Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. The world would never sound the same.
Not that those early devices made it easy. But, there was, and is still, something quite magical about the fact that anything as vibrant as sound could be captured by wax, and later vinyl, magnetic tape or plastic, in a way that those same sounds can be heard again, even miles and miles away and years and years later.
We take it for granted now, but 100 years ago, the recording process was still in its infancy, especially when it came to recording music. Among those involved in early pioneering efforts, however, was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Edison's recording machine included a large acoustic horn that channeled sound waves through an inscribing needle onto a soft-wax cylinder. The process had its limitations, requiring a very loud, very close source of sound, which in music meant solo voices or small musical groups. It did not work well for large choruses or symphony orchestras.
At the turn of the century, three record companies had emerged: Columbia, Victor and Edison. All were looking for that next breakthrough: a way to bring music from large groups to the masses.
So, it was with that in mind that the New York-based Columbia Phonographic Co. decided to send an engineer and a recording machine to Salt Lake City to attempt to record the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which had gained national attention through an appearance at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, among other things.
Before they could even attempt it, however, the company had to construct a recording machine lighter than the 500-pound one it was then using.
The new machine and the recording engineer arrived in Salt Lake City by train in August 1910. The pessimistic Columbia engineer started with a test recording of the organ. It seemed to work. Still, an organ was one thing; a 300-voice choir was quite another. So, the next test began.
First, the engineer had to decide where to place the two 5-foot-long acoustic horns, which would gather in the sound. They were eventually suspended from a rope stretched across the Tabernacle, with one horn pointing to the sopranos and altos and the other to the tenors and basses. Choir members huddled as tightly as possible — the women had to remove their hats — as they began to sing.
To everyone's surprise, the experiment worked. With cautious optimism on the part of the Columbia executive, and joy and elation on the part of the singers and their director, Evan Stephens, the choir went on to record 13 tracks.
The repertoire of that original recording session was varied; everything from classical works by Gounod, Handel and Rossini, to musical theater selections by Victor Herbert, favorite hymns, Welsh tunes and patriotic anthems. Several of the tracks were later sold commercially, taking the choir's sound to homes all over the country.
In honor of that milestone for both itself and the recording industry, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is releasing a new collection. "100: Celebrating a Century of Recording Excellence" contains two 16-song discs filled with some of the choir's most-requested songs, such as "How Great Thou Art," "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," "The Impossible Dream," "God Bless America," "Call of the Champions," "Come, Come Ye Saints," "Amazing Grace" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Also included are four new recordings: "All People That on Earth Do Dwell," "Danny Boy," "Glorious Everlasting" and the Nigerian carol, "Betelhemu."
The commemorative package also contains a bonus CD/DVD with vintage footage and archival audio from the choir's vault, including that very first recording of "Let the Mountains Shout for Joy" and other milestone recordings as the choir continued to pioneer in the industry.
There's the choir's first electrical recording on 1927, "Worthy is the Lamb"; and video of the choir at Mount Rushmore, singing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" in the first formal trans-Atlantic satellite television broadcast. There's video of the choir singing for President Ronald Reagan in the inaugural parade in 1981; and scenes from Jerusalem, where the choir sang in 1992.
It is quite literally a project 100 years in the making.
The choir has a long and exceptional history, says current choir director Mack Wilberg.
"To be able to make the claim to be the first large ensemble ever recorded in this country is really saying something," he said. The fact that the choir is still being recorded says even more. Only the Vienna Boys' Choir can claim an equal achievement.
Over the past century the choir has recorded with Columbia, Sony, Telarc and others. In 2003, to gain more artistic control and increased possibilities, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir formed its own label. In all, there have been more than 175 albums, with five gold and two platinum records and a Grammy.
The choir's sound has remained authentic through the century, as technology has improved, Wilberg says, "and you can see how the performance style has evolved over the years, as well."
What has not changed is "the very core of the choir. The commitment, the sacrifice, the dedication of the choir members has always been strong. It may be even more so, today. Choir members come from farther away; and there's so much else going on that it is still a huge sacrifice."
But from the very first, "the tradition of the choir has been to be the very best it could be. We are still very much a part of that tradition," he said.
"At the same time, we can't do just what the choir did in the '40s and the '50s. We are a vibrant and living organization, and we have to move forward with the times."
The 1999 addition of the Orchestra at Temple Square has added many new sound possibilities. They love the organ, Wilberg says, "but to have our own orchestra is quite unheard of in the choral world. We are lucky and blessed."
Also important are the state-of-the-art facilities in the remodeled Tabernacle, which enables it to act as broadcast facility for weekly "Music and the Spoken Word" programs and as a recording studio for other projects.
"It is second to none," said choir president Mac Christensen.
But then, Christensen says, everything about the choir is unique.
"There's nothing else like it in the world. What's happening now and what's happened before is unbelievable. It's built around so many great people, from the music director to the organists to the choir members, to the orchestra and now the Bells at Temple Square."
That adds up to 612 volunteers, who combine with a paid staff of 11 members to create a remarkable organization. The great strength of it, Christensen believes, is that there are so many volunteers.
"They are here because they want to be here. And it shows in everything they do. They sing with their hearts and their souls — always upbeat, always smiling. There's not a prima donna among them; in fact, we have to be careful what we ask them to do, because whatever it is, they will do it."
It has been that way from the beginning.1 comment on this story
Sometimes, when Wilberg needs serenity and inspiration, he will wander around the Salt Lake Cemetery. On a recent visit, "just by accident, I came across the grave of Evan Stephens. I couldn't help but think that he would be dumbstruck, but very pleased, by what is going on with his choir now. It is a thrill to be part of such a great tradition. We each have our little time period, but we are only part of a long, long chain. We are always looking for ways to live up to the many shoulders that we stand on."
The new collection, and the tremendous legacy it represents, is one of those ways.