The Tabernacle Choir Blog

The Choir’s Historic 1875 Performance of Messiah

June 1875 was the first performance of Handel’s Messiah in Utah and the first Messiah production between Chicago and San Francisco. (The first West Coast performance of Messiah had been in San Francisco the previous November.) Performed by members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir combined with community members of other faiths, it was perhaps the crowning event in the musical history of Utah up to that time. That Messiah performance was directed by George Careless, then the music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and produced by the new Handel and Haydn Society, an “inter-denominational musical organization” created by Careless. The performance was given in the Salt Lake Theatre by two hundred singers and a full orchestra to a capacity audience.

This 1875 performance of Handel’s oratorio was a monumental accomplishment because the music of Messiah was little known in the West, even among accomplished musicians at that time. Its performance involved endless, painstaking rehearsals. In 1875, only six years after the railroad united the country at Promontory Point in Northern Utah, the realities of pioneer life still meant that music had to come after the necessary activities of conquering an untamed land. Music materials such as books and sheet music were scarce. What little music reached the Salt Lake valley had to be copied by hand for those who could read it and taught by rote to those who could not.

George Careless was born in London on September 24, 1839. George displayed musical talent early in life, teaching himself to play the violin. As an accomplished boy soprano, he was offered a position in a cathedral choir with a salary and education. Instead of accepting the position, he accepted the message of the missionaries and was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1859 George began his formal studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, finishing the four-year course of studies in only three years, studying violin, piano, harmony, instrumentation, voice, and conducting. Many of his instructors were recognized as some of the great teachers and musicians of their time. He began his professional music career in 1862 playing under the famous conductors then working in London. He became acquainted with a varied musical repertoire and observed the organization of the many large-scale productions in which he participated. That experience was invaluable to him in future years. 

In 1864 Careless left England to gather with other members of the Church in Salt Lake City—in what was then the Utah territory. At the time, Utah’s musical culture was still in its infancy, as just a few amateur choirs and bands had been organized. Careless quickly established himself as a professional musician and became a recognized music teacher. When Church President Brigham Young called Careless to lead what would become the Mormon Tabernacle Choir a few years later, Young charged him to “lay a foundation for good music.”

During his music career, George Careless did just that—he acquainted his audiences with classical music. He organized and conducted orchestras, directed the Tabernacle Choir for 11 years, and introduced the pioneer audiences to operas and oratorios. He taught music, published a music periodical, operated a music store, and composed over 80 hymns—many of which were published in the first Latter-day Saint hymnal containing both words and music, which he helped to prepare.

Check out additional online resources at motab.org/messiah—many of which will be available in English, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish.