A Musical Program of Faith and Devotion
When the Mormon Tabernacle Choir goes on tour, it showcases a broad range of musical styles and genres—literally, from Bach to Broadway. But on the Choir's 2016 tour of Central and Western Europe, the program is much more than just a pot-pourri collection of favorites. Mack Wilberg and Ryan Murphy have carefully crafted a unified program that demonstrates the Choir's remarkable versatility while also taking the audience on a musical journey of faith and devotion.
The first half of the tour program is conceived as a unit in itself, unbroken by audience applause, that presents sacred music from across the centuries. Each concert opens with the men of the Choir singing a Prolog based on the well-known hymn tune “Old Hundredth.” This tune has been associated with various devotional texts in different faiths through the ages. Most English-speaking congregations recognize it as “All People That On Earth Do Dwell” or “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” but for the German-speaking audiences on this tour it is sung with the words “Herr, Gott, Dich Loben Alle Wir.”
The Choir then presents a pair of sacred choruses by Handel and Holst, a selection of 19th-century devotional works by Gounod and Rossini, and some contemporary settings of traditional liturgical texts by William Albright, Alberto Ginastera, and Mack Wilberg. Interspersed between these groups are hand bell interludes played by Choir members, ringing variations on the “Old Hundredth” hymn tune as a reminder of the enduring timelessness of sacred song.
The final grouping in the first half brings together two works--a chorus from Bach's Cantata BWV 130, “Herr,Gott, dich loben alle wir,” and Wilberg's “Hymn of Praise”--that both incorporate explicitly the “Old Hundredth” hymn tune into the music. “Hymn of Praise” functions as a joyful benediction on the first half, a traditional doxology that honors Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. A subdued Epilog, modelled closely on the Prolog, then revisits the “Old Hundredth” tune, but with some significant changes: the Orchestra and hand bells reprise some of the other familiar hymn tunes heard earlier in the concert, and the music is now a whole step higher than it was at the start of the concert. Praise and joyful worship have raised us a little closer to God.
While the first half focuses on the liturgy of the Christian church, the second half of the program explores themes of joy and faith through music of the people. The purview is rather broad at first, combining a 15th-century Sephardic wedding song from Spain with a Nigerian Christmas carol. But with their visceral rhythmic energy and added movement and clapping from the Choir, both of these songs embody a similar kind of worshipful exuberance. From there the focus narrows to a set of spirituals, folk songs, and folk hymns of 19th-century America. It's a natural transition, then, into the final set of the program, three hymns that express deeply-held beliefs and hopes associated with the Choir's pioneer origins in the mid-1800s. As a culminating set for the entire program, these three hymns— “Come, Come Ye Saints,” “How Firm a Foundation,” and “The Spirit of God”—unite the liturgical focus from the first half with the “people's faith” from the second half.
This concert program still showcases the Choir's rather extraordinary range of repertory. But perhaps more importantly it symbolizes with inspired clarity the Choir's tradition and mission, to give regular people who love God and love music an opportunity to share their joy in the Lord through glorious singing.
Contributed by Dr. Luke Howard, a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Brigham Young University Associate Professor of Music.