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An English Music Critic Visits the Tabernacle, 1885

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 05, 2008

Joseph Bennett (1831-1911) was an influential English music critic, long-time reporter for the Daily Telegraph, editor of two music journals, author of several books, specialist in church music. In the 19th century, of course, such a critic did not sit in a studio and listen to recordings — of necessity he traveled widely to listen to choirs in national cathedrals and to try out organs in country churches. His 1884 travels brought him to the United States, and Christmas that year found him in Salt Lake City.

What would one of the world’s most sophisticated music critics think of the nascent Tabernacle Choir, its home-made organ, Mormon congregations, or the acoustics of an oddly-shaped auditorium in the desert? He wrote:

I now ask my reader to go with me into the “wild West,” … this time to the wonderful city which stands at the foot of its encompassing mountains, a monument of Mormon energy and faith.

“Gentile” belief and practices have now a firm footing in the Sion founded by Brigham Young and the dauntless band who started with him from Nauvoo into the then unknown wilds of Northern Mexico. Probably the Mormons would not have it so if they could help themselves; but Salt Lake City is under Federal authority, and on a slope of the adjacent mountains stands Fort Douglas, armed with highly persuasive Federal cannon.

All the world is therefore free to come and go within the territory where Mormonism remains, and promises to remain, the dominant faith. There are several “Gentile” churches in Salt Lake City; Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, congregationalists, and Baptists having one or more within the shadow of Brigham Young’s great Tabernacle. the adherents in each case, however, are comparatively few, and I apprehend that the enterprise of these sects is regarded as bearing a missionary character.

We were a small band in one of the Episcopalian churches on Christmas morning last. Pious hands had decorated the pretty little Gothic building with festoons of fir, and many a Scriptural text, but this could not have been done for the admiration of a crowd. Perhaps twenty people, all told, had gathered, when a choir of three young women and two young men, seated round an American organ near the chancel, rose and sang “Hark! the herald angels” to Mendelssohn’s well-known strain. With such humble means only humble things were attempted, the musical service being limited to responses, chants, and hymns. All these were rendered with spirit, and even with some effect. What if the young lady organist occasionally showed inexperience in dealing with extemporised harmonies. The entire proceedings were so hearty, simple, and appropriate to circumstances that I could only regard them as successful. I did this none the less readily because everything served to remind me of an English village church, wherein life reigns rather than the somnolency that is first cousin to death.

My experience of “Gentile” church music began and ended as described above. I shall, perhaps, be expected to dwell longer upon that of the “Latter-Day Saints,” of whose artistic doings it was my privilege to make close observation, thanks to the friendly attentions of Mr. Calder, the chief musicseller in the place, and himself not only a Mormon, but the son of one who held high and honoured rank in his Church. Considering all things, especially the work that devolves upon a people engaged in the rougher operations of founding a State, the Mormons make very praiseworthy efforts to secure for themselves the sweetness and light of art. They support an organisation known as the “Careless Orchestra” – a suggestive name, but meaning no more than that a Mr. Careless is its leader. Regarding the composition and capacity of the Careless Orchestra I cannot speak, but, perhaps, some of its members were those I heard discoursing solemn music in the streets of the city during the small hours of Christmas morning.

A theatre is also one of the appendages of the Mormon church. Here the young people who have formed themselves into dramatic associations make public appearances; among the performers being some called by names conspicuous in the short and stormy record of those who followed the Prophet of Nauvoo.

The most important musical society is that which forms the Choir of the Tabernacle. It numbers about one hundred and fifty voices, and has been fairly well trained for work making but a moderate demand upon executive power. I attended the Tabernacle service on one occasion, and had then an opportunity of estimating its capacity, under the favourable conditions afforded by a building which, through chance or otherwise, has solved the problem of acoustics in a large place. The Tabernacle has room for near upon 10,000 people, and is elliptical in form, with low walls from which springs a roof unsupported by pillars, and somewhat resembling the inside of the longitudinal section of an egg-shell. At one of the curving ends, rising from the level of the floor to a considerable height, is a capacious platform for the officers of the Church, behind whom, and on either side, are the singers, the huge organ lifting its vast mass in rear of, and above all. Round the building, save as just described, runs a deep gallery, and seats cover the ample area.

It is a literal fact that, when the building is empty, a person standing at one end can hear a pin drop at the other. This was demonstrated to me again and again, the impact of the little bit of metal against the floor being distinctly audible. It follows that a preacher need not speak above a conversational pitch in order to be heard all over the place. Even the feeble voice of the aged President, John Taylor, travels to every ear. From this it is easy to imagine the effect of the great organ, and the resonant tones of singers whose vocal powers are kept in strength and vigour by bracing mountain air.

The Mormon service is, musically speaking and otherwise, of the plainest character, resembling that of an English dissenting chapel. A curious feature is the almost absolute dumbness of the congregation. They do not sing, the whole duty of vocal praise being delegated to the choir, and they make no responses to the extemporaneous prayers; only when some eloquent orator – and there are many among the Mormons – dwells passionately upon their persecutions and foretells an ultimate triumph, a loud “Amen” rings through the building.

The hymns are sung to tunes of an old-fashioned type, such as may be found in Rippon’s English collection of sixty or seventy years ago, and in almost every popular American collection of the present day. Even tunes which necessitate repeated lines, and those containing passages of imitation, are not discarded from Mormon use; their spirited and sometimes rather rollickign strains being delivered with every appearance of real enjoyment. The choir, as a rule, goes right through the hymn, whatever the number of its verses, while the huge congregation, turning a sea of faces full upon the performers, sit and quietly listen.

Sometimes, as on the occasion of my visit, music of a more complex character is attempted. The anthem I heard, for example, contained a short solo, very well delivered by a young Scandinavian professional, to the accompaniment of a small orchestra as well as the organ.

By this time the Mormons have amongst them again a young musician (son of the late Brigham Young) who has been trained at our own royal Academy of Music, and will doubtless make a conspicuous feature in the Tabernacle services. But, quite apart from him and the Scandinavian aforesaid, there seems to be no lack of musical talent in the Mormon ranks. I was especially struck with the sopranos, the quality of whose tone, and the fervour of whose style, suggested the existence of a considerable Welsh element – the more readily because Wales sends to Utah a large number of converts.

It is clear that the latter-Day Saints devote a proper amount of attention to music, regarded as an element in public worship. The fine Tabernacle organ of sixty stops affords, in itself, a proof of this. It was built entirely by Utah mechanics, under the superintendence of Mr. Joseph Ridges, all the material not available on the spot being brought in waggons from the railway terminus, then many hundred miles away, on the other side of the great plains. The instrument, which has three manuals and a powerful pedal organ, is of noble proportions, and contains many excellent stops. It is now, for repair and extension, in the hands of Mr. Johnson, a Scandinavian immigrant, who has himself built a fine two-manual organ in the Mormon Assembly Hall. I am indebted to Mr. Johnson for an opportunity of trying both these instruments, and I regard both as instances of victory over the difficulties presented by a remote and isolated spot where no skilled labour, save that of the builder himself, could be obtained. In the present work of enlarging the Tabernacle instrument I found Mr. Johnson assisted by nobody save a young man, son of President Taylor.

[paragraph breaks added]

[Joseph Bennett. "Observations on Music in America. II. Church Music." The Musical Times and Singing class Circular 26:506 (1 April 1885), 195-196.]

 

 



4 Comments »

  1. I am wondering which son of Brigham Young, he is referring to. I think it might be Brigham Bicknell Young, who is not Brigham’s son, but a nephew, the son of Brigham’s brother Joseph. Bennett may of been mixed up because of the name. Young often performed using the name, B.B. Young. He later had a musical career in Chicago and as a Christian Scientist leader in Chicago and Boston.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — June 5, 2008 @ 10:49 am

  2. Jeff, I’m sure you’re right. Thanks.

    (Note to world: Jeff is THE scholar of Brigham Young’s family — his wives in particular, but the broader family too).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 5, 2008 @ 11:21 am

  3. Intersting, Ardis. The juxtaposition of silent listening and boisterous singing is fascinating, and it obviously made an impression.

    Comment by Ray — June 5, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

  4. [...] An English music critic visits the Tabernacle, 1885 They support an organisation known as the “Careless Orchestra” – a suggestive name, but meaning no more than that a Mr. Careless is its leader. Regarding the composition and capacity of the Careless Orchestra I cannot speak, but, … [...]

    Pingback by A Small Victory » Blog Archive » An English music critic visits the Tabernacle, 1885 — June 6, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

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