J. Spencer Cornwall | The Mormon Tabernacle Choir 10th music director
J. Spencer Cornwall was the 10th music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Born in 1888 just outside Salt Lake City, Cornwall wanted to be a musician from a very young age. In his youth, he took music lessons from, among others, Evan Stephens and George Careless, who would both go on to serve as music directors of the Choir.
Cornwall’s neighbor was a school superintendent who offered him a job as a music teacher. He went on to spend 23 years in the school system, eventually becoming supervisor of music for the Salt Lake City public schools. He was also an active member of Salt Lake’s busy music community, as he conducted and organized several musical performances in the area.
In August of 1935 President Heber J. Grant told Cornwall, “Last night at our meeting we elected you Tabernacle Choir director. What have you got to say about it?” After considering the opportunity for a day, Cornwall accepted. Two days later he conducted his first Music and the Spoken Word broadcast as music director of the Choir.
Cornwall held the position of music director for more than two decades. He expanded the Choir’s repertoire from about 75 pieces to more than 950 pieces. He worked to improve the broadcasts by working with sound engineers and technicians to deliver the best sound possible. It was during Cornwall’s time as music director that the Choir received a Peabody Award, an award that recognizes “the most outstanding achievements in electronic media, including radio, television, and cable.”
Charles Jeffrey Calman, in his book The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, sheds light on an important performance by the Choir in 1945:
The Choir’s finest hour as a broadcast institution under Cornwall’s direction came on April 12, 1945, the day Franklin Delano Roosevelt died. A half-hour after his death, executives of the Columbia network called and asked the Choir to perform a memorial broadcast that evening, though they were very concerned that the Choir might not be ready in time. An hour or so later, a vice president of CBS, Douglas Coulter, called from New York asking how long it would take to get everything in order. An official at KSL told him the Choir was already assembled. “Incredible!” was all he said. The Choir broadcast on 143 stations, its largest audience to that date, performing five numbers for choir and one or organ. It was a Christian, nondenominational program, and a significant example of the level of musicianship the Choir had attained.
Among Cornwall’s other accomplishments during his tenure were a performance at Carnegie Hall, a European tour, and the release of the first commercial recording of the Choir. He’s also credited as the composer of "Softly Beams the Sacred Dawning," a hymn in the current LDS hymnbook. He passed away in 1983 at age 95.