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“The Mountains Shout”: Evan Stephens and the Recording of Mormon Hymns

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 04, 2008

Evan Stephens — hymnwriter, longtime director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the one man most responsible for the fact that Mormons sing hymns in four-part harmony rather than in unison — has long been one of my most favorite figures from history. He’s had one decent biography written about him (Ray L. Bergman, The Children Sang: The Life and Music of Evan Stephens, 1992), although I’m still waiting for the definitive, scholarly biography. (Jeff, soon, right?)

Stephens could have gone just about anywhere and had a successful musical career. He was, for instance, a brilliant teacher who could take classes of 2,000 — that’s two thousand — small children and keep them engaged and focused on learning music, turning them into amazing choirs in a matter of weeks. (He was also a canny businessman — charge 50c per child tuition, then fill the Tabernacle with proud mamas and papas at 50c per head to hear them sing, and, well, you could afford a trip to New York City for the opera season.) But instead of going east where he could have fully exploited his talents as a teacher and director, Stephens stayed at home with the goal of teaching his people to make world-class music themselves.

Stephens was an innovator who used whatever tools were at his disposal. As early as 1902, a plan was in the works to transmit choir concerts via long-distance telephone as far as Chicago (there was not yet an unbroken line of telephone wires across the continent so the broadcast could have gone no farther east); I haven’t yet found that anything came of this scheme.

In September 1910, with the approval of church leaders and the support of his choir, Stephens brought technicians from the Columbia Phonograph Co. of NYC to capture recordings of the choir and organ in the Tabernacle itself. After a great deal of experimentation, which including asking the ladies to remove their hats so that choir members could crowd closer to each other, the recording began. (Trivia: The first recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir consisted of a few bars of “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” recorded and played back as a test before formal recording began.)

That first recording session captured these pieces:

“We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” two stanzas, 2 minutes.
“Let the Mountains Shout for Joy!” 3 minutes, 5 seconds.
“Soldiers’ Chorus” from “Faust,” 2 minutes, 25 seconds.
“Hallelujah Chorus,” two plates; 2 minutes, and 1 minute, 50 seconds, respectively.
“Inflammatus,” 3 minutes, 15 seconds; Mrs. Edward soloist.
“Gypsy Sweetheart,” Horace Ensign soloist; 2 minutes 43 seconds.
“Hosannah!” 3 minutes.
“Pilgrim’s Chorus” from “Il Lombardi,” 2 minutes 52 seconds.
“Light and Truth,” 2 minutes 7 seconds.
“America” and “Star Spangled Banner;” 2 minutes 53 seconds.
“O My Father;” 3 minutes 40 seconds.
“Unfold ye Portals,” 3 minutes 35 seconds.

The choir — indeed, much of Salt Lake — eagerly followed technical processing of these recordings, and others made over following days, in the laboratories in New York. Not all of the recordings were deemed of sufficient quality to reproduce commercially, but “Hosannah” and Horace Ensign’s “Gypsy Sweetheart” were judged to be superior, and copies of many of the numbers were delivered to Salt Lake for sale in October. Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate an extant copy of any of these first recorded performances.

There are a few recordings that are sometimes mistaken for these original 1910 numbers. Despite miscataloguing, however, the record label on the existing old disk, coupled with advertisements from the 1924 Relief Society Magazine and a news account from a 1923 issue of The Juvenile Instructor identify the oldest known remaining recording as dating to 1924. Late in 1923, Stephens traveled to the Victor Talking Machine Co. in Camden, New Jersey, by assignment from the General Church Music Committee of which he was a member. His assignment was to engage a local chorus and produce records for sale to introduce the general public to some of Mormondom’s unique hymns.

His trip resulted in three records, each of them containing just one hymn per side. For singers, he engaged the Trinity Quartet (actually, a mixed double quartet) which, judging from the number of times they appear in the Victor catalog from this period, may have been Victor’s “house choir” available for hire by anyone when the song, rather than the performers, was what mattered to a producer.

Stephens taught his half-dozen hymns to the Quartet, who performed a capella, with enthusiasm, an up tempo, and technical competence. Listening to these ghosts of voices through more than 80 years’ distance, without digital processing to erase the pops and static and to bring the voices to the fore, can be a surprising experience. Understanding the words takes concentration and — for me, at least — the unfamiliar sound suggests the experience non-Mormon listeners may have had in 1924 when they heard Mormon hymns for the first time.

O, My Father

Let the Mountains Shout for Joy

What say ye, o iPod generation?



12 Comments »

  1. I tried to track down the two opera pieces–the “Inflammatus”, from Rossini’s Stabat Mater, shows up in various performances on YouTube. The “Pilgrim Chorus”, from Verdi’s I (not IL) Lombardi, didn’t show up, except as some sheet music that you could download for about $3.00 (although that music was from Jerusalem, which is Verdi’s revision of I Lombardi, which apparently didn’t have much staying power).

    You could always listen to that more famous “Pilgrim Chorus”, from Tannhäuser. It at least shares the same name. That’s about all Verdi and Wagner shared.

    Perhaps the best part of the romp through YouTube was that it took me back to the Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez performing “Pour mon ame” from La Fille du Regiment–breathtaking! And amazing–those 9 high C’s!

    Comment by Mark B. — August 4, 2008 @ 9:50 am

  2. I suppose the “Gypsy Sweetheart” is from the Victor Herbert operetta, The Fortune Teller, which was written in 1898. Sadly, I couldn’t find the music for free (either a performance or a written version), although a site with the old sheet music for sale does have for teasers the first line: “The birds of the forest are calling for thee” and the refrain: “Slumber on my little gypsy sweetheart.”

    Comment by Mark B. — August 4, 2008 @ 10:01 am

  3. Huh. I’m thinkin’ it would be a lot of fun to hear the Choir do a concert of that sentimental music they did so much of a hundred years ago.

    Mark, can you make out the words on the recordings I linked to, or are there too many little pitchers with big ears where you are? (Personally, if I hear one more cell phone go off in the library today, I’m going to play these scratchy old recordings as loud as my computer will play.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 4, 2008 @ 10:08 am

  4. Beautiful, Ardis.

    I’m quite surprised at the tune for O My Father. I didn’t know that the McGranahan melody was in use at that time.

    It’s not the melody used in the 1927 hymnal (or the 1948). The 1927 uses an absolutely gorgeous melody written by — Evan Stephens.

    Comment by Kaimi — August 4, 2008 @ 10:59 am

  5. Ardis,

    The recording of Let the Mountains Shout is too scratchy for my tired old ears. But I’ve seen the hymn, set to the same music as is recorded here. It may be in the Choirbook.

    Aha, it is. Music and words by Evan Stephens.

    Let the mountains shout for joy!
    Let the valleys sing,
    Let the valleys sing,
    and the hills rejoice,
    the hills rejoice,
    Let them all break forth into song;
    Let them shout and sing,
    and be glad before the Lord
    Let them shout, let them sing,
    and be glad before the Lord.

    fine

    For the wilderness has blossomed, blossomed like a rose
    and the barren desert is a fruitful field;
    joy and gladness now are found there
    in thanksgiving and the voice of melody, thansgiving and the voice of melody
    thanksgiving and the voice of melody.
    Let the mountains shout for joy!
    Let the mountains shout for joy!

    da capo al fine

    With the words before one, picking the words from the recording becomes easier.

    I would differ with one of your comments Ardis: The Oh My Father, is, in my opinion, a little down tempo. And, one wonders what they thought when they sang: “Father, Mother may I meet you in your royal courts on high” (although since only two verses were recorded, maybe they didn’t learn the “In the heav’ns are parents single . . .” verse, and they just figured E R Snow was being sentimental about meeting mom and dad again).

    Comment by Mark B. — August 4, 2008 @ 11:22 am

  6. Kaimi, the McGranahan melody was first performed as a solo at the 1893 dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, by Tabernacle Choir member Robert Easton. I don’t know when it became general among Church members — I do know that when the poem was published as a missionary tract in 1909, McGranahan didn’t even merit a mention, although the tract included McG’s sheet music “as sung by Robert Easton.” The cover of the tract has portraits of Eliza Snow, Robert Easton, and John Hafen (who illustrated it). Poor robbed McGranahan!

    Thanks, Mark. I should have thought to include the words, because of course that *would* make the recordings more intelligible. And my ward may be especially draggy because it seems to take eons to get through.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 4, 2008 @ 11:45 am

  7. I could pick out every word, we sang that hymn with one of my ward choirs. It sounded more “Protestant” somehow than our rendition. I think it has something to do with the tenor voice that comes through loud and clear on their recording, but alas, not in our ward choir.

    Thank you for this tribute to Evan Stephens–we need more like him in Church music!

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — August 4, 2008 @ 7:48 pm

  8. Re the use of the McGranahan melody, Michael Hicks’ article for BYU Studies on the musical settings of “O My Father” suggests that Stephens became unhappy with the use of the tune and even argued that the Victor recording of it would constitute a copyright violation (p. 51).

    Comment by Justin — August 5, 2008 @ 8:18 am

  9. Justin, thanks for the link — the whole article was interesting to me. Also, I had planned a post about the 1909 pamphlet; this article referred to another one in the same BYU Studies issue specifically about that pamphlet, so now I need to decide whether to run mine. :(

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — August 5, 2008 @ 9:18 am

  10. Personally, I like “O My Father” set to the tune of “Gentle Annie,” which is the tune that Brigham Young liked so much. I have had this sung in sacrament meeting along with some of the other tune arrangements that were popular at some time or other.

    Comment by Maurine — August 6, 2008 @ 10:14 pm

  11. That would make a fascinating presentation, Maurine. Sometimes our Relief Society music leader has us do fun things, like sing familiar words to familiar tunes, but not the tunes that we usually associate with a particular text. Or she’ll bring in some hymn that was submitted for the last hymnbook that is really, really nice but which didn’t fit for some reason. I’m going to suggest your idea to her.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 6, 2008 @ 10:28 pm

  12. Great post, Ardis, You did all the legwork.

    http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2011/05/mormons-in-the-national-jukebox/

    Comment by BHodges — May 12, 2011 @ 11:20 am

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