Super Sleuths Identify Music from General Conferences
For a collective 66 years, former Tabernacle Organists John Longhurst and Clay Christiansen were at the center of the music scene on Temple Square. Now retired, the two have spent the past nine months as “super sleuths” charged with ferreting out detailed information about General Conference music from 1936 to 1970 for the Church History Library.
The intent was for all General Conferences to be available online without restrictions of music copyrights. The music needed to be verified, if possible, with the title, composer, arranger, publisher, copyright, and public domain status. The years 1970 to the present had already been reviewed but records for the years before were spotty at best.
Enter the “super sleuths.” The two organists know music, especially music of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square which represents a sizeable portion of General Conference repertoire. For decades they rehearsed and performed with The Tabernacle Choir for General Conferences, Music & the Spoken Word, noon organ recitals, concerts, tours, and hosts of special programs. They put that knowledge to work listening to all the Church’s audio recordings for 34 years of General Conference. The early recordings utilized fairly basic recording techniques that advanced through the years giving increasing polish to the sound of the music.
The two professional musicians turned music gumshoes used a number of resources in their quests. They located some music in the Choir library or in an archive the Choir maintains for retired music. But other choral groups also participated in conference sessions which took the two sleuths to Google, the Library of Congress, the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University, and assorted online libraries to find the details. They went through all the Church hymnbooks and other Church music publications, searched files in library collections of local composers and arrangers like Florence Jepperson Madsen who wrote for the Singing Mothers, organized under the Church’s Relief Society.
At times they felt they were playing “Name That Tune” when a song was announced over the pulpit with a name that was not the published title. After some study, they often found the phrase had been lifted from the composition. A few selections simply stumped them.
They loved the process. Longhurst said it was an “adventure” to “observe first-hand the evolution of The Tabernacle Choir's choral aesthetic and the changing taste in what has been considered appropriate music for general conference.” Gradually over the years, the music shifted from masterworks like Handel’s Messiah and Brahms’ Requiem to a hymn-based repertoire. He was surprised to find one priesthood session included a barbershop quartet.
Is there music that has stood the test of time? Absolutely, says Longhurst. Hymns like “Come, Come Ye Saints” and “High on the Mountain Top” would be in the Top 10.
Christiansen dubbed the assignment “an amazing experience.” He loved hearing the voices of leaders from the past, especially the prophet, President David O. McKay, and Elder Richard L. Evans, the much-revered early announcer for Music & the Spoken Word and later member of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve. “I have the sense that the essence of General Conference hasn’t changed much. But there is more of a sacred feeling now in the hymn-based music honed by the Spirit.”
Ed Riding of the Church History Library is grateful for the work of Longhurst and Christiansen. Because of their long hours, “all these conference sessions are available to everyone!” The entire collection of General Conference is now online at https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/record?id=2b8598d8-cb11-4dc0-940b-bf84d68f85e5&view=browse.