A history of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, an institution that keeps most of its controversies behind closed doors.
Composer, performer and scholar Hicks (Music/Brigham Young Univ.; Henry Cowell, Bohemian, 2003, etc.) documents plenty of intrigue in the leadership, mission and repertoire of “America’s choir,” while acknowledging the considerable challenges of his endeavor: “The Tabernacle Choir is a close-knit family. And close-knit families often stiffen their ranks against outsiders. The current handbook of the Choir may not be shown to anyone who is not a member of the Choir. Choir members are not to write about the Choir in blogs. And they are required to secure permission from the Choir President before speaking to ‘the media.’ ” Yet music has been integral to the image of Mormonism practically since the beginning of the religion, through a 19th century when making a joyful noise in church was spiritually suspect to Protestant evangelicals. As the success of the choir “more than any other institution…domesticated the image of Mormonism,” offsetting the association with polygamy and other moral curiosities, it kept pace with the times by attracting a devoted following through radio, TV and a series of best-selling recordings that mixed the secular and the spiritual. By the 21st century, “the Tabernacle Choir sold out Denver’s Pepsi Stadium—fifteen thousand seats—three days before the Rolling Stones, another major brand name, sold just thirteen thousand seats in the same venue.” It also adapted to the high-tech spectacle that modern performance seemed to demand. Yet the hundreds of choir members remained unpaid and all but anonymous, serving as musical missionaries, and the institution become more closely associated with conservative political partisanship as it continued to struggle with what one leader called “the colored problem.”
Though much of the writing is academically dry, this history is more provocative than readers may suspect.