Mormon Tabernacle Choir: Recording career reaches landmark
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The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been making musical recordings for 100 years now, longer than any other entity in history, except for the Vienna Boys Choir, and is marking the occasion — appropriately enough — by releasing a new album of recordings.
A three-disc set, "100: Celebrating a Century of Recording Excellence," went on sale June 10, coinciding with an announcement to news media that day in the choir's famous home, the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
"I think it's a great pleasure and very appropriate that the choir of 2010 be here to be part of this celebration as we commemorate 100 years of recording," musical director Mack Wilberg said to reporters. "I think whenever we come to a commemoration like this, those of us who are currently involved with the choir salute the hundreds — actually the thousands — of those who have come before us."
As if to illustrate that tribute, Brother Wilberg had just finished directing the 360-voice choir in a unique blending of its voices with the choir of 100 years ago. A segment of the earliest existing choir recording, "Let the Mountains Shout for Joy," was played as historical choir photos were projected on the Tabernacle's domed ceiling behind the choir seats. Then, on cue from Brother Wilberg, today's choir finished the anthem in a live performance. The choir concluded the news conference with a performance of "Hallelujah" from Handel's "Messiah," which was recorded at the same historic Sept. 1, 1910, session as "Let the Mountains Shout for Joy."
Richard E. Turley Jr., Assistant Church Historian and Recorder, spoke to reporters and recounted the story behind that first recording.
"The fact of the matter is that Columbia Phonograph Co., which sent the technician out to make the recording, really didn't think it would work," Brother Turley said. The occasion was scarcely 30 years after Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph and recording technology was still in its infancy. The microphone had been invented but not refined, and acoustic technology had to be used for the recording.
"Columbia was in a technology race with its competitors, and in order to record the choir, it worked to create a machine small enough to ship by train from New York to Salt Lake City," Brother Turley said. "Once they got the recording equipment here, the big challenge was where to put the equipment in the Tabernacle in order to make the recording successful."
Technicians settled on a position on the organ case. One of the ornamental, non-functioning organ pipes was removed and a large, flaring horn was placed in the organ case itself to capture the sound of the organ. This facilitated the successful recording of organ music for the next two days.
That still left the challenge of capturing the sound of the choir itself. Brother Turley said this was accomplished by stringing a rope from one balcony to the other. From the rope were suspended two flared horns, each 56 inches long and 2 feet wide at the opening, with one facing the women and the other the men. The singers were required to pack themselves tightly together, which required that the women remove their hats. Soloists for the session stood directly in front of and placed their faces inside the horns for their performances.
"We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet," became the first Tabernacle Choir recording in history that day, as the choir performed a few bars; everyone was delighted with the playback. Unfortunately, that recording did not survive, as it was not suitable to be reproduced for sale. But "Let the Mountains Shout for Joy" was, and it exists today as the earliest specimen of what has become a 100-year legacy.
It is contained on the bonus disc of the new album, which offers both vintage audio and historic video, including the Telstar satellite transmission from Mount Rushmore in 1962, the performance of Beethoven's "Hallelujah Chorus" in Jerusalem in 1992, and the choir's appearance in the inaugural parade of U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
The two audio CDs in the album contain a selection of the choir's most requested songs.