"The pick and flower of England" is what 19th Century British author Charles Dickens called a group of Latter-day Saint emigrants on the ship Amazon bound for the United States and the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
Among the scenes he described in The Uncommercial Traveler was the Mormons' singing of a hymn from a volume called Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.The singing, Dickens wrote, "did not attract any great amount of attention, and was supported by a rather select circle. But the choir in the boat was very popular and pleasant; and there was to have been a band, only the cornet was late in coming on board."
This and other scenes witnessed by Dickens changed his preconceived, negative notions about the British saints. "I went on board their ship to bear testimony against them if they deserved it, as I fully believed they would; to my great astonishment they did not deserve it; and my predispositions and tendencies must not affect me as an honest witness," he wrote. "I went over to the Amazon's side, feeling it impossible to deny that, so far, some remarkable influence had produced a remarkable result, which better known influences have often missed."
The incident illustrates the integral part that music has played in LDS worship from the beginning of this dispensation, and the favorable impression Mormon music has created among many an outside observer, whether it be Dickens in the last century or one of today's admirers of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
This month marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment in September 1920 of the General Music Committee of the Church. Organized under the direction of President Heber J. Grant, the committee had as its purpose "direction in developing the music potential of the Church and keeping it in harmony with the principles of the restored gospel," according to Tracy Y. Cannon one of its original members. (See The Improvement Era, November 1956, p. 814.)
It is not only an occasion to observe that anniversary, but also to celebrate the legacy of music in general, affirmed Michael F. Moody, committee chairman.
"Music in the restored Church really began in 1830," he pointed out. "One of the first revelations after the Church was organized - Section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants - instructed Emma Smith to compile sacred hymns." (See verse 11.)
Following her divine commission, the Prophet's wife produced the Church's first hymnal in 1835. It contained 90 hymns with text only, the tunes being generally familiar to the Church membership. LDS authors wrote 39 of the 90 hymn texts. About one-third of the hymns are still used in the Church today, including "Now Let Us Rejoice," "Redeemer of Israel," "The Spirit of God," and "How Firm a Foundation."
That first volume was followed by a succession of hymnals that form a historical string linking the development of the LDS musical culture.
Probably the most important hymnal in the early days, Brother Moody said, was what has come to be called the Manchester hymnal, the one that Dickens identified in his account. Published in 1840, it went through 24 editions and was used for 87 years. It contained a preface signed by Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor, signifying the importance the Church leaders placed upon sacred music. It was printed in England because printing presses were more readily accessible than in the United States.
Another landmark hymnal was LDS Psalmody, published in the United States in 1889. Brother Moody said it reflected a desire on the part of Church members to have their own indigenous hymns; virtually every work in it was written and composed by Latter-day Saints. Its compilers - George Careless, Ebenezer Beesley, Joseph J. Daynes, Evan Stephens - composed some of the best-loved hymns in the Church.
A blending of musical styles resulted from the British and American influences in the Church, explained Brother Moody, with U.S. converts bringing with them a tradition of American gospel music and British converts contributing a tradition of English hymnody. Hymns in the Church today reflect that amalgamation of styles, he added.
In 1908, the Northern States Mission, headquartered in Chicago, produced a hymnbook called Songs of Zion as a proselyting tool. It contained 100 American gospel-type hymns, such as "Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel," an attempt, Brother Moody said, "to address the sectarian world on its own terms."
The following year, the Church's Deseret Sunday School Union published a hymnal, patterned after Songs of Zion. The "Sunday School song book" turned out to be the most popular hymnal in the Church. Even after 1927, the year the General Music Committee published Latter-day Saint Hymns (commonly called "the green hymnbook), intended to combine the best of previous hymnals, the Sunday School book continued to outsell other Church hymnbooks, Brother Moody said.
Not until 1948 did the committee combine the best of the two books into a single volume. With its content altered somewhat in 1950, the blue-covered hymnbook, familiar to most of today's Church members, lasted until 1985, when the current hymnbook was published.
Compiled in close consultation with Church leaders, the new hymnbook has been well received and has held up well in its five years of existence, Brother Moody said. It reflects not only traditional influences but contains newly composed hymns representing the current period, both musically and textually, he explained.
Producing hymnals is just one of the duties the General Music Committee has shouldered over the past 70 years.
When organized in 1920, the committee set up these objectives: correlation of the music program of the Church; advancement of congregational singing; recommendation of good, appropriate music literature; training of music leadership; organization of ward choirs; and encouragement of home composers.
The objectives remain essentially the same today, Brother Moody said.
Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Council of the Twelve chaired the original committee, with George D. Pyper, Edward P. Kimball, Anthony C. Lund, Tracy Y. Cannon, John J. McClellan, Evan Stephens, George Careless, B. Cecil Gates, Lizzie Thomas Edward, Joseph Ballantyne, Margaret Summerhays and Jane R. Crawford as members.
Brother Cannon became chairman in 1939 and was replaced by Leroy Robertson in 1962. During that period, apostles Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball and Mark E. Petersen were advisers.
In 1969, the concept of the committee was changed to conform to the Churchwide Priesthood Correlation program. Elder Petersen served as chairman, with a managing director, assistant managing director, three committee members, eight associates and three consulting advisers.
Elder O. Leslie Stone of the First Council of the Seventy became managing director of the Church Music Department in 1972, with apostles Mark E. Petersen and Boyd K. Packer as advisers. Elder Thomas S. Monson of the Council of the Twelve replaced Elder Packer as adviser in 1975. The Music Department included not only the Music Committee but the Tabernacle Choir and organists and the Mormon Youth Symphony and Chorus as well.
In 1973, A. Harold Goodman was called as the chairman of an executive committee over Church music, assisted by James A. Mason and Robert Cundick. At one point, committee and subcommittee members totaled 55.
In 1977, the Music Department was reorganized, the large committee released, and its executive secretary, Michael F. Moody, was made the director of the Music Division and chairman of the General Music Committee.
Since 1977, General Authority advisers to the General Music Committee have been Elders Dean L. Larsen, Robert L. Backman, Hugh W. Pinnock, Paul H. Dunn and currently, Gardner H. Russell.
The 11-member committee today is composed of Brother Moody, Suzanne Sorensen, Mary Beth Anderson, Wendell R. Hurst, Stanley John Zenk, Roger L Miller, Grietje Rowley, Howard Jarolde Harris, Marilyn Sharp, W. Herbert Klopfer and A. Laurence Lyon.
Today's committee is less apt to meet together as a large group. Members work individually on specific projects, such as coordinating choirs on Temple Square, developing a new basic music course, reviewing newly composed music, and editing music materials used by the Church.
The committee sponsors an annual music writing contest.
Projects of the committee currently under way include translation of the hymnbook into the standard languages in the Church. A pamphlet titled "Selected Hymns" contains 60 hymns from the hymnbook. It is a prototype for translation into new languages in which Church curriculum materials are just being made available.
Also, the committee is developing a basic music course designed to teach conducting and keyboard skills at the most elementary level. It will be particularly useful in areas where the Church is developing.
An overarching aim of the committee, Brother Moody said, is to encourage the enjoyment of Church music among all members, even those who may feel they have little or no musical talent.
President Heber J. Grant, under whose direction the committee was organized in 1920, is a such a person, he said. Often derided for his lack of musical talent, President Grant practiced until he developed the ability to sing.
"Nobody knows the joy I have taken in standing up in the Tabernacle and other places and joining in the singing," he said in April 1901 general conference, "because it used to be a perfect annoyance to me to try and to fail; because I loved the words of the songs of Zion."