- The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography by Michael Hicks
With this volume, academic interest in Mormon musical culture unquestionably signals its arrival. This is not to say that notable studies have not preceded this one. On the contrary, Michael Hicks’s own Mormonism and Music: A History (Urbana: Uni versity of Illinois Press, 1989) still stands as the most sturdy and reliable resource on Mormon music to date. Hicks’s latest book, however, arrives at a time when cultural fascination with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is at its highest ever. What journalists began calling the “Mormon moment” peaked during Mitt Romney’s last bid for the White House, but the seemingly unstoppable force of The Book of Mormon both on Broadway and in international venues, and of fan-favorite Mormon YouTube sensations Lindsey Stirling and Alex Boye, suggests that a cultural rendezvous with Mormons continues strong. A fascination with this uniquely American religion hardly seems shocking; as The Mormon Taber nacle Choir: A Biography attests, it is nearly impossible to separate the study of Mormon ism from the study of American culture. Indeed, one demonstrable premise undergirding Mormon scholarship today is that to understand Mormons is in large part to begin to grasp what is America, and vice versa. Hicks’s book intersects neatly with this burgeoning preoccupation with Mormonism, not only telling the history of and anecdotes about the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but also using the ensemble Richard Nixon famously dubbed “America’s choir” to illuminate the shifting topography of the American cultural landscape.
Hicks tells the story of the Tabernacle Choir chronologically in eight tightly-written and eminently readable chapters. The first chapter, “Books and Angels,” explains how and why choral singing emerged in early Mormondom. Here Hicks places the infancy of what would eventually become the Tabernacle Choir at the nexus of the paradoxical Mormon dichotomy between the spoken and written word. As a religion founded on new scripture, yet furthered by the utterances of prophetic leaders, [End Page 522] the place of the spoken and written word in Mormon ism has often been contested. Rather than using this tension to theorize Mormon preoccupations with musical representation, Hicks patiently lays the foundation for a more straightforward and simpler historical account that privileges more traditional storytelling practices. Hicks uses this mode of traditional historical writing to position this chapter within the evolution of the Choir from purveyor of local musical needs to international cultural ambassador for the Church.
The remaining chapters detail the development of the Choir until the present day. Chapter 2 provides an interesting history of the Salt Lake City Tabernacle, home to the Choir for most of its life. Chapters 3 and 4 outline the changes and challenges the Choir faced while the Church was growing out of polygamy and into greater acceptance in the American values system. These two chapters span a remarkable period in the Church’s developing relationship with the rest of American culture. Even more fascinating is how the Choir helped push the image of the Church from that of backward outlier to what Hicks calls “the putative spokespeople for mainstream U.S. Christendom in music” (p. 73). It is this kind of rags-to-riches narrative that places the Tabernacle Choir and its namesake Church squarely within that appreciable vein of Emersonian ideology considered so keenly American. It is also a story largely unknown, even among those familiar with Mormon history, and its appearance here makes for an exciting and enticing read.
Leadership changes within the Choir and increasing friction between that leadership and the general leadership of the Mormon Church occupy the rest of the chapters. The Church and Choir have rather successfully held differing notions of the Choir’s autonomy and its purpose and relationship with the broader Church in balance over the years. Still, as Hicks recounts, this tension has pushed and prodded the Choir’s repertoire, resulting in recordings that...