Richard Elliott: Making The King of Instruments Dance

The two musical passions in young Richard Elliott’s life were discordant opposites. On Saturday nights, he wore glittery outfits and played keyboard in a rock group. The next morning, he slid onto the organ bench in the local Lutheran church and played hymns for the service. As this budding performer straddled the spectrum of musical expression, the contrast allowed him to learn about himself as a musician. He began to feel that his music shone most brilliantly when it was coupled with spirituality. “Popular music can help people escape their problems momentarily,” he mused, “but the spiritual hymns seem to do something more—they help people to face up and conquer their problems.” This epiphany set a foundation for the rest of Richard’s life and ultimately put him on the path to becoming the principal organist for the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

During high school Richard decided to pursue a serious study of the organ and embarked on his musical studies at the Peabody Conservatory. In college, he majored in organ performance, studying at the Catholic University of America and the Curtis Institute of Music, from which he received the bachelor of music degree.

It was while he was a student at Curtis that Richard began to seriously consider membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Baptized the week of his graduation ceremony, he soon decided to serve a volunteer mission in Argentina. In a relatively short number of years, Richard had undergone a drastic transformation from rock musician to Mormon missionary. After his mission he returned to school at the Eastman School of Music, where he received master of music and doctor of musical arts degrees.

Now 56, Richard Elliott still has a flair for performance that has helped make him a popular organist in addition to a respected one. His original solo arrangement of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” for instance, has almost half a million YouTube hits. To the audience’s delighted gasps and laughs, Richard plays most of the song with his feet. With athletic dexterity, he plays the rapid melody with his right foot and the bass line with his left. “It’s my goal to make the organ dance,” he says. One wonders if this knack for performance is from his younger years on stage with his band. But whatever its origin, his rockstar-like showmanship generates new enthusiasm for a long-overlooked instrument.

And that is precisely what Richard intends to do. “I have always wanted to win friends for the organ,” he says. He has a personal vendetta against pop culture’s negative portrayal of his favorite instrument. “A lot of people associate the organ with Halloween or with funerals. People tend to think that it always has a very slow or somber sound,” Richard says. “Even Hollywood movies have a tendency to make the organ the instrument of spooky characters like in the Phantom of the Opera.” He says the organ has not always been so vilified. “If you go back in time, you’ll find that it was a well-respected instrument. Mozart called the organ the ‘King of Instruments.’ In his era, the two most impressive feats of human engineering were considered to be the mechanical clock and the pipe organ.” It is one of Richard’s lifetime goals to redeem for the organ a portion of its former glory. His fans would argue that he is doing a fine job.

One of the ways Richard is achieving this is by injecting his organ music with the sounds and motifs of popular music. In his personal time, he rarely listens to organ music. Instead, he listens to many other types of music in order to infuse these into his musical style. “I feel that to be a good organist, one really needs to be listening to a lot of other things. That way I learn to make the organ more expressive than I could if I listened to only organ music,” Richard says. By gleaning inspiration from all of these genres, he is able to make organ music more accessible to the mainstream listener. His musical eclecticism explains the origins of popular arrangements like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” two pieces where Richard waxes jazzy, or his original arrangement, “Holiday Hoedown,” where he incorporates the sounds and style of fiddle music to give a western sound to a Christmas jingle.

Both Richard’s ability as a performer and his genre-defying experimentation make him uniquely qualified to help the Mormon Tabernacle Choir appeal more to younger audiences.

The Tabernacle Choir music director Mack Wilberg says, “Richard’s genius is unquestionable. Richard plays so masterfully that the organ seems only to be an extension of his person. I think he was made to play that instrument.” Richard has received the praise of many of his colleagues, including the Crystal Cathedral’s Frederick Swann and Michael Barone, host of Minnesota Public Radio’s Pipedreams organ program.

Richard Elliott has been a full-time Tabernacle organist since 1991 and the principal organist for the Choir since 2007. He and a staff of four other organists share the burden of a full schedule. The staff cooperates to play for daily recitals in the Tabernacle (twice daily during the summer), weekly broadcasts of the famous Music & the Spoken Word, and at the semiannual general conferences of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In addition to these duties on Temple Square, Richard also hits the road, traveling to perform for audiences worldwide. In the course of his tours, he has been invited to play in some of the world’s most prestigious venues.

When he is not playing the organ, he enjoys hiking with his family. He is married to Elizabeth Cox Ballantyne, a talented pianist in her own right.  They have two sons, both of whom play the piano as well as other instruments.