Casual scheduling rather than overt activism was the catalyst that made Bonnie Goodliffe the first female organist to accompany The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square on a broadcast.
Two male organists were out of the country during three weeks of 1988, and it was too much for the third man to do alone. So conductor Jerold Ottley simply announced to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ famed choir during a rehearsal that Goodliffe, who was a regular organist for Sunday recitals, would play for the middle broadcast in that sequence of the long-running “Music and the Spoken Word.”
“As far as we know,” Ottley told the choir, according to Goodliffe, “this is the first time a woman has ever played for the broadcast.”
That was followed by a spontaneous and unexpected response — women in the choir stood and applauded. Then women in the audience sprang to their feet, followed by men, and finally men in the choir, until clapping rocked the historic Tabernacle in downtown Salt Lake City.
“We were all really surprised,” recalls Goodliffe. “I, more than anybody, knew they were not applauding for me but that this major move for women was happening.”
No matter what prompted it, however, the petite musician was — and is — a musical pioneer.
On Oct. 21, she offered her final weekday organ recital in the Tabernacle — 40 years to the day after she played her first.
She chose seven pieces to honor her faith, favorite composers, mentors, arrangers and parents, crediting all of them with nurturing her talents.
With skills honed over decades of practice, Goodliffe filled the Latter-day Saint hall with stirring renditions of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and the Mormon anthem “Come, Come, Ye Saints” as well as tender melodies in tribute to her mother (“It is because of her that I became an organist”) and her father (“who supported my musical education”).
Several hundred admirers filled the pews Monday and jumped to their feet to give her one last ovation before her official retirement.
A pragmatic move
Breaking the Tabernacle organists’ glass ceiling was never one of Goodliffe’s goals. Indeed, even being an organist was not on her radar as a child. But she came from a musical family, she says, and became an adept pianist.
While studying that instrument at Brigham Young University, however, her teacher and mentor at the time took a sabbatical.
Goodliffe thought she would take a yearlong break until he returned, but her mother suggested she “do something practical, like learning the organ.”
In Mom’s eyes, organ playing would be useful in church settings, but Goodliffe loved it from the beginning.
“It was a better fit for me,” she says. “I never went back to the piano.”
Besides, physical strength makes a difference on the piano, but on the organ, the instrument itself can be potent.
“I get a real power trip from playing the organ,” says the 5-foot-2 musician. “I can get higher and louder notes than I ever could on the piano.”
On top of earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from BYU, Goodliffe attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. She was well trained in music theory, composition and organ performance.
A couple of years after her husband’s job transfer moved the Goodliffes to Utah, the musician got a call from then-Tabernacle organist Robert Cundick inviting her to audition for a job as a guest organist.
She did and got it.
In that first recital, Goodliffe says, she was “shaking so hard I didn’t think my hands were hitting the keys, and I didn’t know where the music was coming from.”
A tale of two organs
The original assignment was alternate Sunday recitals, but eventually that would include weekday performances as well as the faith’s occasional regional conference. Soon, she was a regular in the Temple Square organist rotation, bringing her love of classical music and disciplined training. She has since played for LDS General Conference sessions as well as many “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcasts. She regularly performs with the Temple Square Chorale and Bells on Temple Square and in daily organ recitals. She teaches music theory for the Tabernacle Choir training school and served on the music committee, selecting pieces for the church’s 1985 hymnbook.
“I especially like the traditional, old-style hymns, with majesty and dignity,” the 76-year-old says. “That’s what you would expect from someone who likes Bach.”
Goodliffe has played both the Tabernacle organ and the one in the giant Conference Center, across from Temple Square. And she speaks eloquently of their differences.
The Tabernacle instrument has more pipes but is in a much smaller building, she says. “You can do soft, delicate things. The sound is trapped in that space, with the smooth surface of the ceiling; it is more intimate.”
The music has a “rich, velvety sound,” Goodliffe says. “You can pick up your hands off the keys and the sound is still there, hanging in the air.”
The Conference Center organ is more robust, making the sound “bolder, stronger and louder.”
The center has “fabulous amplification,” she says. Without it, though, there is very little sound, “like singing out-of-doors.”
Living out her values
“Bonnie is not an outspoken feminist,” Bushman says. “She just does things.”
Her sister, Bushman says, is an important symbol of skill and competence.
“I never dreamed about being a Tabernacle organist when I was a child. It wasn’t possible, since they were only men,” Goodliffe says. “But I was at the intersection of events in history and happened to have the right training.”
The organist also credits Cundick and Ottley, who were “very forward-thinking people” and had “extremely strong, talented wives with a progressive view of things.”
“Jerry was a fabulous conductor and also very funny,” Goodliffe says. “When he started each class of the choir school, he always told a joke. When I was running the school, I used his jokes.”
Ottley “took the choir as far as he could take it.”
Jessop brought “such a warmth to that job and a sense of discipline,” she says. “Mack Wilberg is a crackerjack pianist with musical gifts beyond description — one of the geniuses of our time — but he is more thoughtful than humorous. He is very nice but very private.”
They all “have been wonderful,” Goodliffe concludes. “It’s been a great experience.”
Meanwhile, Jessop has high praise for her.
“Bonnie Goodliffe is one of the greatest organ professionals that I’ve had the privilege to work with, be they female or male,” Jessop writes in an email. “She is an outstanding performing artist in every respect.”
The organ bench “is blind to gender or any other considerations,” he says. “It requires great talent, a great work ethic, a willingness to collaborate with other fellow musical artists, and, in the Tabernacle/Conference Center, a deep personal commitment and belief in the mission and purposes of [the LDS Church] and its leaders. Bonnie possesses all of those qualities in abundance. … A true trailblazer in every respect, not only in the area of church music but in the world of professional musical performing artists as well.”
Goodliffe is retiring and plans to spend time with her seven children (six daughters and one son) and 20 grandchildren, she says. “I’ve missed a lot of ballgames, school concerts and dance recitals.”
But she’ll be back with Bach, at times, as an emeritus organist, to share the joy of man’s — and woman’s — desiring.