Nothing momentous ever happens without conflict; no great accomplishment is ever achieved unopposed. Half of Paris hated both Eiffel and his Tower, many 18th century Americans thought British rule was just fine, and at the opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Diaghilev had to force his dancers on stage at pistol point, such was the fury of the rioters in the house. Look at any great institution and understand that it came into being because somebody was willing to fight for it, and had to. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir rose to its present prominence because smart, talented people believed that it could, and should grow in artistic excellence and stature. That’s what makes Michael Hicks’ new biography of the Choir so thrilling. For most of us–certainly for me–the Choir just was. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to take for granted. Oh, yeah; it’s General Conference this weekend. And that means, as usual, the Choir will be singing. Cool. I wonder what new Mack Wilberg arrangements they’ll feature this time.
But no. Choir building took a long time, and many decisions. One of the earliest had to do with the role of music in worship; did Church services require hymn singing? If so, by whom? Who would select the hymns, who would compose them, who would rehearse the singers? Hicks covered those crucial decisions in his Mormonism and Music: A History (2003), a book I devoured, and still go back to. See this book as the essential supplement to that earlier work. Who were the earliest conductors of the Choir, what were their backgrounds and personalities?
I am a choir nerd of the first order. I have been a choir-watcher and a choir fan for most of my adult life. I met my wife in a BYU choir; Ron Staheli sat us in sections, but I was the tallest bass and she was the tallest soprano, and we shared a riser at the world premiere of Robert Cundick’s The Redeemer. (Trying to impress her, I told her that the soloist playing Jesus was my father. This was actually true, but she didn’t believe me, and rebuffed my fumbling first advances). Years later, I landed a gig as a Tab Choir writer–I was one of several who wrote the Spoken Word segments for the Choir’s weekly broadcasts. I wrote eight Spoken Words a year for seven years before burning out. I have to this day an immense appreciation for Richard Evans, who managed to stay inspirational for forty years.
So I am, I suppose, an ideal reader for this book. And I found it immensely satisfying. A book like this requires the persistence of a first rate researcher, the patience and discretion of a great story-teller, as well as the musical chops to critically assess the choir’s musicality in each phase of its development. I couldn’t put it down. And when I finished, it was with that sense of regret we all experience when we’ve read something terrific. That feeling of ‘shoot, now I won’t get to read it anymore.’
Heroes emerge: George Careless, Evan Stephens, Tony Lund, Evans, Spencer Cornwall, Jerold Ottley. The word ‘heroes’ implies the existence of ‘villains,’ making it perhaps a bit misleading; there weren’t really powerful voices in the institutional Church wondering if we really needed a Choir, for example. But there were certainly disagreements, over the Choir’s purpose and direction, over financing, over age requirements, and, as might well be imagined, over repertoire. All those sorts of questions had to hashed out and clarified and decided and then, later, revisited.
And certain themes, specific areas of perpetual conflict, all emerged. Should the choir record and perform a classical repertoire of great oratorios or cantatas? What modern composers should they feature? What about the best work of Mormon composers? What should the relationship be between the Choir and music in the Church generally? How should the choir balance its obligations to its radio broadcast partners? With non-LDS musicians? With pop music? And probably the biggest question of all: was the primary responsibility of the Choir to the demands of great music? Or to the missionary efforts of the Church?
These weren’t matters about which there was universal agreement. They all had to be hashed out, argued over, and finally settled. The process by which all that happened is endlessly fascinating, mostly because they are important questions about which good men strenuously disagreed.
One of the things I most respect about Hicks’ book is the way he handles areas of controversy and possible scandal. One question, for example, has to do with Evan Stephens’ sexuality. Hicks mentions the dispute, gives it a paragraph or two, directs us to further reading. But the conclusions he reaches seem fair and evidence-driven. Where there is no definitive proof, Hicks refuses to speculate. The fact of a controversy and the extent to which that controversy has become part of the historical narrative does deserve some small attention, and that’s essentially what Hicks gives it. I think that’s fair. Likewise the mystery of Craig Jessop’s sudden and unexpected resignation as conductor is given, I think, sufficient but not excessive attention. I admire Hicks’ careful restraint on these issues, driven not by prudence or caution, but by a simple recognition that the evidence is insufficient and unclear.
Anyway, this is a terrific book, a book I recommend without reservation. The MoTab is one of the great cultural institutions in American history. That didn’t happen by accident, nor does it seems to have entirely by design. Each new actor changed the story; it’s fascinating to wonder what it will look like fifty years from now.