The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A Biography.
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: University 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 Tabernacle Choir: A Biography attests, it is nearly impossible to separate the study of Mormonism 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, the place of the spoken and written word in Mormonism 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 oudier 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 run the gamut of choral literature, from hymns to large-scale sacred pieces, and from world music to the biggest hits from Broadway musicals. With each change of leadership, the Choir likewise has reinvented itself to meet new challenges and expectations. As the Church faced allegations of racism in the 1970s, for example, the Choir responded with repertoire changes and the inclusion of black performers in its otherwise exclusively white ranks. Although Hicks does not say it in so many words, it seems fair to acknowledge the Choir's adaptability to changing social ideals whenever the Church itself was not able or ready to make such changes. For those reasons, the Choir has evolved into the Mormon vanguard, bearing the image of a Mormon faith open to and capable of adaptation when, unfortunately, that has not always actually been the case.
This is the first full treatment of the history of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but it is not an exhaustive account. Hicks uses the scarcity of available information on the Choir to his advantage, skirting past issues of sexual politics and racial discourse embedded within the history of the Church in order to focus on the subject at hand: the evolution of one of the most remarkable choirs in modern history. Bypassing issues that could quickly and easily take over his text (such as the apparent homosexuality of one of the Choir's early conductors), Hicks leaves those discussions for other studies and thereby keeps his book not only remarkably readable but commendably buoyant. This can be both a delight and a frustration for readers. Along with increased and largely unprecedented global attention, Mormons have also had to deal with a somewhat problematic history. As such, more than a few writers have been eager to point out social and political ironies within the Church's history. If readers pick up Hicks's book looking for more of such tales, they largely will be disappointed.
That is not to say this book is not critical at times. While he could scarcely be called an impartial writer, Hicks nonetheless demonstrates a candid evenhandedness with the material, occasionally even revealing disharmonious relationships within the idealized and revered Church hierarchy by placing the Choir and its repertoire squarely within the crosshairs of a Church constantly battling its image and its past. This book then fits somewhere between a critical history of the Mormon Church and a biography of the Choir. Hicks's deft navigating of these two positions makes the book work well, presumably appealing to a broad audience of choral enthusiasts, Mormon scholars, and musicologists interested in American culture. One note of caution to readers is that the language and structure of the Mormon Church can be confusing and bumbling, and those unfamiliar with the particularities of the faith will not find much help with such things in this book. An appendix or brief overview of the hierarchical offices within the Mormon Church would have been a helpful inclusion for some readers, though such an absence should not preclude the inquisitive from picking up the book. The author's beautiful handling of the main text more than makes up for such perceived shortfalls.
While the Mormon Church struggles to find its place in a postmodern world, Mormon culture continues to demonstrate the rich outcome of such tension. In some ways, Hicks's book suggests that perhaps part of the greatness of the Tabernacle Choir comes from its place within the paradoxical atmosphere of the Mormon faith. As long as such contradictions continue in the Mormon tradition, then it seems readers and listeners likewise will have the great privilege of enjoying the fruits of Mormon scholarship and music for quite some time.
University of California, Los Angeles