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by Michael Hicks
Throughout the Church's history, music has always permeated the assemblies of the Saints and has energized their pursuit of spiritual and cultural betterment. The diversity of styles in the Church is echoed in the diversity of roles that music plays in LDS life.
As in many churches, congregational hymns open and close most ecclesiastical gatherings. In many LDS meetings instrumental music (most often organ) provides preludes, interludes, and postludes. Choral music is produced by many ward and stake choirs, and the Church's well-known Mormon Tabernacle Choir is heard internationally on the weekly "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcast. Music also brightens most ward and stake social activities, such as cultural nights, parties, pageants, roadshows, dances and dance festivals, as well as family reunions and family home evenings. Music of various styles regularly enhances Church productions designed to educate and proselytize through mass media, including audio and video tapes, films, filmstrips, commercials and programs for radio and television. Amid this diversity of musical endeavors, composers and performers usually follow the cooperative principles of early Mormonism, giving of their talents in anticipation of spiritual rewardsand also for their own enjoyment.
Although some American Christian churches historically have held conflicting views on music, a revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith in July 1830 (D&C 25) likened "the song of the righteous" to prayer, confirming the propriety of vocal music for worship. With this foundation, the Prophet formed a Church "singing department" in 1835 to teach note reading and vocal technique. In Nauvoo, and later in Utah, musical standards rose as several well-trained British musicians were converted to the Church and immigrated to the United States. These converts helped establish the propriety of instrumental music for worship, a matter not addressed in the 1830 revelation. Although congregational and choral singing clearly prevailed in the Church, instrumental music soon came to accompany it. Wind, brass, and string bands also proliferated in LDS culture, accompanying the military, recreational, and civic exercises of the Saints.
In pioneer Utah several relatively short-lived associations, including the Deseret Musical Association and the Deseret Philharmonic Society, collected musical scores, created a territorial roster of musicians, and disseminated new pedagogical techniques. At the same time, the Saints founded a number of musical businesses that imported instruments and sheet music into the Great Basin in Utah. Meanwhile, Brigham Young sent some of the Church's most skilled musicians, notably C. J. Thomas, on colonizing missions in the 1860s to ensure that the art would flourish even in outlying LDS settlements. From the 1870s through 1920, the Sunday School and other Church auxiliaries gradually assumed leadership in musical training, providing singing lessons and band memberships for young Latter-day Saints as well as publishing a large amount of newly composed music.
Little attempt was made to correlate or standardize LDS musical affairs until 1920, when President Heber J. Grant appointed a General Music Committee for the Church. Primarily consisting of musicians connected with the Salt Lake Tabernacle, the committee assumed the tasks of evaluating styles of music appropriate to worship, recommending what types of instruments (predominantly the piano and organ) should be played in Church meetings, overseeing the production of hymnals, and fostering musical education. In this last regard, the committee endeavored to train Church musicians in several ways, including hiring professionals to teach in wards and stakes, publishing manuals of choral conducting and organ technique, and issuing music newsletters. Throughout its history, much of the committee's effort went into directing the work of stake and ward music committees. In the 1970s the committee was succeeded by the Music Department (later Music Division) of the Church.
President Brigham Young set the tone for official LDS statements on music, defining it as a "magic power" that could "fill the air with harmony, and cheer and comfort the hearts of men, and so wonderfully affect the brute creation" (JD 1:48). Since his time, General Authorities of the Church have continued to praise music as a soothing influence, a purifier of thought, and a uniter of hearts. The type of music most consistently endorsed has been sacred vocal music prepared especially for LDS worship. LDS composers have written hundreds of hymns and anthems and have created many large-scale, sometimes modernistic sacred works, such as Evan Stephens's "dramatic cantatas" of the 1920s and the numerous oratorios composed since, which usually treat specifically LDS themes, for example, the Restoration oratorios of B. Cecil Gates and Merrill Bradshaw, Crawford Gates's Salvation for the Dead, and Leroy Robertson's Oratorio from the Book of Mormon. Moreover, beginning in Brigham Young's day, a strong tradition of theater music has developed among the Saints, one that has fostered the composition of musical scores both for commemorative pageants (e.g., those at Palmyra, New York; Nauvoo, Illinois; and Manti, Utah) and lighter stage works such as the pioneer centennial production Promised Valley, and also a host of youth-oriented musicals in the 1970s and 1980s.
A few stylistic issues have surfaced in the twentieth century. Some Church authorities have advised against certain popular styles of music, citing their loudness, their rhythmic intensity, and the indecency of some of their lyrics; members are counseled to be wise in selecting their recreational music. Questions also have been raised over the propriety of using styles of music found outside the hymnal in worship services. Nevertheless, in nonliturgical settings, ethnic religious music thrives and some LDS songwriters have adapted soft rock music for informal religious use. Much of this music has found its way into Church-sponsored songbooks and cassettes and into privately produced recordings for young Latter-day Saints.
The enduring value of much music indigenous to the Church is difficult to predict. On the one hand, the vernacular music often echoes the more ephemeral styles of denominational Christian music. On the other hand, some impressive settings have emerged from the hymnody of the Church, and some of the larger works manifest a continuing increase in sophistication. Furthermore, the extensive use of worship music borrowed from other Christian traditions unites the Saints to a larger fellowship of believers. Above all, the sheer abundance of music in the Church reveals how untiring are the aesthetic impulses of its members. Whether or not a distinctively LDS style emerges, music of many styles undoubtedly will continue to inspire the Saints.
Hicks, Michael. Mormonism and Music: A History. Urbana, Ill., 1989.
Purdy, William Earl. "Music in Mormon Culture, 1830-1876." Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1960.
Slaughter, Jay L. "The Role of Music in the Mormon Church, School, and Life." Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1964.
Some General Recommendations Concerning Music in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, 1950; 2nd ed., 1962.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, Music
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company
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