Tabernacle Choir celebrates 110th anniversary of maiden recording, premieres Star Wars video

Music director Mack Wilberg likes to say, wryly, that 95% of what The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square does happens in front of a microphone.

That’s not a new trend.

It was 110 years ago — on Sept. 1, 1910 — that the iconic choir completed its first recording in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. Since then, the choir has been on a century-plus-long roll, logging dozens of recordings delivering inspiring music and peace to its worldwide audience during good times and tough times, alike.

“No one perceived at that time, because of all the advancements that have come, that we would now have over 200 recordings that have showcased the choir’s work, from those early years to the present day,” said Choir President Ron Jarrett.

The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square seated in front of the organ in the Tabernacle. Photograph taken in 1929.
The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square seated in front of the organ in the Tabernacle. Photograph taken in 1929. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Each recording and broadcast serves the choir’s central purpose: to share inspiring music with the power to draw listeners to the divine and celebrate God’s love for His children.

President Jarret was joined Thursday at a news conference in the Conference Center by Wilberg and former Church historian Richard Turley to commemorate the 110th anniversary of the recording. 

Wilberg marveled at the ways evolving technology over the past century-plus allows the choir to continue to grow its audience and share its gospel-inspired message.

Turley, meanwhile, highlighted the key moments from that maiden choir recording before cueing up a 1910 recording of Tabernacle organist John J. McClellan playing a familiar piece by Bach.

But the anniversary event wasn’t just about looking back. Thursday’s premier of the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square’s latest music video — a stirring arrangement of “Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace — was a reminder that the organizations are looking forward.

Choir leaders also discussed Thursday the upcoming holiday program “Christmas with the Tabernacle Choir featuring Kelli O’Hara and Richard Thomas” to be broadcast in December on PBS Television and BYUtv.

“Next month, we will also release the CD and DVD from last year’s concert, ‘Christmas Day in the Morning,’ ” said Wilberg.

 A companion book will be released in conjunction with the annual Christmas TV special featuring an adaption of the Pearl S. Buck story that was read by Richard Thomas during the 2019 concert. 

A few “gee whiz” facts for music recording historians and choir fans: 

  • The first recording was done capturing sound using two large horns in the Tabernacle on Sept. 1, 1910.
  • Recordings of the choir were used in Harvey Fletcher’s first demonstration of stereo sound at Carnegie Hall in 1940.
  • The choir’s first long-playing record was released in October 1949.
  • The first radio broadcast of “Music and the Spoken Word” was on July 15, 1929, with television to follow in 1962.
  • The choir was featured on the first intercontinental satellite broadcast from Mount Rushmore in 1962.
  • The choir’s first CD was released in 1981.
  • Just over 20 years ago, in May 1999, the Orchestra at Temple Square was added as a companion ensemble, greatly enhancing recordings since that time.
  • In 2003, the choir launched its own recording label, which has released nearly 100 products, including 48 CDs and 28 DVDs and VHS tapes.
  • The choir is active on all social media platforms, with over 247 million video views on the choir’s YouTube channel.

The ongoing pandemic has, of course, prompted several key modifications for the choir in recent months.

On April 27, the choir and orchestra announced their 2020 Heritage Tour scheduled for several European nations was being postponed until 2021. Next year’s performances will be in all the same cities planned for the original tour — including concerts in Stockholm, Sweden; Helsinki, Finland; Copenhagen, Denmark; Oslo, Norway; Cardiff and Newport, Wales; and Edinburgh, Scotland.

Meanwhile, social distancing practices have forced the choir and orchestra to halt rehearsals and performances. Pre-recorded performances were used during last April’s general conference — and continue to be used for the weekly Music and the Spoken Word broadcasts.

This year’s Pioneer Day and Christmas concerts were also cancelled.

But despite the many COVID-19 challenges, the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square are growing their global fanbase and influence.

“The choir and orchestra has been viewed more consistently and has [become] a part of people’ lives as they worship from home,” said President Jarrett. “Many people are finding peace and comfort through this great music throughout the world.”

Timeline showing 110 years of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.
Timeline showing 110 years of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.