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Tabernacle Choir part of Utah heritage

Uplifting music has been a part of Utah's heritage from the start, and is best exemplified by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The second LDS Church president, Brigham Young, made sure that every wagon company of Mormon pioneers crossing the plains included a cooper to fix wagon wheels and a musician to boost spirits.

For more than 150 years, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed at almost every major historical event in the state's history with the exception of the pioneers' arrival in the valley. That's because the choir's first performance didn't occur until 29 days later, on Aug. 22, 1847, at the first church conference held in the valley.

That first choir was much smaller than the 360-voice group that now performs at every general conference and that has broadcast its trademark sound from Temple Square every Sunday for the past 80 years. That makes it the oldest continuous nationwide broadcast in the United States.

From those humble beginnings, the choir now regularly reaches an audience of millions during twice-yearly general conferences. More than a billion people tuned in to hear the choir sing during the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games.

Deseret News photographers have captured much of the history of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Several of those photographs have been culled from the newspaper's archives by photo researcher Ronald Fox, and they can be viewed at www.deseretnews.com.

Originally a small, undisciplined group of singers, the choir as we now know it began to take shape under the direction of George Careless, who was appointed the director in 1869.

Careless assembled the first large choir, a total of 304 singers, by adding smaller groups from other areas to the 85 singers in the Salt Lake Tabernacle Choir for a general conference performance on Oct. 8, 1873, while the building was still under construction. At that point, the Tabernacle had a choir to match its size and legendary acoustics.

The choir burst onto the world stage in 1893, when choir members traveled to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where they won second place in competition and national acclaim that has never since abated.

In 1911, the choir embarked on another historic tour, performing at the White House for the first time, at the request of President William Howard Taft. The choir subsequently gave White House performances for presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.

The 1911 tour also included performances at the historic New York City Hippodrome Theater, which at the time was billed as the world's largest theater. The group also boarded the battleship USS Utah to accompany the presentation of the state-donated silver service, which was used for formal dinners when ship's officers entertained dignitaries in foreign ports.

Over the years, the choir has participated in 13 World's Fairs and Expositions, and it has performed in 28 different countries, appearing in the great concert halls of North and South America, Europe, Asia and the Pacific.

Choir members have performed before a total of 10 U.S. presidents and participated in five inaugurations. After the choir sang at President Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981, Reagan dubbed it "America's Choir." This appropriate name has stuck, based on the choir's popularity and broad appeal to members of every faith and culture for more than 150 years.

In 1929, the weekly radio program "Music and the Spoken Word" began broadcasting the choir's songs. The group appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1958. On July 23, 1962, the choir participated in a historic telecast via satellite to Europe from Mount Rushmore.

While the choir is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is completely self-funded, traveling and producing albums to support its activities.

Since the 1960s, several of its recordings have attained gold or platinum status. In 1959, the choir received a Grammy Award for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." And in 1987, they won an Emmy Award for "Christmas Sampler."

Over the years, thousands of Utahns have sung for the choir, which now allows participants ages 25 to 60. Choir members are currently limited to 20 years of participation.

E-MAIL: marchaddock@utwire.com