In chronicling the life and times of the Oratorio Society of Utah, Marcus Smith has taken the holistic approach - that you can't disentangle a singing society from its surroundings.
Accordingly, this book addresses not only the society's history but gives a remarkably complete look at the parallel vocal scene in Utah, in a more accessible and objective way than I recall ever seeing before. Moreover, it's interesting reading, the sort of book you take up for entertainment as much as information. But informative it surely is, a new resource book on a subject that no other historian has heretofore addressed, and no Utah musical library should be without it.The author is the nephew of Edith Smith Anderson. She in turn is the widow of Dr. Howard T. Anderson, who sang in the society's first "Messiah" and was a long-term diligent supporter, serving as society president for a number of years. Mrs. Anderson's remarkably complete collection of Oratorio Society programs, clippings, newspaper articles and assorted memorabilia made possible the extraordinary chronology in this book.
But Smith has also combed a vast array of other sources to compile his lively history - not only of choral music in Utah, but of symphonic music, especially as it relates to choral music. Especially good is a musical journey from the pioneer Bowery and Social Hall through mid and late 19th century, where one encounters Dominico Ballo and David O. Calder, George and Lavinia Careless, Evan Stephens and a host of others. Every player is identified with at least a short explanatory sentence.
Reading all this reinforces the impression that music was a thriving and well-loved enterprise as Utah entered the 20th century. Events were taking place in a half-dozen venues around town, Utahns were touring and studying abroad, and Salt Lake City was rapidly maturing as a center of culture and art. Indeed, after little more than 50 years' existence, it was a lot less provincial place than many an Eastern city of the time.
Before 1915, the city had had four renditions of "Messiah" - in 1875, with the Handel and Haydn Society, in 1907 with an augmented Tabernacle Choir and the Chicago Symphony led by Evan Stephens, and Squire Coop's University of Utah Musical Society in 1913.
Like its many short-lived predecessors, the Salt Lake Oratorio Society, as it was first known, grew out of a conviction that there should be a non-denominational chorus parallel to the prestigious Tabernacle Choir, with equal singing opportunities for all. When the charismatic Coop took over, "Messiah" became annual, save for the war years 1942-44.
The society's survival has depended upon persistence and inspiration. Squire Coop's fortunes and misfortunes, the development from local soloists to national and international, addition of name conductors, beginnings of broadcasting (1929) are all discussed. You can read about almost every individual "Messiah" of the 72 so far performed.
An excellent appendix lists each performance, with conductors, soloists, organists and numbers of choristers (as few as 150 and up to 500, usually hovering around 300). Exceptional features such as broadcasts or tours are also noted, right up to 1987. Until the mid-'60s, the usual date was at New Year's or just before. "Messiah" moved into the Tabernacle in 1920 and has never left.
There's information about the society's other choral efforts, such as "The Creation" at sunset on the steps of the Park Building at the University (1920-29). A large collection of pictures gives faces to many heretofore known only by name, and everyone who has ever sung with the chorus is listed (risky business, since a few will inevitably be left out).
The book's title is derived from a somewhat flowery vision of a "Messiah" performance, which Squire Coop wrote for the Deseret News of Dec. 16, 1916.