford Woodruff and his counselors, President George Q. Cannon and President Joseph F. Smith, traveled with the choir, occupying a private car called the "Pickwick."
The trip to Chicago took the choir over ground some of them had traversed during harsher times. Among the singers and guests who traveled with the choir were several who had walked across the plains as original Mormon Pioneers.
The choir performed concerts in three cities en route to Chicago, namely Denver, Colo., and Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo. (The choir performed in Omaha, Neb., on its return trip to Salt Lake City.)
Stopping in Kansas City, choir members were guests of honor at a reception held by citizens of Independence, Mo. The choir entourage visited the lot in Independence where on Aug. 3, 1831, Joseph Smith dedicated land for the building of a temple.
The Deseret Semi-Weekly News quoted the Kansas City Star's report of the choir's visit to Independence: "There were many odd scenes and incidents during the morning, but nothing was more conspicuous than the reverence shown President Woodruff. Eighty-six years old, he moves about with the vigor of a man a score of years his junior. He is short in stature, stockily built, and has a kind face. At the depot many persons, Mormons, Mormon Elders and members of the Church crowded into his car, Pickwick, to grasp his hand and speak a word. At the meeting on Temple lot, he was kept busy greeting those brought forward. . . .
"President Woodruff was last in Independence fifty-nine years ago. He went with the Mormons to Liberty when they were driven from Independence, and was with Brigham Young July 24th, 1847, when he entered the valley where Salt Lake City and the Tabernacle are now located. Brigham Young rode in Mr. Woodruff's carriage during the last part of the journey, and Mr. Woodruff assisted in laying out Salt Lake City and in clearing the sage brush from the desert. He has seen and taken part in all the severe trials endured by the Mormons in founding their colony in Utah and witnessed the close of the struggles which drove the Mormons from the town he visited today."
The St. Louis Globe Democrat reported of the choir's visit and concert in St. Louis, Mo.: "Many men still in the middle life can remember when the Mormon bands driven from the Mississippi Valley turned their eyes to the great West and began the long journey that ended in the valley of Salt Lake. Although the railroads have practically abolished space and made Salt Lake City and St. Louis next door neighbors, the fact is not so well appreciated but that a thrill of surprise was felt at the announcement that a large band of accomplished singers from the Mormon Tabernacle would appear in St. Louis en route to Chicago, there to contest for a prize of substantial proportions. The idea of musical culture in the heart of the Rocky Mountains is new to most people not familiar with that region, and yet the fact was emphasized with no little force last evening by the appearance of 250 singers, Mormons all, the famed choir of the principal church in the Mormon country, who gave an entertainment that may justly be pronounced one of the events of the season."
Arriving in Chicago on Sunday, Sept. 3, the choir rehearsed daily until the competition on Friday, Sept. 8. The choir's numbers in the competition were: "Worthy Is the Lamb," from Handel's "Messiah;" "Blessed Is the Man Who Fears Him," from Mendelssohn's "Elijah;" and "Now the Impetuous Torrents Rise," from the Oratorio, "David and Saul," by David Jenkins.
In the book The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Charles Jeffrey Calman wrote: "Much to their surprise, choir members found themselves one of the leading tourist attractions at the fair. The badges they wore excited such attention that many singers were arriving late for rehearsals; Stephens banned them from being worn.
"The Chicago World's Fair was a paean to the creative inventiveness of humanity and a showcase for America's cultural achievement.
The fair,' wrote C.R. Savage,eclipses all my previous opportunities of seeing the skill of man.' The directors of the fair sponsored a choral competition called the Eisteddfod, a traditional Welsh `gathering of the bards.' The Welsh were as closely associated with choral singing in 1893 as they are today. But this Eisteddfod was arranged so that the public could also have a taste of the high level of American choral singing. Four mixed choirs were participating in the contest – the Western Reserve (Ohio) Choral Union, the Cymrodorion Society from Scranton, Pennsylvania, the Scranton Pennsylvania Choral Union, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
"The male chorus competition took place on Tuesday. Competing choirs included two from Wales, which took the first and second prizes. The Mormon men `were rated third, thus making us first, this side of the ocean,' according to [Thomas C.T Griggs's diary.
"The day of the contest arrived. There were prayers and whispered encouragements, and Evan Stephens gave his final instructions to the choir: `Pay no attention to your competitors until you have sung, be not eager to excel them. Simply be calm, earnest, and see to it that we do ourselves justice, and I for one, will be satisfied, prize or no prize.'
"The choir ascended to the stage, `250 strong, being warily greeted by the large and intensely interested audience,' as Griggs later wrote. They assumed their positions and posed for photographs.
"The three contest pieces took about twelve minutes to perform. `Considerable applause,' came from the audience of 7,000 people when it was over. Most of the choir members stayed to listen to the other choruses perform, and were disturbed to find that the two choirs from Scranton had recruited some of the Welsh singers to swell their ranks.
"At the end of the contest, the Tabernacle Choir joined the others for a final gala performance of the `Hallelujah Chorus,' which Evan Stephens was invited to conduct.
"The chief judge, Dr. Henry Gower, looked about the hall and finally announced that, `Taking all things together the two choirs which sang with the fewest faults and the most excellencies were, first, the Choral Union, from Scranton, and the Tabernacle Choir from Salt Lake City.'
"Pandemonium broke loose. The Pennsylvanians yelled and the Salt Lake City people cheered. Finally one of the Scranton folks called out, `Three cheers for the Mormons!' and the shouts resounded even louder."
Writing home, President Joseph F. Smith, second counselor in the First Presidency, said of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's presence at the 1893 World's Fair: "One of the judges was pronounced and emphatic in favor of the Tabernacle Choir, but the other two were too much for him. It is a glorious triumph anyway to Utah and the `Mormon' people. And the good seed sown will be a good fruit in a day to come.
"Many a one has had his eyes opened, somewhat, on Utah, and the Mormon question. I consider it has done more good than five thousand sermons would have done in an ordinary or even in an extraordinary way." (Quoted in The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Charles Jeffrey Calman.)