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SALT LAKE CITY — Like an echo from the past, a soft crackling sound filled an auditorium in the Conference Center. Next came the slightly distorted but still unequivocally recognizable opening chords of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” played by John J. McClellan 110 years ago.
On Thursday, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square celebrated the anniversary of its first-ever recording.
The famed choir was one of the first-ever large ensembles to be recorded, and those first recording sessions were the result of a technology race between the three major record companies of the time, according to Richard Turley, a historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In the early 1900s, recordings were done acoustically. That meant sound would go through the large horns and vibrate a needle on a wax disc, which made the master copy of the music. While this method worked well enough for solo acts, it was a struggle to capture large choirs, orchestras and the numerous pipes of organs — things the companies were keen to record
In 1910, the Columbia Phonograph Company had conceived a way of getting it done. In late August and early September of that year, two long recording horns were suspended between the north and south balconies of the Tabernacle in order to capture the sound from the choir and the organ.
One of the horns was pointed toward the sopranos and altos; the other at the tenors and basses.
"He (the recording engineer) had all the choir members pack closely together, which required that the women remove their hats, which were fashionable at the time," Turley said. "All choir members were then asked to face the horns and sing for them."
In all, 25 recordings were made — 12 by the choir, 12 by McClellan (two of which were accompanied by violinist Willard E. Weihe), and one by organist Joseph J. Daynes Sr. Of those recordings, eight were deemed of high enough quality for commercial release. They were released on four records with one song on each side.
"You might have noticed he was rushing a bit," Turley said after McClellan’s rendition of Bach finished playing. "That's because the technology at the time allowed only a maximum of 3 minutes and 15 seconds on each side of the record, so he had to hurry to get that piece in."
Those days in 1910 began a long and successful recording legacy. The choir, which launched its own record label in 2003, now has over 200 recordings.
"We have one Grammy award for Richard P. Condie (former choir director), eight gold and two platinum records," choir president Ron Jarrett said.
Today, the choir’s recordings are easily accessible through hundreds of albums, streaming services, social media, and an active YouTube page (the choir debuted a video for John Williams' "Duel of the Fates" on Thursday), but the first recordings are hard to come by.
It isn’t known how many of those original discs were made or sold, but they did find their way to the public. In the February 1911 Improvement Era magazine a church missionary references the early records.
"We recently received some phonograph records containing songs and solos by the Tabernacle Choir and organ," the missionary said. "On hearing them played, the people become inquisitive, which gives us many opportunities to explain the principles of the gospel."
Turley said that the original recordings are “extremely rare,” with all the known copies either being in institutions or private collections.
"As best I can tell as a historian, they are rarer than a 'Book of Commandments' — the first published compilation of Joseph Smith's revelations — copies of which have sold for well over $1 million," Turley said.