For the past 135 years the Salt Lake Tabernacle Organ has shaped the Mormon Tabernacle Choir into the grandness known today. In fact, this organ has been heard so much (more than any other organ in the world) the Mormon Church’s magazine the Ensign calls it the “Golden-toned missionary – one missionary that has been gratefully received and which has never been maligned or misunderstood.”
Many organists of similar instruments have said statements similar to this one, “The acoustics of the Tabernacle are unique and give the organ the advantage that no other organ in the world has.” Former tabernacle organist John Longhurst describes the building as a great companion to the organ and is “so sympathetic to organ music.” The pipe organ in which it is housed serves as its soundboard and has a significant influence on its effect.
Monumental by any standards, the five-manual instrument is made up of 11,623 pipes, 147 voices, and 206 ranks.
Since 1909 organ recitals have been offered daily throughout the year at no charge, with these recitals and Music and the Spoken Word the organ is heard by millions.
The organ was build by British-born organ builder Joseph Ridges. His first organ was built in Australia and brought the organ with him to the Salt Lake Valley and was installed in the old Tabernacle. After the announcement of the new Tabernacle, Prophet Brigham Young determined that a new pipe organ should be built. He said, “We can’t preach the gospel, unless we have good music.”
Ridges fashioned the original instrument from great yellow pine in Pine Valley,far to the south. The wood ranging in sizes from two feet to thirty-two feet in length was ideal: straight and free of knots, pitch, and gum. A load of logs to Salt Lake City; a distance of 300 miles, took three weeks to transport.
If you look closely the organ caseis crafted in the manner of the German builder E. F. Walker in the Boston Music Hall. The organ was rebuilt many times throughout the years. In 1885 Niels Johnson made some minor changes. In 1901 the Kimball organ company of Chicago made a major change, and this was detaching the console and moving it to the front of the choir loft. In 1915 the Austin organ company of Hartford, Connecticut added a major church of the organ and added the two fifteen-foot wings. In 1948 the Æolian-Skinner organ company rebuilt the instrument. The rebuilding of the instrument was led by famed organ builder G. Donald Harrison, with Alexander Shreiner at his side. For many the Tabernacle Organ is the pinnacle of Harrison’s work. The organ was built in the American Classic Style, John
Longhurst describes, “is a tonal approach that incorporates elements from the various European organ-building traditions and synthesizes them into a single instrument that can play a wide variety of music acceptably though no with complete authenticity. The American Classic organ was a reaction to the romantic, orchestrally conceived pipe organ that had evolved in America during the first three or four decades of the twentieth century. Between 1985 and 1989, the Schoenstien & Company of San Francisco, California was the last to rebuild the instrument, adding 17 more ranks and rebuilding the console.
All divisions of the organ are located behind the massive case work on the west except the antiphonal division which sits in the lower openings behind the seats in the center balcony. Today’s pipes are made of wood, zinc, and various alloys of tin and lead.
Today the organ is played by 5 full time organists: Clay Christiansen, Richard Elliott, Andrew Unsworth, Bonnie Goodliffe, and Linda Margetts.In 1974 the Tabernacle was recognized by the American Civic Engineering Society as a landmark of the American Civil Engineering Society. In 1994 the Organ Historical Society recognized the Tabernacle Organ as “an instrument of exceptional historic merit,worthy of preservation.”
For generations this much beloved organ has touched hearts and souls of millions of people as a reminder of a people who build better that they knew and a testimony to future generations of the broad sweep of the language of music.