The famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed for the last time.
This weekend, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gather to listen to sermons by their leaders and to be inspired by sacred hymns at the 188th Semiannual General Conference, the beloved musicians sitting beneath the gigantic organ in downtown Salt Lake City’s Conference Center will have a new name, simply: “The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.”
The change comes in response to church President Russell M. Nelson’s August 2018 edict to use the church’s full name and discontinue using the term “Mormon” as shorthand for the Utah-based faith and its members.
A big question for many: How would that affect the choir, whose performances — from its namesake home in Salt Lake City to concert halls across the globe — helped spread the Latter-day Saint gospel message for more than 150 years?
Some wondered if somehow the choir would retain its name, given the church’s style guidelines making allowances for proper names (think the Book of Mormon) and historical references (as in the Mormon Trail). Might the choir, with its rich lyrical legacy, qualify?
On Friday morning, the answer came: “Mormon” in the name is gone; “MoTabs” as an affectionate nickname has been retired.
“The choir’s new name preserves the heritage of the choir’s home in the Tabernacle and its location on Temple Square, a place of reverence and worship,” the church noted in a news release. “Since 1867, the Tabernacle has been home to the choir. … The historic Tabernacle on Temple Square is still used as a recording studio for the choir today.”
Still, a lot is not changing.
These ambassadors in song will still feature “world-class musicianship, the inspiring arrangements and programming, and our weekly ‘Music and the Spoken Word’ broadcast, continuing a tradition begun 90 years ago,” choir President Ron Jarrett said in the release. “… Everything that people know and love about the choir will not only be the same but will get better and better.”
The new name also matches that of the Orchestra at Temple Square, which formed in 1999 and performs with the choir in the weekly broadcast.
Michael Hicks, a Brigham Young University music professor who wrote a "biography" of the choral group, takes the long view on the name.
The word “Mormon” has come and gone in the choir’s name since its founding, Hicks said. It was mostly known as “the Salt Lake Tabernacle Choir” until 1945. That’s when the troupe provided music for a government-made pro-World War II film, and J. Reuben Clark, then a member of the church’s governing First Presidency, insisted that the credits say “Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”
With that, Hicks said, the name stuck.
In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan dubbed the MoTabs “America’s Choir,” and it became the church’s most widely known symbol.
But Hicks doesn’t think dropping “Mormon” from the moniker is altogether a bad move.
“It may be blowing open this canonized image,” he said. “But for many Americans, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is used as a jokey thing, a punchline in old episodes of ‘Cheers’ or in comic strips.”
This marks a chance for the choir to “separate itself,” he said, from what had become “a kind of cliché and stereotype.”
It can be, Hicks said, a new day.
Question of branding
For Michael Bierut, nationally recognized design and branding expert at New York City-based Pentagram, dropping Mormon makes a lot of sense.
“It is actually more like Dunkin’ Donuts going to just Dunkin or Weight Watchers becoming just WW, to emphasize health and wellness,” he said. “The tendency of brands is to go from being specific to universal. That way it gets to be bigger, in a way.”
Bierut, who is not a Latter-day Saint, said losing the religious word in the choir’s name “makes it more universally accessible.”
This effort “signals an attempt to expand the audience,” Bierut said. “The audience for Christmas carols is larger than the audience that wants the details of any specific faith.”
For him, the word “‘tabernacle’ is the evocative part of the name — it conjures up the size of that [Utah] venue and the scale of the choir.”
“Tabernacle” connects the choir to a place, he said, and “provides sufficient familiarity with a well-known entity.”
That’s what makes the new name work for choir members as well.
“They’ve been concerned about the long history and what it will do to the brand,” Jarrett said. "But we are keeping ‘Tabernacle Choir’ in the name, and that puts us in line with our orchestra. … Now we are one big family.”
Make that Big, with a capital B. All told, the choir, orchestra and handbell troupes number some 700 musicians, stage and crew members.
“Temple Square is … a special and sacred spot,” Jarrett added. "It brings us all together with a unified phrase.”
Not that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir will vanish overnight.
“The Christmas album is already finished and will have the old name," Jarrett noted. “So will the Christmas program [taped last December] that airs on PBS. It’s already done.”
Of course, the former name likely will continue to slip out in casual conversations.
“I’ve already done it three or four times this morning,” Jarrett conceded.
The world-renowned choir is forever linked to its origins.
It began in earnest in 1867 — though a small choir was formed under the direction of church President Brigham Young two decades earlier — after Mormon pioneers constructed the Tabernacle on Temple Square in the center of what they called Zion.
The pioneers raised their voices in song underneath the sacred structure’s turtle-domed roof, with its signature acoustics, designed so all attendees could hear from any seat in the hall, and its mammoth pipe organ.
In 1893, the musical group traveled to Chicago for the World’s Fair, Hicks explained, seeking to make a statement about the faith and its followers.
Latter-day Saint leaders wanted outsiders to see Utah “as a bastion of excellence,” he said, “not just as a polygamist outpost.”
The choir — and later “Music and the Spoken Word” — helped them do that.
The first airing of “Music and the Spoken Word” on July 15, 1929, was makeshift at best, according to the release. “That summer day, a local radio crew ran a wire from their control room to an amplifier in the Tabernacle nearly a block away. The technicians put the station’s sole microphone on a ladder not only to capture the music of the choir but also so an announcer could introduce each number.”
From those improvised beginnings, the radio show has reached larger and larger audiences, won numerous awards and stands alone as the longest-running continuous network broadcast ever.
In their golden era, these Mormon singers became “a major classical choral organization, often considered the best choir in the world,” Hicks said. “Their recordings defined choral literature for most of their hearers, from living American masters like Randall Thompson and Howard Hanson to the classical titans of Europe."
They even routinely performed masterpieces by Mozart, Bach, Fauré and Handel, to name a few, in General Conference.
“They do nothing like that now,” he said.
In conference, they simply sing “hymn arrangements,” Hicks said, “while in the broadcasts and tours, it's mostly akin to the Boston Pops: a kind of utility choir that hopes to appeal to the broadest vernacular audience, from the Muppets to James Taylor to Broadway to folk songs to the occasional ‘Messiah’ chorus.”
They have been on the program at seven presidential inaugurations, but Donald Trump’s 2017 event proved one of the more controversial.
“There was a lot of hand-wringing about the choir’s participation,” Hicks said, “partly because its brand was so connected to the church.”
Maybe taking “Mormon” out of the name, he said, will give the church some separation in the future.
But it also could lead to greater confusion.
At President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, Hicks said, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., announced that “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was about to be sung by the “award-winning Tabernacle Choir.”
Then, with a playful smile, the senator added, “The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir.”
Reporter Kathy Stephenson and editor David Noyce contributed to this story.