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30-year Tabernacle organist is retiring

He describes career as ‘rewarding, challenging’

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Tabernacle organist John Longhurst is the composer of "I Believe in Christ."

Tabernacle organist John Longhurst is the composer of “I Believe in Christ.”

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News

John Longhurst is used to questions that demonstrate how little people understand the work of a professional organist.

After this weekend, the questions will shift from "What is your day job?" to "What do you plan to do next?"

Longhurst, senior Tabernacle organist for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will accompany the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's Sunday morning broadcast and then retire after a 30-year career at Temple Square.

Longhurst wrote the music for one of the LDS Church's best-known hymns, "I Believe in Christ," and has been involved in Temple Square expansions and changes that included construction of the Conference Center and major renovations at the Tabernacle.

"Never in my wildest imagination could I have conceived of the change that I would see on Temple Square in 30 years," he said in reflection. "If an organist had a chance to write a script for his career, you couldn't come up with anything more exciting, rewarding, challenging — it's hard to find enough adjectives to describe it."

Longhurst, 67, earned his doctorate in music at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York and was on the music faculty at Brigham Young University when he received a call inviting him to audition for an opening on the Tabernacle music staff early in 1977.

Alexander Schreiner, legendary in the LDS Church as a composer and as a Tabernacle organist for more than 50 years, was preparing to retire.

"He had always been 'Brother Schreiner' or 'Dr. Schriener' to me because I'd studied with him for a number of years. I got two degrees under his tutelage at the University of Utah, and so I'd always addressed him rather formally."

Longhurst was chosen as Schreiner's replacement, and the two overlapped for several months before Schreiner's retirement date arrived.

"I recall we were at a concert one evening, and I saw him sitting there alone as I came in, so I sat down next to him and said, 'Good evening, Brother Schreiner,' and he said, 'My name is Alex.' I've not forgotten that, because all at once it said to me, 'We're equals now."'

There are eight pipe organs on Temple Square and a music staff that includes four full-time and two part-time organists. Being an organist in the church's best-known venue does engender "some sort of a reputation," Longhurst said modestly. But in a church where congregational organists are all volunteers, people often ask Longhurst how he could possibly make a career out of playing the organ.

"They see me 30 minutes on a Sunday morning and twice a year at General Conference, and they're wondering, 'What on Earth you could do as a full-time church employee.' So they have no concept of what there is beneath the surface."

Describing what happens "beneath the surface" has both figurative and literal components on Temple Square.

The west end of the recently renovated Tabernacle has offices for the music staff in space that used to house a baptistry and the blowers that fed air to the pipes of the mighty Tabernacle organ.

Organ blowers are now in a newly excavated sub-basement connected by hallways to a rehearsal hall situated under the lawn and flower beds between the Tabernacle and the Assembly Hall to the south. "I often say Temple Square is the most hallowed ground and the most hollowed ground," Longhurst said.

The Tabernacle renovation also included structural reinforcement of the trademark pipes facade, a shift in the location of pipes concealed inside the walls at the opposite end of the building and concrete-encased conduits for some of the airway piping.

Longhurst remembers his reaction to the announcement LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley made in April 1996 about plans for an expansive meeting hall, seating 21,000, that would replace the pioneer-era Tabernacle as the venue for the church's conferences and other large gatherings.

"My mind just began to reel," Longhurst recalls. "Obviously this space has to have an organ, but what in the world are we going to do with a space that size?

"So from the moment he made that announcement the gestation process began, at least in my mind. Of course, it had been a hot topic of conversation among the musical staff here at the Tabernacle. But very shortly after we were brought into the loop by the church architects, so we were able to do some constructive planning and thinking at that time."

A stack of blueprints, each with a different rendition of how the Conference Center organ might look, remain rolled up in a bookcase in Longhurst's office.

"We were contacted early on in the Conference Center project by the church architects for our input. It was quite an involved, intensive project for a number of years. It began with a very exhaustive research on what we felt the best solution for an organ for the Conference Center might be.

"We looked at electronic organs. We looked at combination pipe/electronic organs. We looked at pipe organs. We looked at new organs. We looked at old organs that were becoming available because the auditoriums in which they were housed were being demolished. It took us really from coast to coast.

"In fact, I even spent some time in England talking to some of the premier organ builders there, so we really tried to do our homework on this project.

"The first hurdle was to determine whether the instrument should be pipe or electronic. There were some who felt that because the room was so large that everything that happened there had to be reinforced; and you might as well have an electronic organ if you're going to have to reinforce it anyway.

He said further investigation indicated that an electronic organ was not the way to go.

"We felt very strongly as a musical staff that with the choir having had access to this instrument (the Tabernacle organ), which is world-class, to all of a sudden have their face to the world and the church be with an electronic organ was probably not the best. And having come to the conclusion that a pipe organ could be successful there, we were able to gain the support of the First Presidency in that recommendation. ...

"From that point on we had to choose a builder, and we were given pretty much free rein to work with the builder to determine what that organ should be."

"It was a very intensive project, a very rewarding project. I think the result of it all has very much met or even exceeded our fondest expectations."

There is a tendency for people to ask the Tabernacle organists which instrument they like better — the legendary Tabernacle organ or the new pipe organ in the Conference Center.

"The answer is 'Well, the organ that we're seated at at the moment,"' Longhurst said. "They are both exceptional instruments.

"There is no question that the Tabernacle organ is a landmark instrument for its builder and its style. We intentionally chose to go a little different route tonally for the Conference Center because of the size and scale of the building.

"We felt that the organ needed to be perhaps a little more heroic sounding; and we had to do more with less. The Conference Center organ is about two-thirds of the size of the Tabernacle organ in terms of its number of pipes."

In terms of the venue, "the Tabernacle is very difficult to beat. It's wonderful. The Conference Center is designed a little differently. It is designed primarily so that speech is intelligible throughout that auditorium, which works, some ways, to the disadvantage of music. But the audio/video people have been able to compensate for that, and we're able to perform over there very successfully," Longhurst said.

Temple Square's third-largest music venue, the Assembly Hall, also had a new organ installed during Longhurst's tenure. When the Hotel Utah was closed and reconfigured as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, it also was fitted with a pipe organ on which the Tabernacle organists perform.

As a composer, Longhurst's best-known work is the hymn "I Believe in Christ," which sets to music poetic verse written by Elder Bruce R. McConkie, who died in 1985, the same year the church published a revised copy of its hymnal, simply titled "Hymns."

"The 1985 hymnbook committee was nearing its publication deadline and came to me with this text of Elder McConkie's and said 'Would you be willing to make a musical setting of this for us to consider?"'

The original text had eight verses. The committee presented him with six. He reduced that to four and started working on the music while riding the bus home that evening. He gave the project the tune name "White City," which was the name of the bus route.

Elder McConkie was quite ill when Longhurst was setting the music, and the two did not collaborate. Longhurst did find out after submitting an arrangement to the music committee that "Elder McConkie wanted all eight verses of his poem included rather than the four I had set," Longhurst said.

The hymnbook project was on deadline. "I had nothing to do except a very desperate maneuver, which accounts for the form that the hymn currently has. You sing through it once and you come to a half cadence. Then you repeat it and come to a complete cadence, and that completes one verse of music that is actually two verses of text. So the four verses of the hymn as it is now published are actually all eight verses of Elder McConkie's poem."Really, the only occasion I had to speak with Elder McConkie on a personal basis was when he interviewed me for my mission. That was back in the time (1960) when general authorities interviewed prospective missionaries, and he happened to be the one who interviewed me. Little did I know that eventually I would have the privilege of setting this text, which is so beloved by members of the church throughout the world."

The other piece in "Hymns" Longhurst composed is titled "We're Not Ashamed To Own Our Lord" and isn't nearly as well-known.

"I've only heard it sung once. It was sung one Sunday in my ward, and I've never heard it since."

Composing and arranging are on Longhurst's lists of projects to pursue after he retires.

He and his wife, Nancy, also are building a new home, which will not be furnished with an organ.

"For most sized homes, including ours, the only thing that would fit would be an electronic instrument. I have found sitting in front of an electronic instrument that I become tonally fatigued very quickly," he said. "The electronic sound just is not satisfying and becomes fatiguing in a hurry. With a pipe organ, I can sit in front of a single set of pipes for hours on end without suffering that fatigue."

His four children had exposure to music at home, but none pursued it professionally. "They have all seen what the life of a professional musician is like and opted to go elsewhere," he said, smiling.

"Many of the performances occur at times when most people are with their families; so for my family it has been something of a sacrifice to have been apart so many times," he said. "It's just the nature of the job when you're in the entertainment business — you're entertaining when people are available to be entertained."

Making up for some of that time with family is a top priority on his list of post-retirement activities.

Longhurst also plans to thoroughly document the work that went into designing and building the Conference Center organ. "It makes sense that while we've got files full of information and the individuals who were principal in the project are still around and can contribute, it makes sense to do that documentation now rather than 100 years from now."

E-mail: sfidel@desnews.com