Here’s a topic I’ve been contemplating a long time. There are two well-known talks on this subject, both from the mid 70’s, one by Elder Packer and the other by President Kimball. Here’s a sampling:
President Kimball: “Surely there must be many Wagners in the Church … but less eccentric, more spiritual. … Why cannot someone write a greater oratorio than Handel’s Messiah? The best has not yet been composed nor produced. How could one ever portray in words and music the glories of … the restoration … unless he were an inspired Latter-day Saint, schooled in the history and doctrines and revelations and with rich musical ability and background and training?”
Elder Packer: “Why do we not have more inspired and inspiring music in the Church? The greatest hymns and anthems of the Restoration are yet to be composed. The sublimest renditions of them are yet to be conducted. … Our hymns speak the truth as far as they go. They could speak more of it if we had more of them. … If I had my way there would be many new hymns with lyrics near scriptural in their power, bonded to music that would inspire people to worship. Think how much we could be helped by another inspired anthem or hymn of the Restoration.”
This is a complicated question. First of all, who judges the merit of these new compositions? Contemporaries, especially those with the institutional power, are notoriously bad judges in retrospect. Wagner’s greatest masterpieces would not exist were it not for the miraculous appearance of a powerful, rich benefactor. Berlioz could never manage to win the Prix de Rome composition prize – time and again he was judged unworthy compared to his now obscure peers. The Beatles were told by the record executives their music would never go anywhere.
Second, a little eccentricity is pretty common among great artists. I’ve wondered about that relationship. Are you a better artist if you are sensitive and troubled? Since President Kimball brought up Wagner, there is no doubt that his hedonism was an integral part of his creative process (Wagner, that is). There are exceptions, but what kind of person will place their life and fortunes on an esoteric pursuit like making art, as opposed to something more reliable? Accountancy is a safer career choice, but who wants a society full of accountants? Artists have to be a little impractical and self absorbed.
Third, artists usually desire to express a wide range of human experience – not just the pure and spiritual part. In fact, the most effective way to explore light is by contrasting it with the darkness. In The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Frollo is odious because his wickedness is cloaked in robes of righteousness: to portray his world of monstrous lust and power is not to celebrate it, but to contrast it with true nobility: Quasimodo, a beautiful soul hidden in a hideous body. Church people are often uncomfortable with portrayals of worldliness or evil as unworthy of the Saints, so LDS artists are forced to find more worldly venues. I think this is as it should be: such artistic goals are not part of the mission of the church per se, and would not be appropriate in most church settings. But neither should the church be opposed to such art, necessarily.
But remember that the monuments of the past, masterpieces created by the Handels and Wagners (interestingly, both of President Kimball’s examples are opera composers) represent the tips of vast icebergs of lesser work – even by the masters themselves. If you want masterpieces you have to a) facilitate the creation and performance of new music and b) be prepared to put up with a lot of merely ‘good’ product and failed experiments. It’s all essential to the process. Fostering great art involves leaps of faith and some tolerance for failure. Even for the righteous, God doesn’t make diamonds appear on your doorstep: you have to sift through mounds of dirt and even then not all the gems are transcendent ones.
The church has great opportunities to encourage new sacred works: General Conferences and temple dedications, for example, and even local meetings. But (bewilderingly to me) seconds after he asked where the new, inspiring hymns are, Elder Packer shared this: “For some reason it takes a constant vigilance on the part of priesthood leaders—both general and local—to ensure that music presented in our worship and devotional services is music that is appropriate for worship and devotional services. I have heard presidents of the Church declare after a general conference, or after a temple dedication, words to this effect (and I am quoting verbatim from one such experience): ‘I suppose we did not give enough attention to the music. It seems that our musicians must take such liberties. Something spiritual was lost from our meetings because the music was not what it should have been. Next time we must remember to give them more careful instructions.’” So the knee-jerk reaction is to micro-manage the musicians, usually meaning limiting them to established hymns and favourite sacred songs, which will ensure a nice, predictable, comfortable result but has the effect of stifling any creativity. The Lord cannot inspire Mormon Handels to write their masterpieces if those works never have a chance of performance. I don’t understand how those two passages can come from the same address, but there you have it.
Let me illustrate with a personal experience. I for the past seventeen years I have been reluctant to talk about this publicly, but here goes. In 2000 I was asked to conduct the choir for one of the Montreal Temple dedication services – a rare and exciting opportunity to use my God-given gifts and extensive experience in LDS church music to praise God and celebrate this special occasion. I know the limitations and what is wanted: performances of hymns that would magnify this sacred event and enrich the spirit of the meeting for the Saints. I was given the list of musical options – a short list of hymns along with the Choir Book which has arrangements of hymns and a few non-hymnbook selections. No problem: there were lots of engaging options from my point of view. I chose two hymns and decided to write special arrangements of them – nothing too fancy or artsy, just seeking to amplify their beauty and messages, taking full advantage of the musical resources available – a hand-picked, balanced choir and a skilled accompanist.
Our dedication was preceded by broadcasts of the Nauvoo and Palmyra temple dedications just months before, both of which I attended. Nauvoo was graced by Mack Wilberg and the Tabernacle Choir. They performed works not on the regular list, but they’re the Motab, so… Palmyra, however, featured original arrangements by (I must assume) a local musician. I assume this because I had never heard them before and in my professional opinion, they were unfortunately quite inferior. I regret that I may hurt someone’s feelings here, but as I listened that day I had a premonition: the brethren would be disappointed and my arrangements were doomed.
But my choir, a combination of people from Ottawa and Vermont, had already been preparing very diligently, memorizing at home and travelling long distances to rehearse. The spirit in those rehearsals had been so beautiful: more than once singers had brushed away tears feeling the power of the music we were preparing. I reasoned that it was too late to change, that my arrangements were well within the style and quality of those in the Choir Book, and that it was inconceivable that any priesthood leader could be displeased with the results.
However, long story short, direction came down (directly from Elder Packer, I was told): not the slightest variation from the prescribed list and choir hymns were not to be substantially altered from the hymn book. My strict submission to those directives was framed as an issue of obedience and fidelity. After a lot of soul searching I gutted the arrangements but kept the basic forms using the hymnbook notes with only the most minor of adjustments: I just couldn’t bring myself to have the choir sing straight out of the book – why even have a choir at all if that’s what we’re going to do? Even with the adjustments, they weren’t sure it was dumbed down enough. I was asked to assemble my choir an hour before the service and have them sing for a representative from the temple committee who might decide to have the previous choir perform in our place. My persistence in striving for the best within my restrictions could mean that not just me but all eighteen in the choir not only might miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they might not even have a seat in the dedication at all. The day began in an intense pressure cooker. In the end, the brother from Salt Lake smiled, patted my shoulder and said, “Enjoy your session.” When I gave her the thumbs up, my wife burst into tears. It was one of the worst and also one of the best days of my life. The session was powerful and rewarding. President Hinckley personally thanked the choir (which I was told was not his habit at these dedications) and President Monson, whom I’d been sitting knee-to-knee with during the session, shook my hand and told me our choir was wonderful. “The best we’ve had”, he said, referring to the marathon of temple dedications that year.
I thought at the time, we take such care with every mundane detail of temple construction, how hard would it be to have a competition for musical creation tied to the dedication, to vet the successful selections for quality and appropriateness? There’s plenty of lead time and no shortage of professional talent in the church that could judge such things, and the best musicians would cut off their right arm for such a chance. It’s just one example of an opportunity for the church to foster creation of great works of art related to the restoration. It’s what happened at the first temple dedication in Kirtland. From whence will come “more inspired and inspiring [new] music in the church”? You have to take some chances and stray from the tried and true to find out.