I have had the opportunity to have a career as a teacher and performer of great music. Few people can say that they have a job they are looking forward to each and every day of their lives, as I have. For nearly 50 years, I have been in the profession of music.
In that time, I have enjoyed a happy mix of teaching singing, and performing as a singer of classical music professionally in nearly 100 opera and oratorio roles, and numerous recitals and orchestra concerts.
Great music is a spiritual experience, and although the kind of music that brings tears to one person's eye, may not be the same that puts a lump in the throat of another.
Great music is in the ear and the eye of the beholder. Great music can increase our knowledge of the gospel as well as build testimonies.
Aside from folk music, which was passed from generation to generation by the aural tradition, composed music was initially essentially written for religious services and was based on religious texts. Some of our greatest music serves religion. There is the great "Messiah" by George Frideric Handel, the "Verdi Requiem" and Johann Bach's wonderful B Minor Mass, to name just three of the great religious works.
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is a large amount of music, and there is a great emphasis on music in our services. Church music helps highlight the word of God, because so much of it is based upon the scriptures.
Music can motivate us to do good works, and can also stimulate better ambition and work habits with more productivity in our lives and in the work force.
From early on, my wife and I wanted our children to experience the stately grandeur of Johann Sebastian Bach, the passionate intensity of Ludwig van Beethoven, the driving majesty of Richard Wagner and the lighthearted gaiety of a musical to the solemn devotion of a hymn. We wanted them to appreciate the great masters by experiencing their music, and if possible, even learn by participating.
Music teaches us a pure form of worship and draws us nearer to our Heavenly Father.
In Doctrine and Covenants 25, in a directive to Emma Smith to compile a hymnal, the Lord said: "lay aside the things of this world, and seek for the things of a better ... For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads."
When I was still living in Utah and learning to sing, I had a great mentor whose guidance and advice helped me throughout my life.
Maurice Abravanel was the wonderful music director of the Utah Symphony Orchestra. He was one of the driving forces that brought the Utah Symphony out of obscurity and into national and even international limelight. Although he could, on many occasions, have accepted more prestigious posts, he chose to stay in Utah and half jokingly called himself an honorary Mormon, even though he was not a member of any church.
He took me under his wing and gave me advice and many opportunities to perform with his orchestra, which was at the time playing their concerts in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. They now play in the magnificent Abravanel Concert Hall, of course named after him.
Shortly before he passed away, my wife and I were in Salt Lake City and we took him out to lunch, where we reminisced about music and life in general. His parting words to me as we dropped him off at home were, "Roy, let me give you some very good advice:
"Try to live until you are 80, because then people will think you are so very wise."
I still remember his wonderful French accent as he told me that. I am rapidly getting there in age, but as far as the wisdom part is concerned, I am not so sure.
Since he never learned to drive a car, I often had the opportunity to pick him up for rehearsals. During one of those drives, he confided in me that he was basically an agnostic and really did not believe in any higher authority.
Later, as I again picked him up, I had the car radio tuned to the classical music station, and they were playing a section from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's great opera "The Magic Flute." He listened for a while and then quietly said, "This music could not have been composed by man alone without some inspiration from a higher authority." I cheered inwardly because I also think great music as well as great art is inspired.
Just think of Michelangelo Buonarroti's famous sculptures, "David" and "The Pietá." I have seen them both and it just simply has to be inspired. That day he showed that he was not really an agnostic after all. I don't really believe anyone really is when it comes down to it.
That lesson was taught to me some years earlier when I was in basic training as a draftee in the Army. Toward the end of our training we had to go on very long, difficult and taxing hike with full gear, including our M1 rifle. At the end of this long hike in the heat and dust, we finally came to our stop for the evening. We pitched camp and had "chow."
Chow is what the Army called the stuff they gave us as food — but when you are hungry you eat almost anything. After we had "chowed down," six or eight of us LDS draftees moved 100 feet or so away from the camp, pulled out the pocket-sized hymnals we had been given, and began quietly singing hymns in harmony, including No. 98, "I Need the Every Hour." After a few minutes of singing, we looked around and other soldiers started forming a ring around us, quietly listening. Gone was the rough language and the sometimes rude behavior.
After about 30 to 40 minutes of singing, there were perhaps three or four dozen young soldiers listening to us. We sang more, including "Abide with Me; 'Tis Eventide," then quietly uttered a short prayer and went to our tents to get some sleep.
It was amazing how as we sang, we had what seemed like a spiritual umbrella over us. It clearly showed the power that singing good hymns could have.
I have often thought of this amazing spiritual experience, when I, as a professional singer, performed concerts and operas in big opera houses and certainly much more formal venues throughout the nation and indeed in the world.
I think of the numerous times I stood on the side of the stage or behind the curtain waiting for my turn to perform. Just before I go on stage, I almost always try to find a quiet place to utter a silent prayer of gratitude to God for the opportunity I have been given to perform glorious and inspired music, and for the audience who have come to listen. I am always very aware that I been given a gift, and that it is my duty to share that with the listener to the best of my ability.
I was invited to perform many times with Abravanel and the Utah Symphony, including the opportunity to perform and record the world premier of the beautiful "Book of Mormon Oratorio" by LDS composer LeRoy Robertson, in which I sang the main character of Samuel the Lamanite.
Later, Abravanel gave me the opportunity to sing and record the role of Manoah in Handel's great oratorio, Samson. Samson was sung by none other than the famous tenor Jan Peerce from the Metropolitan Opera and the wonderful Phyllis Curtin as the Philistine Woman.
Maestro Abravanel was truly a great man, and I was so fortunate to be frequently invited to work with him. Wagner's music is a special love of mine and I have had the opportunity to perform several great Wagnarian opera roles.
One such time, was when I was engaged by the Boston Lyric Opera to sing the long and taxing role of Hagen in Götterdämmerung, the last of the four long operas in Wagner's famous Ring Cycle.
We performed it first in Boston and then a couple of weeks later in New York City. After the 4 1/2-hour long opera, Siegfried, Brunnhilde and I as Hagen — the three main roles — walked out to thunderous applause that seemingly would not end. Performers, of course, thrive on applause, which indicates audience approval.
We were called back many times and after about 10 minutes went to our dressing rooms and began to take off our makeup and costumes, only to be called back on stage for more applause. After it was over, I offered a prayer of gratitude for this truly great and inspired music, and for the guidance I had received in preparing and singing this music.
In the spring of 1978, I was engaged by Brigham Young University to perform the brand new oratorio, “The Redeemer,” with the text from 3 Nephi. Robert Cundick, one of the Tabernacle organists at the time, wrote it. It was to be conducted by Ralph Woodward of the BYU music faculty and was to be performed at BYU first, and a couple of weeks later in the Tabernacle on Temple Square. The chorus was a combined BYU chorus and accompanied by the BYU orchestra.
I was sent a vocal score and began preparing the beautiful music, with some of our favorite words from 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon as the libretto. I was to sing the role of Jesus as he came to this continent to proclaim his Atonement and teach his other sheep. In John 10:16 we read: "And other sheep I have ... and they shall hear my voice."
I remember sitting at the piano learning a beautiful aria which began as Jesus Christ was fulfilling his promise that "they shall hear my voice," with the great words: "Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world" (see 3 Nephi 11:10).
I still recall the many times I would choke up as I was trying to sing, with tears in my eyes. I was overwhelmed with emotion as I went on: "Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet ... " (see 3 Nephi 11:14). I eventually was able overcome my emotions enough to sing through the whole role without weeping, and traveled to Utah for the performances.
It was performed in the Gerrit de Jong Concert Hall on the campus of BYU, and the chorus and soloists were dressed in robes of slightly different colors, mine being white. We were arranged on platforms of different heights, and I was place in the middle on the highest platform.
My oldest son, Eric Samuelsen, was in the chorus and because of his height, he was placed in the back next to a beautiful and tall girl named Annette. They have now been married nearly 30 years, and have given us four wonderful grandchildren.
As we performed, the lights would change and focus on different soloist as they sang. When I stepped up on my platform and began singing, "Behold, I am Jesus Christ ... ,” the spotlight came on full bright right on me. It was an overwhelming feeling, but I managed to sing all my cues without choking.
An hour or so later, the oratorio ended very quietly with an "amen," and the lights dimmed as the curtain slowly lowered. As the final chord from the orchestra faded out, the whole theater was totally quiet.
The chorus members, instead of leaving the stage, quietly sat down on their platforms, hugging each other and weeping. After some minutes, I slowly made my way off the stage and out in to the hallway next to the stage. There I met some colleagues and friends and we had a subdued conversation.
Ten or 15 minutes later, I looked out on the stage again and to my amazement, most of the chorus was still there — quietly whispering and hugging each other. I then looked out into the auditorium and much of the audience was also still sitting there in stunned silence.
These two were very different musical experiences. I was blessed to be part of performing two truly inspired compositions, both with great public acclaim: one with the traditional applause and bravos, and the other with overwhelming spiritual silence.
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I often wonder which spoke the loudest. I think I know.
This is how great music can affect us if just open ourselves up and invite the Spirit to be present.
"If there is anything virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things" (Articles of Faith 13).
Note: This was originally given as a talk at a young single adult conference in Indiana.
Roy Samuelsen retired from the Indiana University School of Music after 32 years on the faculty and lives in Bloomington, Ind.