Where Are All the "Mormon Art" Critics?

First published: February 2016

I love Mormon Art as much as anybody—certainly more than many, as anybody reading this knows. Still, I am the first one to say that our art should be better. And I mean much, much better.

At some point in our history, kitsch overtook taste, message trumped method, ease bested erudition, and the echo chamber of the culture drowned out all else. 

This isn’t a tirade of low art vs. high art. I think the world is big enough for unlimited kinds of art because it is created by unlimited kinds of artists. A great advertising jingle is as rare, in its way, as a great symphony. I am speaking about something more specific, and I want to be clear: I think that many Mormon artists are purposely doing work that they know is less than their best. 

Why is that a problem? For the artists, condescension is a soul-destroying endeavor. It can be rationalized, but only for a time. For audiences, artistic pandering teaches that bad is good and good, bad. It is lazy, selfish, and ahistorical. Over time, it devastates a culture by removing it from the context of the world at large. It ghettoizes it, pushes it to irrelevance. Further, it makes the artist who is ambitious feel like there is no place for them in their home culture. And, obviously, it is a huge opportunity missed.

There are many reasons for this aesthetic sagging of Mormon culture—fingers to be pointed all around; I take blame, too—but a crucial missing element that has not been addressed widely is this: where are all the Mormon Art critics?

I’m not talking about critics as snarky, put-down masters; I am speaking of their greater calling. The word critic comes from the Greek for judge. It has a negative connotation in pop culture and certainly in the gospel of optimism and love. Even so, I find that you can be critical without being judgmental. That’s key. A person who paints a bad picture isn’t a bad person. There’s a difference.

I love critics. I learn a lot from them. This goes farther than the little movie column or concert review or similar writing that exists solely as a marketing agent. I speak of critics who illuminate, contextualize, advocate, teach, inform, and discover. Let’s say you have no exposure to fine art music written after Tchaikovsky; somehow, you’ve skipped the twentieth century entirely. How are you ever going to discover it and be moved by the music of your own time? You need help beyond mere exposure. That said, remember that critics often get it wrong. Take a look at this review of Tchaikovsky’s “unplayable” Violin Concerto, published by Neue Freie Presse, “…gives us for the first time the hideous notation that there can be music that stinks to the ear.” 

Predictions are dangerous things for a critic. Here’s one that was slightly off, by Carlo Bersezio, “La Boheme…will leave no great trace upon the history of our lyric theatre…” Opera box offices beg to differ.

I acknowledge all of that. But I think critics play a role similar to the U.S. Judicial System. They are standard bearers. They guard against dangerous encroachment. They both stand outside of time and try to reconcile long-held beliefs with changing contemporary landscapes. They serve to clarify, interpret, and advocate for the things that made art great in the first place.

People of my generation and older consider President Spencer W. Kimball’s “The Gospel Vision of the Arts” to be a turning point. For people in the arts or aspiring to that profession, it was a justification, a call to arms. It is no exaggeration to state that Kimball’s great Mormon “Why not?” changed our lives. Today, we have to look at the message starkly and wonder whether it was visionary or delusional to say, “Surely there must be many Wagners in the Church, approaching him or yet to come in the tomorrows…I hope we may produce men greater than this German composer….” 

I am a positive person. I believe in the message of “The Gospel Vision of the Arts.” I also believe that there are, right now, in the Church artists who could be great with a capital G. But are we great in our support, dialogue with and encouragement of them? I say we are not.

We need people to help us and point out where good (as well as goodness) lies. We need people to be advocates for greatness. We need people to call out our artists, too, who have been tempted into easy paths at the expense of their own talent and heavenly gifts. We need help identifying artists who have the potential to make powerful contributions to the lives of many—rather than self-satisfying saccharine.

Does that sound too harsh? I hope not, but we need courage and honesty. 

We have to transcend the discussion of good/bad and the trite equation of critic as agent of dismissal. Artists don’t love critics, but they need them. Benjamin Franklin said, “Critics are our friends, they show us our faults.” Good criticism follows this equation, written by Daniel Mendelsohn of The New Yorker, "KNOWLEDGE + TASTE = MEANINGFUL JUDGMENT." Loving everything is not the answer, either. “You need a high degree of corruption or a very big heart to love absolutely everything,” wrote Gustave Flaubert. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Anybody will do for you, but not for me. I must have somebody.” 

I would argue that for artists, critics are crucial. Not the snarky ones, those with axes to grind, with fangs out, with mockery teeming in their bloodstreams. I’m talking about critics who can urge artists, and let’s talk specifically about Mormon Artists, to simply up their game. 

No, a critic should say, you can’t paint the same picture 100 timesNo, you can’t say you’re contemporary when you’re making work is stylistically 100 years old. No, a critic should say, every performance can’t possibly merit a standing ovation, every video with a million views on YouTube isn’t necessarily any good. Similarly, a critic can say, no audience, that isn’t the best there is, you’re not asking enough of your artists. Ignorance is not a badge of honor (“I like what I like”), no matter how many Twitter followers or Facebook friends you have.

Don Marshall, the indefatigable cheerleader of the arts, a longtime teacher of Humanities at BYU and an early novelist in the genre of Mormon fiction, used to tell a little story to new students. Seems that there was a man who waited outside the Louvre Museum for hours to see the famous “Mona Lisa.” He finally was granted entry, and he trekked his way with the tourists to what he described as a postage-stamp-sized portrait. Unimpressed, he stormed out. At the exit, he said to a guard, “Aww, I don’t get it.” To which the guard said, “Da Vinci is not on trial; you are.” 


For many years now, I have pondered the following question—I’ve really, really wrestled with it: if there were a Mormon Wagner (or de Vinci, Picasso, Stravinsky, Rothko, Updike, Stevens, Balanchine, or Messiaen) what would we do with them? If I were to tell you that there is a composer, for example, like Messiaen, but Mormon, what would that mean

In Search of Ramon Conrad Fuller

First published: August 2015

I came across the name Ramon Conrad Fuller in the BYU Music Library. Bound theses and dissertations have a section of the Harold B. Lee Library all to themselves. It was on these dusty shelves that I found “Concerto for Piano and Chamber Band.” I was able to discover that it had been premiered at BYU on May 14, 1958. The composer wrote the piece as a prerequisite for his Masters degree in Music at the University.

David Day, a librarian and curator at HBLL, has recently posted all of the concert programs of music performances at BYU from 1948-2008 at archive.org. I looked up Ramon Conrad Fuller. There, I discovered that Fuller had four additional works performed in Provo, presumably in student recitals: a string quartet, “Andante Cantabile” (1953), a brass quintet, “Suite for Brasses” (1954), “The Tiger” (for male chorus, 1957), as well as a saxophone quartet composed in 1957 and performed on campus in 1967, “Conversation Piece for Saxophone Quartet.” 

And that was all I knew.

Who was this Ramon Conrad Fuller? What ever happened to him? There had been a number of international composers at BYU during the Merrill Bradshaw era. Was Ramon one of these? But this was pretty early: 1958.

It was weird though because as I did a Google search, the name popped up very few times; it was almost as though he didn’t exist. I found a couple of citations, but they were connected to a scholarly analysis of the Modernist composer, Anton Webern. There was also a compositional credit for “Music for Two Channel Tape and Two Percussionists” in the library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was part of a Ph.D. program. I had no idea whether this was the BYU Fuller or not.

When I Google-searched for just “Ramon Fuller,” I got additional hits, but I easily discarded most of them as being unrelated to my quest. A couple were connected to music though, and they were tantalizing: a co-author credit of Fuller with Lejaren Hiller? That’s interesting, I thought. That name rang a bell.

I got sidetracked a little and researched Hiller. Ahhh. Hiller was a pioneer in using the computer as a compositional tool in the 1950s (long before anybody you know had even seen a computer). He founded the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois. Hiller ended up teaching at University of Buffalo alongside a bunch of amazing mid-century composers including Lukas Foss and Morton Feldman. If Fuller was connected to any of these guys, that would major.

One of my friends, Jeremy, is a musicologist who has published widely about Mormon fine art music. I sent him a quick note. Were these red flags significant? Could I be onto something?

It’s a frustrating thing having only tidbits of information. You want to get excited about them, but in the back of your mind, you’re mostly certain that the dots won’t connect. Still, I kept digging. I went to the University of Buffalo library website. I typed Fuller’s name, and up came three listings. Nothing new, but why would Buffalo even have them if he hadn’t studied or taught there?

The card catalog said he was born in 1930.That would make him about 85 years old today. That’s a problem, for obvious reasons. I did some obituary checks. I also went to FamilySearch.org. Nothing. Could he still be alive? And even if he were alive, I had no real reason, other than his BYU graduation, to assume he was Mormon.

I went to the White Pages website. I just typed his name. There was a Ramon C. Fuller in Harvey, IL (there’s the Illinois connection, possibly); a Ramon C. Fuller in McCalla, AL; and a Ramon Conrad Fuller in St. George, UT. It listed his address and phone number. What? Could it be that easy?

Cold-calling is one of my least favorite things to do in the world. If I were a salesman forced to do it for a living, I’d surely starve, but I picked up the phone, nevertheless. I felt compelled to. Who else would ever do it? It was ringing. And then the dial tone was replaced by a recording: the number was no longer in service.

I went to high school in St. George although I haven’t lived there in 35 years. Sort of on a whim, I called a dear old friend, Sheri, from Dixie High School. I asked her to look in her local phone book for Ramon Conrad Fuller. She had the same number I did. I was almost ready to give up on it when she said, “I can just drive over there. It’s close. Do you want me to go knock on the door and see what I can find out?”

So I hung up with a big smile on my face, and shortly afterwards, I had a call back from Sheri. There was nobody home. But when she was at the door, a little neighbor girl came by. Sheri asked her about Fuller, and she said she didn’t know anything. Sheri left a phone number. Dead end.

But later that night, Sheri called me again. Turns out that the little neighbor girl went home and asked her mother about it, who got Sheri’s number and called her back with a little more information: the Fullers had lived there until a month earlier, and they moved to Salt Lake City. Would she like the name of the Fuller’s daughter?

In the back of my mind, I still thought that all of this sleuthing would probably be fruitless. But I had come this far, I said to myself. So I looked up the phone number of Ramon Conrad Fuller’s daughter. The phone rang. It was an answering machine. “Hello,” and I think I said, “I’m Glen Nelson, and I’m researching the music of Ramon Conrad Fuller. I was given your name. If it’s not too much trouble, could you call me back?”

A little time passed, and no phone call. Oh well. Good, solid try, I thought.

And then I received the loveliest call. She was slightly incredulous at first, as I remember. Who was I again and why was I calling? I had been pronouncing his name, Ramón, like a Spanish name, but it was actually RAYmon, and his daughter’s name was Ramona. And over the course of our conversation and others that followed, I discovered more of his story.

Ramon was indeed the same composer I had found earlier. He was a returned LDS missionary when he graduated from BYU. He received his PhD in Illinois and then taught at Buffalo. But he had left teaching and eventually retired to St. George. Lately, he had been experiencing memory troubles, and the family decided it would be best to move Ramon and his wife closer to them, in Northern Utah. As it turns out, at the exact same time I began researching Ramon Conrad Fuller, his family was boxing up a lifetime of his recordings, documents, book manuscripts, and scores. They were justifiably overwhelmed with it all. What were they supposed to do with so many boxes of documents in their basement?

I had a few ideas. But I had only seen reference to a half dozen works. I would need to see the archive before I could give any useful advice. But if it were something bigger, and any of these markers of importance panned out, this could get quite exciting, quite fast. Ramona told me that there were dozens of compositions and recordings. Because much of this was new to them as well, they hadn’t cataloged their holdings. It sounded like they needed some help to get started.

A plan came to mind. I was scheduled to fly to Salt Lake City to work on a project at the Church Museum in mid-May. Might I come by their home and take a look at the archive, I asked, to get an idea of its holdings and start working on an inventory of compositions?

Shortly after that, I was at the Salt Lake airport waiting for Ramon’s son-in-law to pick me up and drive me to his and Ramona’s home. (Ramon and his wife live nearby.) I spent a few hours meeting members of the family—though not Ramon and his wife, who called repeatedly throughout the evening asking when they could come by and meet me. We circled around the dining table and dug into it. Ramona had reel-to-reel recordings of many of his compositions, and the family had transferred them to digital files. As we cataloged the boxes and boxes of his works, we listened to his music, which was exactly what I hoped it would be: astringent, gorgeous, avant garde, computer-manipulated, atonal, fascinating, fresh, adventurous, and brainy music from the 1950s forward.

Here were works that were performed at Carnegie Hall, were used for a documentary on the artist Sam Francis, played at the Albright-Knox Museum, and by important performing ensembles. Here were letters from famous composers all over the world seeking information about computers and composition processes. If you were looking for a pedigree for a fine art composer of the period, here it was. Furthermore, it was music that virtually nobody else knew anything about.

The manuscripts took some time to organize. Fortunately, Ramona is a musician herself, and together we found compositions whose pages had been scattered between boxes. I felt like we were reuniting members of families separated at birth. Occasionally, I would take music to the piano and play through it. It was all cool. I found original hymns, and LDS hymn arrangements too that retained their melodies but incorporated beautiful and strange harmonies.

Not only were there numerous compositions that, on the surface, looked to me to be worthy of attention, performance, and scholarship, but I found correspondence, letters, journals, manuscripts of unpublished books (tomes, really) on advanced math and music, too. I wished that I were smarter. (Let’s just put that out there right now.) I could take the discovery only so far, but I sat there with tears in my eyes. This had become one of the happiest experiences of my life.

It was late Sunday evening. Finally, Ramona could keep her mother and father away no longer—we were quite sure that as soon as they arrived, our organizing and digging would probably stop for the night, and it did, mostly. In they walked. Ramon now walked with a cane, but I immediately recognized a quality that I’ve seen many times before: the sprightliness of elderly creative artists. There is something undeniable in their eyes and smile that other people simply do not possess. It is a sense of aesthetic play. He nearly bounced into the room, so full of exuberance and fun. Both he and his wife were charming and talkative. We met, and I told him what were attempting to do although he could see the piles of his music all over the room.

I had been warned that it was entirely possible that he might not remember too many details of his compositions, and indeed that was the case. I would ask about a specific work that sounded especially interesting, and I’d question him about the performers or the events leading to its premiere. But although he looked happy to have the questions put to him, the answers for things in the distant past were lost to him now.

My mother-in-law has memory issues too, and she has for some time. She lives in an assisted-living facility. I’m aware that conversations can take circuitous routes with people who struggle to reclaim earlier experiences. With Ramon, I tried, a few times, to come at a question from different angles, but unfortunately for me, I didn’t have much luck.

I didn’t find this sad, somehow. Here in front of me was a trove of work—truly a lifetime’s worth of exploration and devotion to his art form. Did I really need him to tell me additional anecdotes about it? I considered myself lucky to have both him and his music before me. I also wanted to be respectful of him and his family and not make any of them uncomfortable. It had been a long day for us all—I had been up since about 2 a.m., and we separated.

Graciously, Ramona’s husband drove me to where I was staying, but before we left, we made arrangements for me to come back to help finish the job in a few days. In the meantime, I took the listing of Fuller’s compositions and organized them chronologically. I cross-referenced them with what I had discovered earlier, and I made some notes about my findings.

During the next few days, as I met with people in Salt Lake City and Provo, I told them a little bit about Ramon—how they had this unknown composer in their midst. Wouldn’t it be amazing, I thought, if I could encourage someone to publish a little of his music, if I could find someone willing to program a piece of his on a concert that Ramon, his wife, and family could attend (before it is too late), if I could find a repository for this music which represents an era of such radical change and experimentation? But could I manage it? I’m just one guy.

Ramon Conrad Fuller is something of a pack rat. Nothing makes librarians and scholars happier. He kept everything. As it turned out, he left Buffalo and went into a bit of a tailspin at the thought of saying goodbye to academia. After a brief tenure at another school, he changed careers entirely. But all the while, he composed. There were works in his archive dated 2014. Ultimately, we were able to document 101 compositions—everything from a symphony, to choral works, chamber string, wind, and brass works, piano compositions, works for orchestra, music for the stage, music for electronics and ensembles, hymns, songs, choral works, and a few arrangements of LDS hymns. That number doesn’t include numerous studies and notebooks full of ideas and fragments, and the large manuscripts on music theory for the age of the computer. 

Postscript: The Harold B. Lee Library acquired Fuller's archive. The publication Hymns Today published a hymn by Fuller, his first published work, and performers and preparing music for performance. I can imagine him attending a concert with one of his early works on the program. Hopefully, it will happen soon. Can you picture him walking into the hall, seeing his name in the program, and hearing the music again in live performance after all these years? I imagine the audience listening through his ears, too. It’s going to be fantastic.


The Mystery of Lot Number 106

First published: October 2014

In the Spring of 2014, an interesting piece of early Mormon Folk Art resurfaced. It appears to be a depiction of Joseph Smith. He is standing on a pyramid of steps, holding a stack of gold plates in his hands like a book. The carved wooden figure has lost a bit of his pants and his right boot, but otherwise remains in fine condition.

Who made it? What does it mean? Where did it come from? When was it made? Let’s try to unravel clues about this unique and interesting work of art.

The auction took place at Fontaines Auction Gallery in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on March 23, 2013. The catalog gave a few bits of information about the artist and the artwork, but not much. Here is the full catalog description of Lot 106, “Mormon Folk Art Carved Figure”:

Mormon Folk Art Carved Figure. Figure has carved wood legs, arms and painted embellishments including eyes, hair and bearded face; figure is handmade with handmade clothing and holds a brass Book of Mormon in his hands. Stands on a painted yellow, stepped pyramid with hand written scriptures on the steps. Seelye was a man of the Morman [sic] church in his will he left his property, including his home in Savannah, NY, to his wife and then to the Church of Latter Day Saints. Piece appears to be all original and in good overall condition, accompanied by a portfolio of research provided by the previous owners. 16 in. high. Estimate $800-$1,200. (The lot failed to sell.)

That’s all we have to go on. The artwork appears to be unsigned. So who’s the artist? It sounds like the auction house is pointing us to some man named Seelye who lived in Savannah, New York. Savannah is a small town about 20 miles east of Palmyra, New York. Like many communities in the area, it had strong connections to the building of the Eerie Canal whose construction began in 1817. That’s not too much of a lead, is it? I suspect that all of the information cited by the auction house comes from the “portfolio of research,” but that’s unavailable. Let the Googling begin!

On February 15, 1838, Justus Azel Seelye and his wife Mehittabil Bennet Seeyle were baptized into the Church in New Brunswick, Canada. Justus was born in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1779. But there doesn’t seem to be a family connection to Savannah, New York (Wayne County). New Brunswick is above Maine, quite a ways from upstate New York. Dead end.

A man named Benjamin Seelye was born in 1779 and moved to Savannah in the 1820s. He had a son, also named Benjamin, born in Savannah in 1825. The older Benjamin married Anna Haight and had a large family who lived in Warren County, New York. I can’t find any reference to their membership as Mormons. Still, not much to go on, but the Savannah connection seems solid. I look on FamilySearch.org and discover that the Seelye clan was posthumously baptized, and the father Benjamin's temple work was completed in 1930. Can it be the same Seelye as the artist? Why would a non-Mormon create such a decidedly Mormon piece of art? Maybe the whole thing is a parody. A bearded Joseph, after all? Is it an anti-Mormon artwork?

It feels sincere though. At the base of the sculpture, the artist has carefully painted verses from the Book of Mormon. I can’t make everything out, but I can identify these two verses with the help of a keyword search on LDS.org: 

Mormon 1:4

4 And behold, ye shall take the plates of Nephi unto yourself, and the remainder shall ye leave in the place where they are; and ye shall engrave on the plates of Nephi all the things that ye have observed concerning this people. 

Mosiah 28:11

11 Therefore he took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, and also the plates of Nephi, and all the things which he had kept and preserved according to the commandments of God, after having translated and caused to be written the records which were on the plates of gold which had been found by the people of Limhi, which were delivered to him by the hand of Limhi.

Just when I think I am hitting a wall, I come across a brief article in The New York Times printed on March 19, 1895, titled, “Left His Farm to the Mormons.” Its subtitle reads "A New-York Admirer of the Latter Day Saints Provides Liberally for the Deserving Poor of Zion.” The article is about Jesse Seelye, the son of Benjamin and Anna. Finally, a solid lead. Jesse was born January 7, 1806 in Queensbury New York. An almost exact contemporary of Joseph Smith, Jr. He died in Savannah, New York on July 13, 1894.

According to the article, Seelye, upon his death at age 87, donated his twenty-five acre farm to his wife for use during her lifetime. But afterwhich,

I give the same property to the reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in which Joseph Smith, the son of the martyr Joseph Smith is now prophet, seer, and revelator of said Church, to be used by him in purchasing lands in the Lands of Zion, or in the region round about the Lands of Zion, for the inheritance of deserving poor saints of such Church, or the property may be used by the Bishop in any other way in building up the case of the Lord as he may see fit and just. (The New York Times, March 10, 1895, p. 29)

And there it is. The sculpture is in fact a depiction of Joseph, made by a believer, but somehow, after Joseph’s death, Seelye ends up staying in the East and aligning himself with the Reorganized Church.

The probate of the will might not have been given much space in the newspaper at all except for the coincidence that at the same time, Major John H. Gilbert of Palmyra passed away, and the newspaper recounts Gilbert’s story and connection to the Church alongside Seelye’s will.

The newspaper account describes interesting bits of LDS history that I had never heard before. Trying to find a publisher for the Book of Mormon proved difficult. Ultimately Grandin accepted the job. It was Gilbert, however, who was in charge of the typesetting and presswork.

Again, from the Times article:

After the first day’s trial he found the manuscript in so imperfect a condition, especially in regard to grammar, that he declined to obey the “command,” which had been given by the Mormons that no alterations whatever be made, and he so announced to Smith and his party. After much expostulation he was given a limited discretion in the matter of spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalizing, and paragraphing. The Mormons kept a constant watch over the proceedings all the time at first, but finally, after about ten days, they became lax in the matter, and Gilbert secured a complete copy of the book in the original sheets. Major Gilbert was [an] authority on matters pertaining to the Mormon Bible and the period of the Mormon excitement in this county. When the “faithful” from far-off Utah visited Palmyra, he was always sought out for a personal interview, and piloted the excursionists over Mormon Hill, which they gleaned from him interesting bits of the prophet’s early life and doings in this vicinity.

The article provides a few final answers about Seelye. “Mr. Seelye was one of the pillars of the Mormon Church, and was a disciple of the late Joseph Smith until death."

I think the mystery is solved. This lovely folk art piece was created by Jesse Seelye (1806-1894) sometime in the 19th century as an homage to Joseph Smith, whom he revered.


Henry Lavender Adolphus Culmer

First published: October 2014

For my birthday a few years ago, my friend Mark Graham gave me a gift. It was a 1965 art exhibition catalog from the Salt Lake Art Center titled, 100 Years of Utah Painting. Some of the names in the book were familiar to me, but I’d never heard of others. For somebody like me who lives far away from public art collections that feature these regional painters, one way to learn more about early Utah artists is to follow their names in American auction house websites. I set up a watch list on liveauctioneers.com using the exhibition checklist of 100 Years of Utah Painting.

Every few weeks, I get a hit on the watch list. I found one offering particularly intriguing: Henry Lavender Adolphus Culmer. Cool name, but who was he? My old catalog had very little to say about him—three sentences in the body of the text and a short biography at the back—and the 1965 show included only one work attributed to him. Still, I responded strongly to the small watercolor being offered. The bidding started at $150, and so I decided to go for it. 

The auction took place in Renton, Washington. The description in the auction catalog was short:

Henry Lavender Adolphus Culmer (1854-1914) California River Scene Watercolor on paper 8.5” x 5.25”. Initialed in pencil "H.L.A.C.” lower right and directly from family member’s estate.

Cut to the chase: I won the watercolor, and it’s hanging in my apartment. But that’s only the beginning of the story.

Culmer was born in Kent, England on March 25, 1854 and worked as an errand boy in a print shop in London. His family joined the LDS Church, and they immigrated to Utah in 1868. He was an amateur painter in an era when serious Utah artists were heading to Paris to study. Harry Culmer (as he was known) did manage to take some instruction in California with Julian Rix and in New York, but he was essentially self-taught; he was a weekend artist.

The crazy thing about Culmer is his industriousness. He was the editor of the following publications: Utah Miner, Utah Gazette, Salt Lake Daily Times, Salt Lake Journal of Commerce, and the Provo Enquirer. He was the first president of Salt Lake Rotary, and he was a member of the Commercial Club, the Home Dramatic Club at the Salt Lake Theatre. He was everywhere. Although some artists looked down on him as a mere hobbyist, he was also the first president of the Utah Art Institute.

The Culmers were shopkeepers, and Harry was a brilliant bookkeeper. His immersion into the business community led to his audacious publication—are you ready for this title?— Utah Directory and Gazetteer for 1879-80: Containing the Name and Occupation of Every Resident in the Towns and Cities of Salt Lake, Utah, Weber, and David Counties: and a Very Complete List of the Merchants, Manufacturers, Professional Men and Officials; Together with a Full Gazetteer Information Statistics, Distances, Data, History, Population, Area, Valuation, Resources, Facts, Figures, Etc., Etc., of Every County, City, Town and Hamlet in Utah Territory (price: $3.00) compiled and edited by HLA Culmer. That’s a pretty long title. But what a fun book to read!

The publication is available online  and it’s a hoot. It literally attempts to document every resident in the state in 1880. It’s kind of like a cross between the Yellow Pages, a census, and a Chamber of Commerce brochure. Out of curiosity, I skipped through the pages to find Cedar City, Utah. And sure enough, there is a listing for my great-great-grandfather, “B. Nelson, bricklayer.” If you want a fascinating peek at Utah life in the period, flip through these pages. And the advertisements? More coffee and cigar ads than you can count.

In 1894, Culmer published a lively book for visitors to the state, and again, it is full of insight and wonder, The Resources and Attractions of Utah as They Exist Today (1894). It’s also available online.

Culmer was gradually exhibiting his paintings in national expositions and galleries. And he became popular enough in the early 20th century to paint full-time. (He’s currently represented at the Springville Museum, the Museum of Art at BYU, Utah Capitol building, Utah State Historical Society, and at Alderwood Fine Art gallery in Salt Lake.) His specialty was documenting unexplored wilderness, and in American Art history this is where he made the biggest impact. He was the first professional painter to travel to the interior of Alaska to document its landscape. He also traveled to remote places in Southern Utah to map and capture geological and archeological wonders. 

In 1905, as a member of the Commercial Club, he was selected to lead an expedition into San Juan County in Southeastern Utah in order to discover and explore ancient Puebloan dwellings, slot canyons, caves, and natural arches. One of the great unwritten chapters of Mormon Art is the influence of early painters on the creation and preservation of the landscape. In this, Culmer excelled. He was an artist, but also an amateur geologist and naturalist.

Culmer and two other men started off on their San Juan County expedition. They were later joined by four additional men (packers, guides, and cook) as well as mules and horses. Fortunately, Culmer kept a vivid journal of the trip. He also created numerous artworks, took photographs, and surveyed the arches with scientific instruments. It is a delightful document—full of humor, storytelling, poetic description, and adventure. Their objective was White Canyon (now part of Canyonlands National Park). In 1972, Culmer’s journal was published in the Utah Historical Quarterly, which is available online. It is an exceptional document. Here is one entry:

Apr 12. We "plunged" and had 25 miles of life in the mountains with a pack train, Starting (at [crossed out]) (not before) 9.30 owing to the labor of saddling and packing 20 animals, we certainly made a startling effect as we passed thro the town of Bluff and most of the populace turned out to see us depart.

I never enjoyed myself better than today. It was cloudy and threatening but did not rain until about 4 pm. A local photographer named Goodman — a very skilful man — took the cavalcade on our departure and again as we splashed thro the swollen waters of Cottonwood Creek. The first adventure was 6 miles further in crossing Butler Wash. I took (photos of) the party coming down the trail — then stopped to renew my films. By the time I came to the wash, the others were all a cross [sic], but my handsome horse, (Misnamed Dobbin), dashed down into the quicksand and rushing torrent and up the impossible rocks with a speed that took my breath away. I had an audience that was scarcely over the excitement of crossing and I guess they concluded that I was no tenderfoot the way Dobbin carried me through. The next adventure was 2 miles later crossing Navajo Pass. This is over Comb Ridge into Comb Wash. This ridge is about 500 feet high and runs N &S. 30 miles with only this place to cross it, and it is one of the dizziest things on earth, — Narrow, steep and rocky, But at the foot is Navajo Spring, a cold, clear, sweet and never failing supply that is famous for its excellence. Here we took lunch. Then up Comb Wash, fording a fierce stream a number of times, then up rocky steeps to the cedar mesas above. We were at a high altitude, and the view in every direction was superb; rocky canyons, breaks and cliffs, the Blues to the North East, the Elks to the N.W. where we were heading, and swooping swirling thunderclouds everywhere. Then the rain overtook us and every rock and cliff glistened in the rainshine. Among the sand and cedars, in a land where the sheep have never browsed, for none have been permitted to pass Navajo trail. Grass and flowers and an abundance of sweet water at this season.

Then as evening approached we entered Cascade Gorge with a hundred merry waterfalls swelling the stream, and around among the pines and cedars by a dizzy trail to a huge cave discovered by the cow boys a year or two ago. They asked us to name it and we called it Cascade Cave[.] The day was not without mishaps. Among other things, 2 of the 3 mules gave out right after lunch and they lay in the sand by the river as forlorn a sight as one might wish to see. But they dissimulated. As their loads were released, one of them turned loose with his business end and sent some of our food over into the Navajo Reservation, A fine shot at a can of Bents Crackers filled the air with dust and sent the larger pieces out into Monument Park 20 miles away. So they say."

I was so curious about Culmer and his fascinating life that I decided to continue research about him in my spare time. His papers are deposited at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah, and I noticed a strange reference in the catalog of his papers. I knew that he was associated with the Salt Lake Theatre because I am in the middle of researching a book on Mormon composers, and the Theatre is an important part of the history of Mormon music, and I have come across his name in the records of the Theatre. But among his papers was a reference to his original music.

Was Culmer—a chameleon if ever there was one—a composer, too?

I am lucky to have a friend who is a historian and musician named Joanne Rowland, and she went to the library for me to investigate Culmer’s music. I received an excited phone call from Joanne one afternoon. She was at the library and had just discovered that Culmer had written not only a few works for piano and voice, but also served as the lyricist for music by Arthur Shepherd and Evan Stephens. I’m well acquainted with these pivotal figures of Mormon music having documented all of their surviving music recently—nearly 1,000 works between them. And these Culmer collaborations are nowhere in their catalogs.

So now it gets interesting.

Arthur Shepherd was the conductor at the Salt Lake Theatre at the turn of the century for six years, having just finished his degree at the New England School of Music. Many people consider him to be the first great Mormon composer. It is unclear how Shepherd and Culmer became collaborators, but both had ties to the Theatre. At the time, Shepherd was active as a conductor, composer, and accompanist in Salt Lake City. H.L.A. Culmer wrote the lyrics for a 7-page Easter choral work composed by Shepherd. It is scored for chorus and organ. I don’t know whether it was ever performed. The manuscript is written in Shepherd’s elegant cursive hand. I have found no reference to it elsewhere in Shepherd scholarship.

In 1896, Culmer wrote a dramatization of the Sir Walter Scott novel, The Legend of Montrose for the Grand Theater. The Salt Lake Herald wrote about the upcoming production, “A genuine Scottish chorus will take part in the singing, rendering the music that has been composed especially for the piece by Mr. Evan Stephens. These songs have been written by Mr. Culmer.” (Salt Lake Herald, March 22, 1896) The Culmer papers include two works written for the Montrose production with music by Stephens, “Hunter’s Song” and “Battle Song.”

Ada J. Culmer (Harry’s niece) wrote the lyrics for two other songs that Culmer set to music, “Lost Melodies” and “Tell Me, My Soul.” Culmer penned the lyrics and music for the song, “Be Forever Mine,” and he wrote two piano solo works, “March” and “Catherine Waltz.” None of the above manuscripts have dates on them. Copies of these scores arrived in the mail last Friday. I’m digging into them now.

Isn’t it curious in life how one discovery leads to another, how a seemingly insignificant footnote can open the pathway to entirely new adventures? One of the most rewarding consequences of my dabbling with art connoisseurship is the way these disparate artists gradually come together to tell an exciting, integrated, and untold story of Mormon art.


Ultra Violet Has Passed Away

First published: June 2014

Yesterday, I received word that Isabelle Collin Dufresne had died that morning, Saturday, June 14, 2014. Later this week, there will be memorial services, obituaries, and public and private reminiscences, and I look forward to participating in them, but before that happens, I want to jot down a few personal memories today

I once lived with Ultra Violet. When I first came to New York in 1985, I lived in her apartment overlooking the Guggenheim Museum. I was too stupid then to realize that I would never again live in such a magnificent place. We had a mutual friend who arranged the short-term stay. I had no idea who Isabelle was. I walked into her home, past the huge Warhol paintings of flowers, the Steinway grand piano, and the numerous French antiques on my way upstairs. As I remember it, the apartment was on three levels, each with its own terrace overlooking Central Park to the West and down Fifth Avenue to the Empire State building to the South. The apartment included the entire roof. The airlines had lost my luggage, and when I called home to report the sad news, my parents asked how the apartment was. I said it was “a little small.”

Very little about Isabelle was small. I suspect that the art world will eulogize her as one of Warhol’s “superstars” and as the girlfriend of any number of very, very famous men, but to me, she was also Sister Dufresne. Maybe that belongs in the public record, too

In the mid-80s, she was working as a translator at the United Nations. I didn’t know anything about her art then. In fact, I didn’t know who she was at all until I happened to mention with whom I was living to my boss at Doubleday. He dragged me to the Art Books department, and let’s say I had a little education.

I’m not fond of categorizing artists regarding quality, but it feels right to me to say that Ultra Violet (she used both names, almost interchangeably when at church and “Ultra Violet” exclusively for work) was one of the most interesting Mormon artists in our Church’s history. She joined the Church after a health scare. The episode is documented in her best-selling memoir, Famous for Fifteen Minutes: My Years With Andy Warhol. The bishop at the time of her conversion was Mark Graham, a painter who lived downtown. 

I didn’t get the impression that she was a full-time artist until rather late in life. The subject matter of her works included angels, light, sky, celebrity, power, technology, and after 9/11, healing. She listed her influences as “Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and God.” 

It’s not my place to make sweeping statements about how she was viewed by others and by the Church in particular, but I find it quite difficult to explain its neglect of this influential, original, and believing artist. It’s sad because she had so much to offer people who followed Mormonism and the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

With Mormon Artists Group, a company I founded in 1999, I did a small project with Ultra Violet. She was wonderful to work with as a collaborator. And I frequently received emails from her acknowledging my projects and offering congratulations. She occasionally asked for advice, and I was always happy to help.

For a number of years, I tried to acquire some artwork by Ultra Violet. I’m not sure why it always fizzled out, but it did. If someone visiting the studio complimented her on a work and asked to acquire it, she would say, straight-faced, “You can have it…but not today.” And so it went, until two years ago. I began to feel an urgency about it. Strange, it’s not the kind of thing that I normally sense, but I just felt that I needed to push the issue. Ultimately, she was extremely gracious (and generous, frankly), and my family acquired four works created between 2002-2012. She thanked me for the work that I’ve done on behalf of Mormon artists, and she said she wanted me to have multiple works that, when seen together, meant something.

I’ve written a little about these works (as well as a brief biography of Ultra Violet) in the free ebook on our art collection (The Glen and Marcia Nelson Collection of Mormon Art). But maybe I can add a quick thought about one of the works now.

Hanging in our apartment is Ultra’s “Baroque Acrylic Quantum Mirrored Self Portrait (2012). It’s a mirror hanging in a (very) heavy acrylic frame that is cast from an old antique picture frame. With mirrored letters over the surface of it are two words “Self Portrait.” Many of the works late in her life are part of this series. It’s a meaningful work to me and to my family. My initial reaction to it was a literary one. I somehow imagined a benign Picture of Dorian Gray, and that over time my reflection would show what I had made of my life. My teenage children love this piece. They smile as they see their metamorphosing self portraits in the mirror. Of all the works in our home, it is the one that guests respond to the most and the most favorably. It just works.

But I was surprised to learn that it meant something different for Isabelle. She said, rather, that the work was about identity and democracy. On her website, she wrote, “The baroque Self Portrait mirrors created by Ultra Violet both empower and elude the viewers with their reverse images accepted as reality which, of course, they are not. Ultra offers the works of art as ‘everyone’s self portrait,’ as democratic illusion. The mirrors say, ‘You are real — you are not real — but enjoy your illusion.’” 

I don’t think that a person’s art is more important than that person’s life. I feel lucky to have met Isabelle and to have been in the same Church community with her for over 25 years. Her life changed me and continues to affect how I think and live, but for people who did not know her personally, Ultra Violet’s art will suffice and will likely grow in power over time, if they will let it do its business. It is religious art: just as spiritual at its core as a narrative painting of a scriptural scene, just as sacred as if it were hanging in a church. 

Her works could also be shocking. Although her views were conservative—I almost want to say “Ultra Conservative”—Isabelle was also aware that art has the power to change minds, but the first task is to get the viewer’s attention. In her studio in Chelsea, a small Campbell Soup can painting used to hang close to the front door. In the circle where the gold seal should be, Isabelle had painted a swastika. I cringed when I first saw it. But she explained that she once wrote a play about Andy Warhol, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Smith meeting in heaven. This was the connection.

To me, the most beautiful artworks she made were after 9/11. Deeply affected personally by the tragedy, Isabelle became a volunteer working at Ground Zero. Some of the Pop Art mannerisms faded from her work at that point, and images of a winged angel became a recurring symbol of heaven’s grace in the face of catastrophe.  

I never asked her what she thought of more traditional Mormon art. She was certainly supportive of the work I tried to accomplish in shining a light on all kinds of work by LDS artists. The only thing she told me was that when she went through the temple for the first time—an important moment in the lives of Mormons—she had expected to see the most beautiful art that she could possibly imagine. She thought it would be something that perhaps she had never experienced before. 

It seems to me that she was aspiring, in that moment and throughout the remainder of her life, to find a way to express it.


Songs of Joel

First published: June 2014

I grew up in the city of Enoch. It was not the city of Enoch, and not actually a city, either. The Southern Utah farm community was founded in 1851 by a Mormon poet and songwriter, Joel H. Johnson. He is most well-known today for his lyrics to the hymn, “High on the Mountain Top,” but Johnson wrote 736 hymns. My family ran sheep in Enoch, and I had heard of Johnson’s Fort as a boy without knowing the connection to this settler/poet. Recently, as I studied Early Mormon folk music of Southern Utah, I encountered Johnson’s life’s work, Hymns of Praise for the Young, Selected from the Songs of Joel. I think it’s sort of genius.

Here’s a picture of Johnson. He was born in Massachusetts in 1802 and converted to the Church in 1831. He served missions, founded settlements, was driven from them, and he witnessed the persecution and trials of the early Saints. All the while, he composed songs and captured them in his diary. It is as if the writing of hymns was the balm for his pain. Still, they are filled with such hope and joy. In the preface of his volume of hymns, he writes, “Most of the hymns in this volume have been written under very trying circumstances. The spirit that indited them would sometimes rest so powerfully upon the author, that his sleep would depart from him. At these times, the words of John the Revelator, when on the Isle of Patmos, would often be impressed on his mind: ‘And he said unto me, write.’”

For me, the power of Johnson’s hymns rise from their immediacy. They read like an intimate journal. He writes about leaving his family to serve a mission, about illness and death of family, about blessing his home that it will be a place of God. His hymns survey the landscape of the gospel as experienced in Deseret. He makes casual reference to the belief in a Mother in Heaven and Kolob, among other things. He seems to have responded to the events of his life by creating hymns that placed his experience in a gospel context. Most of the hymns are four to six verses. Here are a few excerpts

Hymn 27

With joy my heart did leap,

When Zion’s children said,

To Zion’s mount we’ll go, and keep

The solemn vows we’ve made.


For there, within her gates,

In safety we shall be;

While justice there on judgment waits

The hypocrites shall flee.


Hymn 161

Prayer is the atmosphere—the breath,

That keeps the Saints alive;

A principle that conquers death;

By it the righteous thrive.


Prayer, is desire that God hath given,

Through faith in Jesus’ name;

A sacred fire within; the leaven

That gives to love its flame.


Hymn 175

O Father, wilt thou now draw near,

In this sad hour,

And to this sick one, lying here,

Make known thy power.


Hymn 217

Go mother, to thy long sought rest;

Go to thy peaceful home;

Go thou and mingle with the blest;

Thy Father bids thee come.


This earth has now one gem the less,

And heaven must richer be;

Then may we in thy footsteps press,

And gain our rest with thee.


Hymn 228

To Kolob now my thoughts repair,

When God, my Father, reigns above;

My heav’nly Mother, too, is there,

And many kindred whom I love.


My Father sent me here below,

A tabernacle to obtain,

That I might good and evil know,

And endless lives and glory gain.


Oh, let me, then, return again!

To see my parents, whom I love,

And with my brethren live and reign,

In worlds where once I lived above.


Hymn 242

Farewell, my dear and loving friend,

The partner of my youth;

I am resolved my life to spend

In teaching men the truth.

I go in other climes to rove,

My babes with thee I leave,

The tokens of our constant love,

Thy care let them receive.


Hymn 267

Here may our little ones,

Be taught to seek thy face,

And shine like polished stones,

When they shall take our place.

And be prepared thy cause to roll,

In mighty pow’r, from pole to pole.


Here may thy prophet’s voice

Be ever heard to sound,

To make thy Saints rejoice,

Through all the nations round;

Till Zion’s cause the nations own,

And wickedness shall not be known.


Hymn 289

Forgive me, Father, all my wrongs,

And lengthen out my days,

That I may write a thousand songs

In honor of thy praise.


When mortal tongue shall cease to move,

And pen shall cease to write,

I’ll sing in nobler strains above,

With transport and delight.


Hymn 313

Alas! dear Lord, how frail am I;

I know that I am born to die;

My mortal body is but clay,

And soon must go the downward way,


To lay and moulder in the dust.

My spirit will return, I trust,

To him who sent me here below,

To prove me in a world of woe.


Joel H. Johnson culled his songs from his journal, and one year before he died, they were printed in a volume published by Deseret News Company in 1882. He died in a town called Johnson, Utah, September 24, 1883.


Samuel Jepperson, Provo Primitive

First published: February 2013

"I no longer set the price [for my paintings]. I am always happy to sell one, for that means I can make another. When I do not sell and find myself short, I scrape off an old one or paint it over, for I must paint." 1

- Samuel Jepperson

The parents of Samuel Jepperson landed in Provo, Utah in 1858, shortly after their conversion to Mormonism in Denmark and their immigration to the United States. Samuel was born in Copenhagen in 1854. From an early age, he showed interest in the arts, but his father would have none of it. The young boy drew in the margins of his school books and on any available scrap of paper. Without money to purchase supplies, Jepperson made himself a paintbrush by tying chicken feathers to a stick. And he mixed paintings using berries, roots, leaves, and mustard.2  He was equally drawn to music, and using a cigar box, he created a rustic violin and learned to play it (again, without his parent’s encouragement) by going to the barn where no one could hear him practice

At age 17, he went to work for an Oxford-schooled painter named Henry J. Maiben, who gave the boy lessons in drawing after he finished his labors of painting houses. A year later, he moved to St. George, Utah to paint decorations inside the new temple. Ultimately, he was not given the opportunity, but in his mind it cemented his identity as a man of the arts. His reputation spread, upon returning to Provo. He formed the Provo City Silver Band3  and led the band for 35 years. As the Provo Opera House neared completion in 1885, Jepperson worked painting scenery for German fine artist, John Selck. On opening night, he painted the curtain and also played in the orchestra.

Jepperson changed careers in 1886. He suffered from lead poisoning from painting houses, and his doctor urged him to work out of doors.4 He delivered ice. He sold fish and wild game, and to the surprise of locals who called his lowland property “Jepperson’s Folly,” he developed a productive orchard of prize-winning apples. He raised a family, too—eventually they all became artists and musicians—and all the while, he painted and made music.

He sold paintings by displaying them in shop windows, and occasionally he was commissioned to create murals, including the Knight Brothers Saloon in Provo, for which the artist painted nudes over the bar, of Adam and Eve.

In 1892, Jepperson painted a series of Utah scenes that were exhibited in New York, and the same year he was commissioned to paint historic scenes of Provo. History paintings and local landscapes comprise the majority of the 1,000 paintings Jepperson created in his lifetime. When depicting buildings that had already disappeared by the time Jepperson arrived in Utah, he sought out elderly residents who could verify his artistic choices. He yearned to be authentic.

Although he received some painting instruction from employers during brief periods, Jepperson was almost entirely self-taught. He was greatly influenced by early Mormon painters and made works that echoes theirs in subject matter and style, but there was no formal training.

Gradually, he farmed less and painted more. During the Great Depression, he struggled to find painting supplies. As any money came his way, he purchased paints.

The story of Jepperson differs from other early Mormon painters quite dramatically. The latter, mostly residents of Salt Lake City, found a community of art teachers and peers. Their interest in the arts led them away from home to study in academic settings, in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Paris. Jepperson never had those advantages and influences. Provo was not the cosmopolitan-fixated place that Salt Lake City was at the turn of the 20th century. For decades, Brigham Young had preached to the pioneers the civilizing virtues of refinement, and for a city of its size, Salt Lake City maintained a broadly artistic scene. In 1868, Young sent Abraham O. Smoot to Provo to tame some of “the wild” there. Smoot was mostly unsuccessful, but Jepperson, with popular music and unassuming paintings, elevated the community.

By the time of Jepperson’s death, he was a local hero.  In 1931, he died from an accident in his orchard. Even now, one of his paintings hangs in the Provo mayor’s office. Thirteen of his paintings are displayed at the Utah Daughters of Pioneers Museum in Provo, and more Jepperson works are in the collections of the Springville Museum of Art, Museum of Art (BYU), Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and, somehow, in the Witt Library in the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.


Notes - 

1 “Samuel Jepperson, Early Pioneer Artist,” by D. Tobert Carter, Beehive History 24: Creators, Utah State Historical Society, 1998

2 D. Tobert Carter

3 The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University holds a collection of musical scores collected by Jepperson as leader of the Provo Band.

4 100 Years of Utah Painting, James L. Haseltine, Exhibition at the Salt Lake Art Center, 1965


Digging Up the Pasha's Garden

First published: February 2012

Chapter 1

A Premiere Catastrophe

In the Pasha’s Garden … “had its premiere at the Metropolitan last week and established an all-time record for dullness and ineptitude. 

“Composer Seymour had said that the orchestra described the characters' true feelings in contrast to the words they sang. Perhaps this scheme was too subtle for the literal-minded. The music was never unpleasant, but for 50 minutes it ambled along like a monotonous introduction to something which never began. Unfortunately for the libretto, the Pasha was played by Lawrence Tibbett whose diction is so clear that the audience understood every word he sang. And fortunately for John Laurence Seymour a Manhattan audience will applaud any new opera.” 

(Time Magazine 2/4/1935)

The reviews were universally awful. Other notices of the opera, In the Pasha’s Garden, on the morning of January 25, 1935 called the production “just plain silly” (New York Daily News), and “This work impresses the writer as not one of the best but one of the worst American operas produced hereabouts in years. In the Pasha’s Garden is tedious and inept to a degree. It lasts only fifty-five minutes, but that becomes a very long time.” (The New York Times)

I am writing a book on Mormons at the Met. In my research, I came across the name of John Laurence Seymour in the opera house’s archives. I met Seymour while I was a college student and remembered that there was a Mormon connection. As I read articles written in 1934 and 1935 about him and his opera, some things didn’t add up for me. Here was a new opera premiered by the Met, sung by the most important American singers of the era, a score published by the biggest name on Tin Pan Alley. There were literally hundreds of articles written about Seymour and the opera, across the country, in newspapers of every size. The first-hand reports of the performances said that the audiences cheered for the work. It was a hot ticket. The American public followed news of it closely. The month of the premiere, The New York Times ran nine separate articles about the composer and the opera. Seymour was awarded a large prize for the opera on opening night. 

There must be more to the story than the bad reviews. Was the opera really as bad as all that? The history of opera is a parade of critics’ misjudgments. What was Seymour’s side of the story? What did it mean for Mormon music? I started digging. 

My first task was to find the opera’s score and see for myself what it was like. The piano-vocal score of the opera was published in 1934 by T.J. Harms, the Tin Pan Alley firm that discovered and produced sheet music by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and many other Broadway greats. The score was dedicated to Lawrence Tibbett, the towering American baritone who had already sung 395 performances at the Met by the time he premiered the role of the Pasha. I discovered a copy of the opera at Columbia University library, and thanks to a friend in academia, Claudia Bushman, I had a beautifully bound copy on my piano shortly thereafter.

I’m not a great pianist by any stretch, but I play well enough that I can give an approximation of a score. I opened Seymour’s opera and played through a few pages, first to see what the thing sounded like, and later to understand how he set the libretto to music. My first impression was that the music had an exotic tinge to it. Some of it reminded me of Debussy and early Strauss. I wrote to a couple of talented friends and asked for their help. Could they sing through some of the opera and give me their opinion of it? I asked help from Bryan Davis who is a baritone with a big voice to sing a bit of the role of the Pasha and Bill Atkinson, a marvelous accompanist with a curious mind to match. They agreed to record an excerpt. David Fletcher, who is also a wonderful friend as well as a musician and composer, helped me scan some pages of the score to facilitate things. As the musicians read through the score, I continued research into the history of the opera itself.

The one-act opera—it was originally titled The Eunuch—had been accepted by the Metropolitan Opera a year before its premiere. At the time, very few had ever heard of the Californian Seymour. An article by Talbot Lake in the Berkeley Daily Gazette of Oct. 30, 1934 lays the groundwork of the local public expectation, “Some men have greatness trust upon them, but most have to work long and hard before achieving it. John Laurence Seymour, of Sacramento, Cal., probably thought Dame Fortune was treating him pretty shabbily, but now everything is top hole, for the Metropolitan Opera Company has accepted his opera, In a Pasha’s Garden, (sic) for production this season. Until now Mr. Seymour has been virtually unknown to the public generally, and even among musicians his fame had failed to penetrate. Yet he has written ten operas, besides various instrumental works, during more than half his 41 years.”

The New York papers had a champion of American opera in the music critic for the Times, Olin Downes. More importantly, the music director of the Met wanted to champion them too. His name was Giulio Gatti-Casazza. The Met had a lamentable history performing new operas by American composers in its early days. “In the quarter of a century of the Metropolitan’s existence, from 1883 to 1908, before Mr. Gatti-Casazza’s arrival, not a single American work had been performed.” (NY Times 6/19/1934) The Times took every opportunity to remind its readers of the potential of American, “native” operas. It created goodwill that was rewarded, by the time Seymour came along, of acceptance and excitement for new works that operagoers could call their own. 

By 1934, under Gatti-Casazza’s guidance, the Met’s record of premieres had shifted, somewhat gradually, from all-European fare to an out and out embrace of American music. In June of 1934, The New York Times announced the premiere by Seymour. Newspaper articles around the country wrote about Seymour’s opera and printed photographs of the composer. The announcement in North Adams, Massachusetts printed this quotation by Seymour, “I am delighted and gratified. It is a testimony to the sincerity of the Metropolitan to promote genuine native American music.” (North Adams Transcript, 7/19/1934) Journalists began to use Seymour as proof that the tide of prejudice against American music was shifting. 

An unattributed newspaper article in The New York Times to announce Seymour’s premiere, presumably by Downes, beat the drum for American works, “One of Mr. Gatti’s first acts on assuming the managership was to start a contest for a new American work, with a prize of $10,000 to go to the winner. Mr. Seymour is in California. His music has not been performed in New York before, according to available records. The Metropolitan receives many compositions of native origin from composers who have not been commissioned to write them, and The Eunuch was one of these….” (NY Times, 6/19/1934)

Some speculation as to why Seymour’s work was selected hung over the announcement of the premiere from the beginning, primarily unsettling to New York journalists. Time magazine mockingly imagines the scene, “An obscure California schoolteacher sat down at his desk one day last week, flicked on his pince-nez and proudly put his name to a contract which soon was advertised all over the U.S. In Manhattan a slender Irish girl of 20 bubbled to reporters: ‘I'm thrilled to the ears.’ From his murky backstage office at the Metropolitan Opera, big, bearded Giulio Gatti-Casazza had just announced his plans for next season.” (Time 7/2/1934) For the rest of the country, the presumption was simply that Seymour was American and talented. 

Time’s piece is a strangely hateful, gossipy article that heaps skepticism on the unknown composer by attacking him personally. “The California schoolteacher was John Laurence Seymour, 41, a soft-spoken, nervous little man who lives with his mother in Sacramento, teaches dramatics at the State Junior College, wears gloves to keep his hands from sunburn, and composes operas. With little hope he submitted his latest effort to the Metropolitan. It was called The Eunuch. Henry Chester Tracy, a Los Angeles author, had written the libretto from a short story by Harrison Griswold Dwight (‘Stamboul Nights’). The Metropolitan picked John Seymour's opera for its next U.S. production and promptly renamed it In the Pasha's Garden. Gossip was that the Metropolitan judges, pessimistic about discovering a great U.S. opera, had stacked the best of the proffered scores and drawn lots. More likely, John Seymour's opera was chosen because it is brief, inexpensive to produce. It requires only one act for a pasha's wife to philander with a tenor, hide him in a chest which, thanks to a tattling eunuch, the husband orders to be buried.” (Time 7/2/1934) 

The speculation in the press about Seymour’s opera did not include that fact that the composer and the great American baritone, Lawrence Tibbett, who would sing the title role of the Pasha, and to whom the published score is dedicated—To Lawrence Tibbett in admiration and gratitude—grew up together. They both attended Polytechnic High in California. Tibbett was two years older than Seymour. They didn’t know each other then, but Seymour writes in his autobiographical papers that while Tibbett was performing Pelleas et Melisande in San Francisco, Seymour met with him after the performance and interested him in his opera score, The Eunuch. At the time, Tibbett was one of the leading voices of his generation, and he had taken a starring role in nearly all of the American opera premieres in the Gatti-Casazza era. He was one of its biggest stars. Tibbett was interested in Seymour’s one act opera, and in short order, the Met promptly accepted it, and the score was published by Tin Pan Alley. 

The anticipation for Seymour’s opera vacillated between a public that rooted for anything new and American, and a more skeptical, even insular, critical press in New York. Seymour was not exactly the naif that he appeared to be. Although his music had not been produced before, he had written nine operas—seven before Pasha and two after it—he graduated from Berkeley with a degree in languages, and then went abroad to study music composition with Ildebrando Pizzetti and Vincent d’Indy in Italy and France, respectively. 

As the date of the premiere approached, Seymour seemed to be in high spirits and conducted interviews that gave no indication of troubles. To the United Press he said that he, “was perfectly charmed with preparations for the premiere of his one act opera at the Metropolitan next Thursday.” After describing the action of the story to the reporter, he said, “It’s tough on the lover, but the motto in writing opera is: ‘Get the tenor.’” (Ogden Standard-Examiner, 1/17/1935) 

The world premiere took place on Thursday, January 24, 1935. It boasted Lawrence Tibbett as the Pasha and the debut of a 20-year old soprano, Helen Jepson, a soprano popular in her day because of her performances with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. As an opera star, she would have a rather distinguished career as well, but this was her first appearance at the Met. Another notable debut was the scenic designer, Frederick J. Keisler who would become an influential force in modernism in the U.S. He was a Viennese architect, and articles in the press leading up to the premiere called his concept of projections and abstracted scenic elements “revolutionary”. Ettore Panizza conducted the orchestra. With only one exception, the entire cast of singers was American. This fact was another source of pride commented on in the press. The premiere performance was a benefit matinee, an annual fundraiser for the Southern Woman’s Educational Alliance, an organization that aided rural young women with educational and vocational resources. The 50-minute opera was advertised as a double bill with Puccini’s familiar La Boheme which followed it. According to the Times report, the benefit raised $4,000 for the Society and had an “exceptionally large audience.” All told, Seymour’s opera was performed three times. First, paired with La Boheme on January 24, next with Pagliacci on January 28, and finally partnered with both Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci on February 13 (with Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson singing roles in both Pasha and Pagliacci). (Metropolitan Opera, archives.metoperafamily.org)

The curtain rose on In the Pasha’s Garden to reveal a series of curved ramps, stairs, a low wall, and a circular platform with a canopy hanging over it. Behind the set—a large chest was its only furnishing—hung a screen 70 feet wide and 40 feet high. Onto the screen was projected three large black and white leaves. The designer described the intended effects to one of the many publications that reported on the premiere, “They overhang the action vastly and seem to brood above it. Those leaves are threatening, sinister, watchful. But…it is not a static decorative setting. The whole movement of the plot is carried on in the movement of the background, the fading out of the microscopic sections of two leaves, the lighter moments of the lovers’ happiness, to their dark retraction during the moments of the Pasha’s vengeance.” (Carlton Smith, Literary Digest, CXIX, 1/1935) Kiesler’s design was calculated to focus on perpetual movement—a spiral always spinning, relationships between objects (and between characters) that are constantly evolving. 

The opera is a betrayal story which was represented with an enormous moon that grew in brightness and size as the story unfolded until it was some 20 feet in diameter, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (1/25/1935) The abstract design represented a rise in the garden of a Turkish Pasha. Many in the opera house were confused by it. “An angular, ascending ramp led up to it, and underneath was an object reminiscent of a back-yard tool shed. But it was the sky that kept the audience bewildered. On the left was a stereopticon effect in black and white, like cabbage leaves being devoured by a log of wood. On the right was a similar effect, apparently the microscopic photo of a leaf, or an X-ray of the venous system of a frog. All was very modern.” (The Salt Lake Tribune, 1/25/1935) 

The action begins with Helene, the young French wife of the Pasha, inviting the attentions of a young male countryman, Etienne, in the garden at sunset. She flirts, “April’s a gracious month. What do you think? Does not the day itself stand on the brink of some avowal?” He presses her to romance, but she keeps him at a distance, “Well, don’t be vexed but, tell me, after April, what comes next?”  Etienne replies, "A bliss is flawed, when once the end of it’s foreseen.” And she counters, “Flawed? Yes; and how could I forget that, truly, when shadows haunt us here, lest, quite unruly, we seize a happiness too great?” She is about to send him away when they hear others approaching. The lovers are nearly discovered by the eunuch, Zumbul Agha. Etienne hides inside a chest in the garden kiosk, but the eunuch hears voices and refuses to leave until the Pasha can arrive and be told of his suspicions. The eunuch threatens Helene, “You can’t deny that…you cannot! You would have your Christian friends, and so by Allah, this is where it ends!” Helene commands him to be silent. 

The eunuch, without telling the Pasha what is inside the chest, suggests they open it, “Now if this chest be opened, more, I think, might be confessed than I should care to speak; and it shall show who’s faithful in this house, if you would know.” The Pasha angrily threatens to put him back on the street and into poverty. The eunuch starts to leave as dinner arrives. Seeing that there is no table, the eunuch suggests they place their food upon the locked chest. 

Helene asks her husband about the kiosk in which they’re sitting. The Pasha replies that it was built for a beautiful Greek woman, “My grandfather, the Vizier, he’d charm the hours for that fair slave of his…Pomegranate, he called her.” The garden is decorated with the fruit and the Pasha notes how happy she was here. He asks if Helene is happy. She replies, “I cannot say.” 

Helene tells him the story of Pandora. “Zeus, in the myth, is angry, and he seeks Revenge, because the Titan stole his fire for men; and so he panders to desire and gives this girl, who’s full of ev’ry charm but brings him sorrow; ev’ry sort of harm and woe is hidden in a certain chest which, woman-like, she opens; and the rest the world knows—trouble sprang like wind from it and seeded all the earth; behind was left but one small waif.” The Pasha asks who would that be, and she replies, “Hope was its name. When she had clapped the lid, it stayed. We never see it, but it’s hid deep down; we cannot lose it, we cannot lose it, while we live.”

The Pasha decides to leave the chest closed. Helene retires for the night, but before leaving, she gives her husband the key to the chest. She calls to the eunuch who has been hiding to join the Pasha and says to him, “Who loses burdock heads must throw them far… ‘Tis well: one bears with dignity the things that are.” She leaves without knowing the fate of Etienne. The eunuch asks to have the key and take care of what he finds. Instead, the Pasha dismisses him and calls for a more trusted servant. Alone, he holds the key in his hand and walks to the chest. He listens to it and considers what to do. Shaban, his servant, arrives with a pistol. Instead, the Pasha asks him to go and get a shovel. They will bury the chest. As they dig a pit, the Pasha says, “Until this night, I have not cared to do the work of slaves; but now I think I will not shirk the weight of this. I see that all are slaves to something bigger; diggers, too, of graves.” They hoist the chest and deposit it in the hole. The Pasha blows out the garden’s candles. The sole illumination is a gigantic moon. He bows down to listen for sounds from the chest. He hears nothing but the nightingale’s song in the distance. He buries the chest and flings its key into a distant pool. The curtain falls.

The audience reaction to the opera is difficult to gauge. It certainly did not go off without a hitch. The audience was surprised by the modernist set. The costumes were also updated (the character of Helene wore a flowing, white gown with a bejeweled chiffon cape created by a Fifth Avenue couturiere; Etienne donned a blue coat and white flannels, and the Pasha wore a dinner jacket topped with a crimson fez.) Laurence Tibbett struggled, at one point, to light a cigarette onstage. He tried three times, his hand snapping more vigorously each time, until finally, a couple of weak sparks emerged. That is, I suppose, an apt metaphor for the reception in the opera house.

One newspaper wrote about the muted audience response, “At its conclusion, the audience for the most part sat silently for a minute or so. Then came a long round of curtain calls…” (Oakland Tribune, 1/25/1935) The audience applauded and gave numerous curtain calls to performers, conductor, and composer. Seymour was presented onstage with the Bispham Memorial Award. Presented by the American Opera Society of Chicago, the medal was given annually, beginning in 1921, for operas written in English. It was named after David Bispham a Wagnerian baritone from Pennsylvania at the turn of the twentieth century who championed the performance of operas in English. Upon receiving the medal, Seymour said, onstage, “I thank first Mr. Gatti-Casazza for his sympathetic support and fine production, and Maestro Panizza for his preparation and reading of my music. If I single out one among the artists, it is not because I am ungrateful to all the others who graced my little work. To Lawrence Tibbett I am grateful especially, since I believe him to be the foremost exponent of American opera active in its behalf at the present time. And last of all, let me thank the Metropolitan audience, because we folk who choose to labor in the theatre do it all in the hope of pleasing you. Thank you!” (NY Times 1/25/1935)

Seymour must have been pleased at the amount of attention the opera gathered. The premiere was covered across the country. The Times, for example, wrote nine separate articles about the opera in the month of January 1935 alone. After opening night, papers printed follow-up reviews for each of the performances of the opera. After the January 28th performances, the Times noted that the opera was “warmly received” and that the composer joined in one of the curtain calls. It published a letter from Seymour to Gatti-Casazza, “Permit me to thank you cordially for having produced my little opera (too little, it must be admitted, for your vast stage) at the Metropolitan. The adventure of this production has introduced me to the great public which seemed to be well disposed toward In the Pasha’s Garden. I venture to predict that this little work will win the sympathy of the public more and more this season. But whether it does or not, please accept the assurance of my sincere gratitude.” (NY Times 1/29/1935). After the final performance of the opera on February 13, the Times ran the last of its articles leading up to and reviewing the work. For the first time, it added a modifier to the opera, calling it, “…Seymour’s modernistic episode of the Near East.” 

Although the audiences responded, mostly, with enthusiasm, as the critics’ reviews appeared in print, it was clear that the critical reaction was decidedly less ambiguous. The set design merited mocking analogies, particularly the projections of the leaves. “Just plain silly”, "A magnified clam…uncooked tripe,”, "A slightly mildewed butterfly climbing a twig the size of a liner’s smokestack.” (New York Daily News, New York World Telegram, and New York Herald Tribune, all 1/25/1935) Time magazine wrote, “The kiosk resembled the turret of a battleship topped by an old-fashioned lampshade. To suggest the garden a lighting arrangement projected on the backdrop a horizontal stem and four big embryonic leaves. A moon was suspended in the sky like a bruised alligator pear.” (Time 2/4/1935) 

And the music? The New York Times review begins by citing again Gatti-Casazza’s goodwill toward American composers, “…which he has shown year in and year out, by his production of their works. It would be particularly pleasant, under these circumstances, to agree with complimentary remarks made on the stage by Dr. Henry Hadley to Mr. Seymour after the performance, but it is quite impossible to do so. This work impresses the writer as not one of the best but one of the worst American operas produced hereabouts in years. In the Pasha’s Garden is tedious and inept to a degree. It lasts only fifty-five minutes, but that becomes a very long time.” The Times review continues by adding something that the other critics ignore: the reasons why it didn’t work. 

“One listens, hoping to find something eloquent, distinctive, worthy of remark. The conclusion is forced that the work has little or no virtue for the stage, or as a musical score. It is dramatically ineffective. The music says nothing, either as melody without relation to the stage, or as means of characterizing the dramatis personae, or publishing their emotions. The style is post-Debussy with admixture of various influences. The writing for the voices is uneventful, monotonously rhymed, oblivious of laws of prosody or accentuation where treatment of the English language is concerned.” (NY Times, 1/25/1935) 

Thoroughly humiliated, John Laurence Seymour returned home to Sacramento and stopped composing. 

Chapter 2

Life After Pasha

“The newspapers and musical magazines attacked the opera ferociously. Musical America later stated that nothing so violent had ever occurred before in the city’s musical history. All of the criticisms were of the most mendacious and inappropriate source.” 

John Laurence Seymour, unpublished papers, 1980

I met Seymour once, briefly, before he died. I had a job as an English tutor in the library at Southern Utah State College when I was there as a student. I saw an old man in the library from time to time coming and going from an office in an isolated corner of the building. He was a frequent subject of wild stories of his eccentricities and history. At the time, I was more curious about his collections of things than his musical exploits. It was rumored that he had thousands and thousands of seashells that he gathered from his travels around the world. For those of us raised on farms in close proximity to the college, Seymour’s tales of travel and accomplishment were tantalizing peeks at the possible. Somehow, he had ended up in Cedar City, Utah and had set up a special collections department in the college library in honor of his mother. I was told that he had an opera performed many years earlier at the Metropolitan Opera. When I eventually spoke to Seymour, I found him to be gentle and a bit more than a little peculiar. I never broached the subject of opera with him. He didn’t bring it up either.

I have not thought about John Laurence Seymour for many years. It is only by chance that I come across his name one day on the Metropolitan Opera database. I am searching for American operas—with an eye toward any opera by a Mormon composer—when I see Seymour’s name and start making connections. I discover that Seymour moved to Utah after placing a lucky bet on the Las Vegas real estate boom in mid-century, which left him and his mother well off for the first time in their lives. They had happened upon the small town of Cedar City and its 15,000 residents on a drive to the region’s National Parks. There they settled. Seymour converted to Mormonism, and he began to form relationships with colleges in the state of Utah that would later perform his old compositions and premiere new works, including some with Mormon themes. In gratitude, he later endowed the libraries in Cedar City, now known as Southern Utah University, and at Brigham Young University in Provo. 

As I try to dust off the opera In the Pasha’s Garden and tell its story, I start at the beginning, with its score. The piano-vocal score was commercially published in 1934 by T.J. Harms Inc. At the time, Tin Pan Alley had a stranglehold on Broadway show tune sheet music, as high as a 90% monopoly. In 1929, Max Dreyfus who had bought out Harms but retained the name, sold the company to Warner Brothers. At any rate, Seymour’s opera must have been considered valuable enough to publish in 1934. I wonder what they saw in the score that the critics didn’t.

The volume itself is 97 pages long. On the title page, the one-act opera is listed as opus 17. On the dedication page is a photograph of Seymour—young, handsome, with dark hair combed back away from an oval face, his dark eyes behind pince-nez spectacles (old-fashioned, wire framed glasses that sit on the bridge of the nose rather than wrap over and behind ears).  He looks slightly away from the camera, unsmiling. He reminds me of a young Robert Downey, Jr. He is wearing a dark suit and with a high-collared white shirt. The volume lists characters of the opera, gives the setting and the time (“Early Twentieth Century”), and it gives a brief synopsis which is called, “The Argument.”

It’s beyond my abilities to sight-read the piano accompaniment and sing at the same time, but I spend a few hours slowly making my way through the opera at my piano. Seymour doesn’t make the sight-reading easy. The score is mostly in the key of B Major, with five sharps. That’s a lot of black keys for my fingers to navigate, and there are plenty of accidentals too, notes that deviate from the key signature to cancel the sharps. This key lends itself to an unusual sound, I think. There are plenty of ornamented figures in the score, also trills, runs, turns, slurs, triplets, and interesting rhythms. Occasionally, the composer has indicated an instrument playing—a flute, for example, piccolos, or a violin—and as I play I try to imagine the opera’s orchestration. The texture of the music is not thick. There is a shimmering transparency to it, like a harp’s glide that colors the music without burdening it unnecessarily with too many layers of sound. The music itself feels modern to me. The chords are surprising, the colors of them constantly shifting around underneath a base of melody. It is filigreed music and creates an atmosphere right away of orientalism and exoticism. I’m probably not explaining it very well, but I am certainly intrigued by it. At the same time, there is a melodramatic quality in the score. This is less subtle. Bass notes bound upwards in octaves as if to proclaim something dramatic is about to happen. When the voice parts arrive, their melodies are not doubled in the score, that is, they are harmonically related to what’s happening in the accompaniment, but the piano part is not duplicating exactly what the singer is singing. That aspect feels modern to me too.

Having read the plot already, I am aware of what is going to happen in the story. I keep looking for these narrative signposts, but I find them difficult to locate. I’ve imagined that I’ll encounter an aria by Helene or a duet between the lovers. These never arrive. Instead, it is all a sort of musicalized banter. It rolls along without a particular cadence to it. This strikes me as weird because the text itself is sing-songily rhymed to a fault. The libretto is printed in the score with uppercase letters to designate what would be the start of a line of poetry if it were printed in stanzas. For example:

How should I venture or how dare

To utter all—and yet, how could I care

To say the lesser, when I would confess

The greater things that on my spirit press?

The iambic pattern of syllables—unstressed/stressed—is really obvious when it’s written out poetically, but in the score, Seymour mellows it out and doesn’t set it so routinely. The story of the opera is supposed to be in the twentieth century, but the style of the libretto is old school, and I don’t mean that as flattery. The composer wisely, I think, emphasizes the syllables that suggest something rather than mechanically following the librettist’s archaic rhyme scheme and rhythms. Some words in the score are set stretched out in time and others are clustered together. The sense of the text isn’t lost, but the musicality of the libretto, however predictable, doesn’t seem to inspire the composer to follow suit. To me, the result is a bit of an artistic struggle that is at cross-purposes. 

I think the plot of the opera is kind of cool. There’s a mystery about it that I respond to, and I admire that the libretto isn’t obvious. Does Helene love Etienne? Is Helene betraying Etienne or her husband, by leaving the key behind? Anyway, I’m happy about the choices made that give the audience something to think about. In fact, very little is on the page. I’m left to guess about motivations and consequences, and I find that more satisfying that being presented with a melodrama of heroes and villains. By the end, is the Pasha a good guy or a bad guy? I like the fact that initially, I can’t say.

About halfway through the score, it starts to bother me that there haven’t been any big moments yet for the singers to shine. It’s all polite background music. All the same tempo, and mostly the same dynamic level of mezzo forte. Maybe the collaborators were going for subtle, but ultimately, it comes off as passive. I do like the story of—I wish I could call it an aria, but it feels nearly shapeless to me—Pandora’s box, sung by Helene. It’s a good conceit, but as the drama moves toward the end of the opera, I’m finding it all not particularly dramatic. The musical sound has stayed almost entirely in the same key with a brief excursion to C Major that my brain and fingers enjoy, like a vacation from rarer climes. 

Finally, the Pasha hears a sound in the locked chest, and the action turns murderous. That’s a problem though, because the sound isn’t represented in the score. At that moment and later on as well, including the scene in which dirt is heard falling against the buried chest, the stage directions indicate that the Pasha hears something, but the audience doesn’t get to hear it musically. Another lost opportunity, it seems to me. And by the way, if I were a composer writing an opera that I knew Lawrence Tibbett was going to premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, I’d be sure to write him something amazing to sing, something that showed off his voice and gave him a spotlight to wow the audience. Even if I had composed an opera before he was attached to its production, I’d rewrite moments to give his role some extra zing. I sing through his final pages of the score, which are almost entirely devoid of emotion in the vocal parts, and I am left scratching my head. No big notes, nothing held out, or loud, or high, or—I should just say it—of interest. There is a lot of emotionality in the accompaniment, however. Still, it’s the characters that audiences relate to, and I am left wondering if the character of the Pasha cares at all about his wife’s indiscretion. And as a result, I imagine that Seymour’s audience didn’t really care either.

Seymour died in 1986, shortly after I met him. Before his death, Seymour wrote a document about his life titled, “Foreword to a Life Story: Suggestions for a Biography by John Laurence Seymour.” He deposited it with a portion of his scores and papers in the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. He placed a restriction on the autobiography. It was to be sealed until 2010. In early December, I write to some friends employed at BYU, Michael Hicks, Jeremy Grimshaw, and Janet Bradford, to investigate the possibility of getting access to Seymour’s papers. They generously open doors for me. My request travels quickly through the necessary channels, and a package arrives at my door from the L. Tom Perry Special Collections of the Harold B. Lee Library about one week later. It is a photocopy of a 65-page document, written out longhand by Seymour, beginning March 28, 1980. That is six years before his death. 

The act of reading an account like this is uncomfortable to me. It has been a sealed document, and I suspect that I might be the first person to look at it. It’s an intimate thing looking over a document that is essentially a last will and testament, and to some degree, in Seymour’s case, it’s a settling of scores. I guess that attorneys encounter this all the time, but I’m unfamiliar with the burden of having admittance to a man’s final thoughts. As Seymour neared the end of his life, he responded to the urging of friends and librarians who wanted him to tell his life story. He had been a life-long diarist. He was aware that those documents would be preserved but also reserved for only a few scholars. Instead of writing an autobiography, he begins to make notes for some future biographer who might want to tell his story to a broader public. 

In many ways, his is an ordinary and happy turn-of-the-century childhood. He is an only child to parents who love him and encourage him. After he shows early promise, they provide violin lessons for him and expose him to great music, literature and nature. He is gifted with languages and music. He sees his first opera, Faust, in 1907, and he sees more and more operas and is deeply affected by them, until by 1912, he determines to become an opera composer. He had already started composing an opera in high school, writing in full orchestra score (rather then just the voice and piano accompaniment). Although he abandons and destroys his first effort, he begins what would become his first completed opera, Antigone, in 1916. (In old age, he will call Antigone his masterpiece.) Seymour graduates from the University of California at Berkeley in 1917 with a degree in languages. His father dies of pneumonia; he cares for his mother; and he ends up teaching at Sacramento Junior College. All the while, he writes music. 

The tone of Seymour’s document is surprisingly free of bitterness. That said, he notes how closely and repeatedly he came to success--the opera star Mary Garden was set to champion him, Pasha was originally going to be published alongside Porgy and Bess, his operas were commissioned and then managements changed and the projects fell apart, etc. Things outside of his control often scuttled his ambitions. And then there are his critics. It is not that he was criticized that bothers him, but the savagery of the antagonism. He is a mild-mannered gentleman, at least that’s the sense I get from his recollections. Although he is aware that he is smart and able, Seymour doesn’t seem to expect the world will open its arms to him. He is not entitled, I guess I want to say. And I wonder, as I read, whether he was entitled to a fairer appraisal of his music than he received.

The public interviews and letters written by Seymour at the time of the Metropolitan fiasco show no bitterness at all. I find them to be gracious and self-effacing. He repeatedly had used diminishing language when referring to Pasha: “my little opera,” “my little work” he said. It is as if he is grateful for any attention afforded him. But in his “autobiography”, he tells a fuller tale. 

When Seymour arrives in New York in December 1934 for rehearsals, he is immediately told to expect trouble. A colleague on the board of the American Society of Composers and Conductors warns him that certain writers in the New York press are indignant at Seymour because they had submitted works to the Metropolitan and were passed over in favor of an unknown composer from Sacramento. Seymour writes, “…they organized the press in a body to handle the upstart from the ‘sticks’ in such a manner that he would never get back on Manhattan Island.”

It is his naiveté, essentially, that causes as much trouble for him as the problems with the score itself. He blunders his way through a few crucial social gatherings and upsets members of high society, he handles the press awkwardly, and he had signed a contract that gave the Met the rights to stage the opera however they wanted, without his input. This last problem becomes especially acute when Seymour discovers to his horror that the design of the opera ignores the stage directions in the score, “…with complete disregard of the requirements of the libretto and with every evidence of a conceit amounting to mental disorder.” Seymour’s only options are to do nothing or to cancel the production. He is told that the Metropolitan is in bad financial shape and had ceded design to the Juilliard Foundation in order to finance the season. In return, in part, Kiesler would design the production of the new opera. “We rehearsed under a cloud because everyone in the production was disgusted and discouraged.” 

Then, the reviews come out. Seymour writes, “The newspapers and musical magazines attacked the opera ferociously. Musical America later stated that nothing so violent had ever occurred before in the city’s musical history. All of the criticisms were of the most mendacious and inappropriate source.” To add a blow upon a bruise, Seymour discovers that his hometown newspaper sent a journalist to cover the premiere who knew nothing about music and failed to get a reaction (or a rebuttal) from the composer. Seymour arrives home to find his reputation is destroyed. Other than a glee club performance of his Two Gentlemen of Verona in 1937, Seymour’s music disappears from view for the next 30 years. He suffers a mental breakdown, loses his job, and stops composing.

Why do we treat our creative artists this way? I immediately think of Samuel Barber and his own fiasco at the Met, the premiere of Antony and Cleopatra which opened the new house in Lincoln Center in 1966. After it’s critical denunciation (again, triggered by an overwhelming set design, this one by Franco Zefferelli), Barber, who is surely one of the great American composers of the 20th century, fell into depression and alcoholism, and died a broken man at the age of 70.

I am happy to see, as I read his papers, that John Laurence Seymour is luckier than that. He happens onto a real estate deal in Las Vegas and moves there in part to escape a life of working at Sears and Roebucks and caring for his elderly mother. His timing is perfect; he sells his parcel of real estate and becomes, for the first time in his life, able to travel the world and to endow libraries. He also joins the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Utah’s universities offer him opportunities to hear his old music performed as well as to write new works. BYU produces his early opera Ramona in 1970. He participates in the Mormon Arts Festival at BYU in 1972 with two ballets, The Maid, the Demon, and the Samurai, and The Closed Gate; he writes a musical folk play, The Lure and the Promise on a Mormon theme for possible pairing with the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City, and an operatic work based on the Book of Mormon, Nephi, The Tender Bough, for BYU (although it appears that neither of the later works was produced). There is a rebirth of confidence, and he forges additional connections with producers in South America who premiere a string of his new operas in Peru. As occasional barriers and disappointments block his path, Seymour seems able to sidestep them and continue on.

He ends the writing of his truncated autobiography on April 3, 1980 with the following statement of purpose, “I believe that each of us is here in this imperfectly explained experience to discover for himself and realize a divine mission. All our powers and all our longings and impulses are bestowed upon us in order to realize through what we term externalization the intentions of God, Divine Mind. I am convinced that my mission is to realize my potential—which is God’s design and endowment—to be an international composer and educator. If I am correct in this conviction, it is not conceit.” (“Foreword to a Life Story,” unpublished manuscript, 1980, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Library, BYU) 

Ultimately, Seymour divides his compositions, papers, and collections between four institutions. His own musical manuscripts end up at Brigham Young University. There are nearly 100 works in a variety of genres including works for orchestra, chorus, chamber music, and songs. Most striking, of course, are the operas and theater works. There are 22 of them, not only in a wide range of subjects and styles, but in English, French, Spanish, and German languages. (A list of the works follows in Acknowledgements and Further Study.)

John Laurence Seymour’s body was buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles. His grave is adorned with a large, black granite stone marker. On the back, it reads, “Dr. John L. Seymour, devoted son of Herbert W. Seymour and Rose Anne LaPointe, lifelong educator of drama, music, literature and language, prolific opera composer, international philanthropist, metaphysical practitioner, renaissance man, beloved friend of mankind.” On the front, beneath an arch of engraved flowers, appear his name and birth and death dates, “Jan. 18, 1893 and Feb. 2, 1986”. A verse from Job 19:25 is given, “I know that my redeemer liveth”, some musical notes are shown on a scroll, and at the bottom sits a farewell in German, “Alles liebe.” At the top of the stone is engraved his name, which is misspelled. 

Acknowledgements and Further Study

© “Digging Up the Pasha’s Garden” Glen Nelson, 2012

This article is an excerpt from a book I am writing about Mormons at the Metropolitan Opera. I happily acknowledge the individuals who assisted me in the research and production of this multi-media document--all are my friends and share an interest in Mormon fine art music: William Atkinson, Murray Boren, Janet Bradford, Claudia Bushman, Bryan Davis, David Fletcher, Jeremy Grimshaw, and Michael Hicks. I am especially grateful to the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University, an invaluable resource on LDS music; its archive of music by Mormon composers is one of the Church’s great treasures. 

Upon his death, John Laurence Seymour divided his collections between various institutions that had supported his career. BYU received his compositions, among other things. For anyone curious about his work, the following titles of his operas and theater works are a tempting look at what remains mostly undiscovered: 


Antigone, Heroic Opera in Prologue and Three Acts, op. 4; 

The Snake Woman, Romantic Opera in 5 Acts, op. 5 (discarded version); 

Les Precieuses Ridicules (The Affected Maids), Musical Comedy in One Act, op. 6; 

The Devil and Tom Walker, Fantastic Opera in Three Acts, op. 7; 

The Bachelor Belles, an Operetta in Three Acts, op. 13;

Vospitannitsa (A Protegee of the Mistress), Opera in 4 Acts, op. 15; 

In the Pasha’s Garden, An Opera in One Act, op. 17; 

Rudens of Plautus, Opera Comique in 5 Acts, op. 18; 

Ramona, Lyric Opera in Five Acts and Epilogue, op. 34; 

Ming Toy, A Musical Comedy in Prologue and Two Acts (1949); 

Two Gentlemen of Verona, An Operetta in 2 Acts, op. 38; 

Golden Days, A Comic Operetta in Two Acts, op. 40; 

The Maid, the Demon, and the Samurai, op. 43; 

Tom Walker’s Bargain, Fantastic Opera in 4 Acts, op. 66; 

Measure for Measure, Lyric Drama in 5 Acts, op. 69; 

The Lure and the Promise, a Musical Play in Three Acts with a Prologue and an Epilogue, op. 70; 

Aureng-Zebe, Heroic Opera in Five Acts, op. 71; 

Nephi, The Tender Bough, A Music Drama in a Prologue and Five Acts, op. 72; 

Ollanta, el Jefe Kolla, Opera Eroica en 4 Actos, op. 73; 

Atahuallpa, Opera Eroica en 5 Actos, op. 75; 

La Vida es Sueno, Opera Romantica en 3 Actos, op. 77;

Sappho, Romantische oper in 5 Aufzugen, op. 78. 


Elders on Broadway: My Thoughts About The Book of Mormon, the Musical

First published: April 2011

I have resisted writing about the Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon. I’ve been approached by newspaper and television producers to discuss it from the point of view of an LDS person who makes a living in the Arts, resides in New York, and sees a lot of theater. But criticism isn’t really what I do, aside from the occasional Facebook post saying that I enjoyed something or other; so I didn’t want to weigh in. I also didn’t like how the reaction of Church members to the show was seen as some kind of spiritual litmus test by their peers of their degree of belief in the gospel. That irked me, and I didn’t want to have to calibrate my reaction to that kind of skewed expectation. Maybe I was waiting for the froth of interest to die down in order to write about the show in a more reasoned way and not merely pushing back against the volleying hype and critical reaction to the show.

This has certainly been an unexpected phenomenon in the Mormon community. I’ve received letters from friends all over the country, members as well as people who know almost nothing about the Church, all curious—what is this musical about? Almost all of the people in the media who initially spoke about the musical from an LDS perspective in interviews with newspapers, television, and radio are close friends of mine. I pointed journalists to them, knowing that they are articulate members likely to have something interesting to say. I hesitated to disagree with them.

But I’m going to write about it now. My two cents, I guess.

I saw the show with my wife on a Friday night, eight days after its opening night. A friend who is a member of the Church bought the front mezzanine tickets and invited us as his guests. (Ticket prices range from $69.00 for rear mezzanine to $142.00 for the orchestra.) Ultimately, he changed his mind about wanting to see it and gave away his tickets. We went by ourselves on his dime. My wife’s Church calling is Public Relations at a regional level, and she thought it would be helpful to know what everybody was talking about. I was just going along for the ride.

At the time, it was impossible to be a Mormon in the city, working in the Arts, without having followed the ramp up to the show. I read the interviews in Playbill magazine, other general interest magazines, and the newspapers. I saw the interview on Jon Stewart. All of which I found curious because it seemed that the show’s creators were doing major damage control regarding the Mormon issue. There were also articles in the local press about the musical, dangling its naughtiness as a tease to prospective ticket buyers. That’s nothing new.

It was not a slam dunk idea, and the word of mouth that the articles generated was significant and positive. The show was the third major musical this season to open cold in New York, without a run in another city first to test the waters. The other two were cautionary tales of theater-producing woe: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a critically intensely-reviled—The Times said, “’Spider-Man’ is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway; it may also rank among the worst.”—but at least so far commercially popular musical. The fallout from the critical drubbing of Spider-Man is that director was just fired (the show, after repeated postponements in months of preview performances is soon to close down for major rewriting before trying again, something that almost never happens on Broadway). The other cold opener was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a musical that looked incredibly promising on paper but simply wasn’t good enough to make a go of it (I sort of liked it though).

That was the environment that BoM stepped into. It featured nobody famous on stage and a couple of writers that had never written a Broadway musical before, although their long-running tv show South Park gave them some Broadway street cred. Sometimes, the Broadway community can be quite cold to newcoming composers, however famous they might be elsewhere—Paul Simon and Barry Manilow spring to mind.

As we walked into the Eugene O’Neill theater that night, which is one of Broadway’s perfect spaces—not too big, not too new—the first things I noticed were the noise level and the audience’s demographics. Friday night shows are like parties anyway, but this crowd was much younger, more boisterous, and already eager to have a great time. I’d say the audience was twenty years younger than most Broadway musicals attract, maybe more. Even rock-based shows like Green Day’s American Idiot, Rent, Tommy, and Spring Awakening had audiences that were considerably older than BoM, at least when I saw them early in each of their runs. When the lights went down, there were hoots and hollers. It hit me: this was a South Park audience. I’m sure that some of them had never been inside a Broadway house before.

By now, the plot of BoM has been told enough times that I don’t have to go into many details here. LDS missionaries sent to Uganda face impossible social issues for which they’re totally unprepared. After various shenanigans, all ends happily with the conversion of an entire village and, perhaps, the Ugandans’ metamorphosis into Mormon missionaries themselves. That’s the plot.

From my point of view, the critical reaction has been odd. The Times, which is usually pretty tough on shows, called it “heaven.” In fact the raves are pouring in. They are almost unanimous in agreement that BoM is fresh, brilliant, innovative, and fun. Almost everyone, by the way, also writes something in their reviews noting that the show is uplifting, even hinting at a spiritual awakening of its audiences. It’s no surprise that with that kind of critical reaction and great word of mouth, the show is selling out, actually about 102% each week, since it has standing room availability. On my way past the theater this afternoon in the rain, a line of twenty young people was already forming in hopes that returned tickets for this evening would become available. Fat chance.

I point out the critical reaction because in almost none of these news publications were the texts of the BoM songs printable. In their reviews, the critics talked about crudeness but couldn’t get any more specific. The New York Times doesn’t allow the F-word in print, for example, and the language in BoM gets a lot more raw than that. In The New Yorker magazine which has a liberal policy on language, I read some complete lyrics to the show before I attended, so I knew that I was in for harsher language than a F-bomb. And so it was.

I mention this emotional thing about reacting to the reactions of others because that is at the core to much of what I’ve read about the BoM, particularly as it is connected to the Church. How offensive is it? Is it mean? How raunchy is it? How is the Church portrayed? How much damage will it do? These are not the same questions you ask about Chicago, a musical that has its own small touch of Mormon-baiting.

Those questions have merit, I guess. The musical’s opening night was only four days after HBO’s Big Love aired its Church-bashing finale—in which a Mormon neighbor kills the lead character of the show who is a polygamist. Big Love didn’t do any favors for the Church, let’s say. It wasn’t a show I watched after one episode. I was nervous about BoM and wondered if I’d be spending dinner parties for the next year talking about it uncomfortably with friends.

The Book of Mormon, the musical is mostly what everybody says it is. Its tone is sweet and its delivery calculatedly offensive. I sat by an African-American woman who winced throughout the show when Ugandans were stereotypically portrayed. An older man in the row in front of me was clearly offended by the language and the onstage sex acts. He didn’t applaud for those songs, I noticed. And I sat on my hands for a couple of numbers too. When the character of Jesus is portrayed in pretty ugly ways in the song about his upcoming crucifixion in the song, “Man Up,” some people in the audience cheered and a few others sat, battered and shell-shocked. I would say the vast majority let it all roll off of them though, and they just had a good time. They reacted to Mormons in the show the same way I have in the past to jokes that started like this: a priest and a rabbi walked into a bar…. Throughout the show, they laughed a lot, much more than most Broadway performances I attend. There was a standing ovation at the curtain, of course; that doesn’t mean much these days. They loved it.

So what do I have to say about the show itself? First of all, BoM wasn’t written for me. I’m not its target audience. That is, the show and its creators couldn't care less how I react to it, being LDS. Another way of saying it is BoM isn’t provocative, after all is said and done. It isn’t trying to pick a fight with anybody. Maybe it has a beef with Uganda, a nation whose anti-gay policies are heinous (homosexuals can be jailed for 14 years and if a current bill is passed, be executed in certain circumstances), but even that intent might be a stretch. At intermission, my wife asked me if I wanted to leave. I said that I thought I could stay because I had heard so many people talk about it being uplifting, and frankly I hadn’t seen it. I stayed, and I’m glad I did.

I have two general comments. The first is about how the show presents the Church, and the second is about the business-end of it. As strange as it sounds, the show is very warm to the Church. The word that keeps coming to my mind is affectionate. Before I saw the musical, I thought the creators were doing such extensive posturing in the media in order to avoid a backlash from audiences who might think they were attacking us. The show’s creators repeatedly say they love the Church; they think we’re all nuts, but that we’re nice nuts. After seeing the show, I take them at their word on that. Furthermore, that is the message of BoM. All of the crude language and vulgar acts come from other characters in the show, not the Mormons. The missionaries and their families are presented as sweet, naïve, generous, open, do-gooders. There are lines in the show about the Mormons just being nice. It’s almost a mantra. I think the writers mean it sincerely.

There’s a scene in which the Ugandan villagers are all in white clothing being baptized. Strangely enough, it’s quite moving. And I’m not the only one who thought so. The audience got very quiet at that point. The show ends on a Mormon-induced euphoria, an interesting mirror to the opening scene that introduces missionaries at the MTC. At the end of the show, I felt like it was “cool” to be Mormon in the eyes of the audience. I imagined that my friends and neighbors were going to ask me about the show, and I would say, “I was a missionary like that. They sent me to places like Uganda and I was over my head with issues of poverty, devastation, disease, and hopelessness. I didn’t know what to do either. I simply tried to make the world a tiny bit better, and I think the people I taught changed for the better.” And indeed, that is what has happened. My wife, who works in Sales, has been inundated with questions about the musical; it's all people can talk about when they hear she's LDS. Being able to talk about it knowledgeably has been invaluable. My guess is that if real Mormon missionaries were parked outside of the Eugene O’Neill theater every night, that they would have many great conversations with people who had otherwise never thought about the Church in a positive way. Such positive chats would be considerably less likely after Angels in America currently running Off-Broadway on 42nd Street.

The Church has absolutely nothing to fear from The Book of Mormon musical. That opinion is the base of why I’m writing this. I think that anything people of our faith write in the mainstream press at this point—those silly articles about how they haven’t seen the show, and won’t see it, and want to justify how the Church is helping the people of Africa—is unhelpful, maybe even damaging in the long run. It is a defense that follows no attack. If we are a major world religion, we could do a lot worse than this. Ever heard of Nunsense, one of the longest-running shows in history? This musical calls for no Church response.

Many times in the performance, I thought to myself, as an overview of Joseph Smith began, or when diorama figures from the real Book of Mormon popped up, Here we go. This is where it gets ugly. But you know what? The show never goes there. It easily could have. And at the same time, they get into serious theological, cosmological stuff, most of it flying over the heads of the audience. Doctrinal inaccuracies? There are almost none.

I’m glad I went. I might even purchase a couple of the songs from iTunes when the cast album comes out. Still, I can’t recommend the show to anybody. It’s just too much. I was frequently uncomfortable watching it. But that’s a different thing than saying the show is hurtful or willfully antagonistic to the Church. It simply isn’t.

The Book of Mormon musical is a hit. I want to add a comment about that. More accurately, it is a hit right now. But Broadway shows don’t make money here. They make it on the road. Shows can play for a couple of years and barely make their investment money back. BoM has a large cast, that is, large weekly overhead costs. If it keeps selling out, it will return a profit, but that’s the gamble. The logical question is how can that show possibly tour the country and make money? Where will it play? Who will tolerate the language and pay the ticket prices? I was wondering how they can even come up with a number to perform on the Tony Awards ceremony in June. By bleeping, I’d guess, or by altering the lyrics. But cities around the country aren’t like New York, and the size of the houses are a lot bigger elsewhere. Whether BoM can swoop into a regional town and play for a week seems iffy to me. And licensing down the road? Schools can barely get through A Chorus Line without trouble from censors. It’s not a given that this show is going to pan out for its producers.

Some people are predicting a Tony Award for Best Musical for BoM. It isn’t unlikely. The only doubt I have about it is the fact that when Avenue Q, another slightly naughty musical, sort of an R-rated Sesame Street--the two shows share members of the creative team--won a few years ago, it did it  in part by promising a national tour. But the week after it won, Avenue Q pulled the rug out from under those theaters and signed a contract to go to Las Vegas exclusively (which turned out to be a mistake when the show for which a casino built a new theater, quickly closed, losing the entire investment). It’s possible that the same theater owners will remember that slap and think twice about voting for BoM. The award is all about commercial viability. Last year, the edgy American Idiot lost to a tamer, friendlier Memphis. It’s also possible that voters will go with another show such as Catch Me If You Can, which I think sings, dances, and acts circles around BoM, but it lacks a cool reputation. And cool sometimes matters. I haven’t seen Sister Act yet, but my friends liked it a lot too. Time will tell. Still, a Tony Award is no guarantee to success. It doesn’t hurt, obviously.

I have two major criticisms of the show, and they are significant: the music and the performances. Maybe I’m missing the point and shouldn’t expect a musical to be about great music and about singing, but I’m not willing to give it a pass just because it’s satire. The show is written like a string of little comedy sketches. The music has a college-revue quality to it. It’s certainly not inventive compositionally. It nearly feels uncreative to me. The lyrics are so prominent (and clever) that the music almost disappears. It reminds me of The Producers and Spamalot, both of which were written by funny people who weren’t theater writers either. But here is the other criticism. Mel Brooks’ songs were made great because of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Spamalot, ditto, and featured great comic actors like Tim Curry, Hank Azaria, and David Hyde Pierce. BoM falls short here. The performers are strictly B-listers. They look like they were gathered from cruise ships and Disney outdoor summer stages. Relative to the other shows currently playing right now, BoM is blandly cast.

I lay the blame on the creators rather than the performers, however. The show coasts on shock value, which will lose power over time as such things always do. The compositional technique in BoM just isn’t there yet. The work is almost boring, really, in its musical predictability. My wife commented that it sounded to her like a roadshow. The more earnest songs struck me as sounding like the campy “Liken the Scriptures” videos that my kids love and watch on Sunday mornings. The BoM songs are formulaic and without invention. The counter argument is that it’s all satire and so the rules of quality don’t apply. I disagree. At the very least, the direction is the opposite of fluid, and it highlights its structural flaws.

Still, the songs are very funny to audiences, and they all land, as they say around here. BoM works although it doesn’t work for me.

Through Death Valley; or The Mormon Peril

First published: March 2011

Through Death Valley; or The Mormon Peril, a play by Joseph Le Brandt, opened at the American Theater in New York City (at 260 W. 42nd St.) on October 7, 1907. It later played around the country and abroad. It opened in London in 1911. At auction recently, I purchased a novelization of Through Death Valley, written by Olive Harper (a pseudonym of Helen Burrell Gibson D’Apery,1842-1915). It was published by J.S. Ogilvie Publishing Company, NY in 1907. The cover lists the price as 25 cents. I paid more than that. 

The title page promises "A moving story of Mormon life”. Curious for a CliffNotes summary? Saddle up.

“It was in Provo, Utah, that a man named Hamilton lived with his one wife and two daughters. He was a member of the Church; but as he was but a poor miner in search of a fortune, he was let alone. His adored wife and he lived most happily with their children, although poverty, bitter and cruel, kept them in debt and in need of many things. Still the faithful love they felt for each other made the lot of Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton an ideally happy one.” (p. 12)

The happy Hamiltons are contrasted with the menacing Danites. “When the dreaded name of the Danites is whispered in Utah, both the one who mentions it, and the listener, grow cold and pale with fear and terror. It means the death of the man or woman who incurs the displeasure of the Church. It means that the man or woman who hesitates about obeying the orders of the Church is marked for death, a swift and silent death, where none may see or know how it is accomplished save the Destroying Angels.” (p. 11)

In Provo, Elder Noah Claypool, a leader of the Danites, runs a general store with a saloon in back where “many a man had found greater misery than he sought to drown.” (p.13) All Church members in Provo are obliged to shop at Claypool’s store.

The mountains of Provo are mined for gold. “There were mines all through the mountains that hemmed in the valley, and much gold had been taken from them, and still was being found.” (pp. 14-15)

Claypool’s son Ike is mean to a little girl named Cahill which brings Gray Wolf, an Indian, to her rescue, “He heap big coward. Him frighten only little girls.” (p. 17) Gray Wolf is devoted to the child because her father Pat saved his life. Pat Cahill arrives and angrily insults Claypool. Pete, "a miserable Indian, one who was ready to commit any crime at the command of the Mormons for the sake of whiskey” (p. 21) agrees to punish Cahill.

Mrs. Hamilton is threatened by Claypool who warns her to tell her husband that he’s been missing too many Church meetings. Meanwhile, Jack, a young man that has been “enmeshed in the habit of drinking” (p. 29) by Claypool, gets into a fight and is rescued by Hamilton’s daughter, Bess, who is accosted by Ike Claypool, “Oh, mother, he tried to kiss me!” (p. 34)

Jack Barton arrives and intervenes, “If he tries to do so, it will be the last time he will ever try to kiss any one again on God’s earth.” (p.35) Claypool threatens the family with Danite retribution, when Mr. Hamilton enters and says he has struck it rich, “…showing a double handful of free gold in good-sized nuggets.” (p. 36) Hamilton, who is luckier than smart, celebrates while Claypool and his cronies plot against him. He says, “Do not forget the Church, and the duty you owe it, for if the Lord had not smiled upon your efforts, you would never have found the gold.” (pp. 36-7) Hamilton responds that the Church will have its portion, “I want every one to share in my good fortune.” (p. 37)

Claypool points out that Hamilton only has one wife, “But the teachings of the Prophet?” (p. 38) Hamilton refuses. Jim, Jack’s older brother, tries to get Hamilton to leave with his family and accompany him to California, knowing that Hamilton is now a marked man, but Hamilton says that he has worked too long to give up now. Jim prepares to leave for California. Meanwhile, Claypool gives the order to have Hamilton killed.

Jim overhearsJack tell Bessie Hamilton that he loves her but must go with Jim to California. “Jim reeled as if struck by a bullet as he heard his brother say these words.” (p. 48) He does not hear her reply, that she can’t marry Jack because she secretly loves another (it’s Jim).

Claypool tells Bess that her father is in danger but will be spared if she marries him. He attacks her but Jim comes to the rescue. “I hate you, Jim Barton,” he sneers, “with a deadly hatred. You have threatened me once too often. You will never get out of Utah alive.” (p. 56) Bess is comforted by Jim and almost tells him that she loves him when word arrives that Mr. Hamilton is dead.

“Ten days later, Jim was standing at the head of a ravine and looking off toward the yellow alkali desert, and planning the way to get out of the hands of the Mormons.” (p. 62) He has the Hamilton girls, the Cahills, Jack, and Gray Wolf with him. His plan to is get to safety at the Grand Canyon and then return for Mrs. Hamilton. But Claypool is ahead of him, and he makes assignments to dispatch Jim’s party, one by one.

Ike’s shot at Jim goes wide, and Ike is captured. Ike tells them that Mrs. Hamilton will be set free if she signs the deed of the mine over to Claypool. Jack is shot. Bess dresses Jack’s wound and confesses that she loves his brother, Jim. Ike takes the rifle and shoots Jack. Claypool abducts the sisters.

“Don’t lose a minute Jim,” Jack says to his brother as he returns, “Bess—hands of them devils—they will take her back to Utah.” (p. 73) Jim promises to get her back for Jack to marry her. “…I’m done for, old boy, but it is you she loves—not me—you.” (p. 74) “…and with two or three gasping breaths, poor Jack was dead.” (p. 74) Jim swears revenge.

Crossing the Grand Canyon to the great desert beyond, Bess and her sister are dragged by their evil captors, “Across the terrible desert the strange mesas stood like the ruins of some giants houses, but except for a few cacti and mesquite bushes, there was no vegetation, nothing to relieve the monotony of the bare rocks and the naked desert below.” (p. 77)

A messenger arrives to tell Claypool that Mrs. Hamilton has been rescued and that they can never return to Provo, “There’s hell to pay down there. The United States troops are in charge and have confiscated all the Church property.” (p. 81) Claypool is a wanted man. The wicked band determines to set off for New Mexico.

Mrs. Hamilton arrives to Jim’s party. Gray Wolf senses danger, and says, “Gray Wolf have sharp eyes, and hear grass grow. Gray Wolf save his friends. He go, look, see.” (p. 86) They all see Ike Claypool lift Flossie (Bess’s younger sister) overhead and hurl her off the side of a cliff in the distance. Fortunately, the child is caught on a branch of a “scrubby tree” and is safe.

A week later, the Claypool gang is traveling through the desert of Death Valley, Bess in tow. As a thunderstorm gathers force, Jim approaches. The Danites tie Bess to a cactus and gag her to lure him into an ambush. She gets the gag loose and cries, “Down, Jim! Down for your life!” (p. 95)

“Jim, whose wits had been sharpened by life where every minute of his experience was more or less fraught with danger, dropped to the ground, just as all the men in ambush fired at him at once.” (p. 95) Bess implores Jim run, but he refuses to abandon her side, and he is captured. Ike raises his pistol to shoot Jim, when "a terrible flash of vivid lightning blinded him for a second…” (p. 97) and Jim knocks away the gun, grabs Ike’s knife and kills him “in memory of my brother” as Claypool watches from a distance. Jim is recaptured.

The Danites drive stakes into the ground and tie Jim’s spread limbs to them. Pete grabs a rattlesnake to torture Jim. Bess is hysterical. Claypool says that if she agrees to marry him, Bess can go free. Over Jim’s cries, Bess agrees. Claypool gives Bess to Pete who says, “You mine, pale-face beauty—Pete’s squaw.” (p. 103)

The Danites rebel and draw lots for Bess. Jim’s cries are drowned out by the roaring thunder of the storm. They bring the rattlesnake and tie it to another stake in the rocks. Claypool says, “Now die! Die with that snake’s poison running like fire through your veins, with your head throbbing, your body swelling to burst, your eyes starting from their sockets; and for consolation think of your sweetheart in Rattlesnake Pete’s arms!” (pp. 109-10) Jim is left alone with the snake getting closer. Suddenly, Jim hears Gray Wolf’s cry. He appears and shoots the rattlesnake as it raises its head to strike.

Ten days later, and the fleeing villains (and Bess) are wandering lost and dying in the desert. The group argues about a plan of action. One of the men, Bill, grabs the canteen and gives the last drops of water to Bess, who can no longer stand. Pete kicks her repeatedly. Gray Wolf appears, and he kills Pete.

The next morning, Bess is recovered by her family, but the others are engaged in a shoot-out. The villains have more ammunition, but finally, Claypool raises a flag of truce. “Be careful, Jim—he snake in grass,” says Gray Wolf. Claypool enters the camp, tries to make a deal, and then sees they have no more bullets. He tries to shoot, but Jim grabs him by the throat.

And then, United States soldiers enter, and they grab Claypool and his men. Bess saves Bill, noting his kindness. He tells Jim, “Thank you pard, and I want to tell you that you are getting an angel of purity and goodness in that gal. She is worthy the best man that ever trod this earth.” (p. 124) Meanwhile, Claypool escapes and stands above them, his gun pointed at Jim. “Suddenly Bess pointed above and screamed: ‘Jim!’ and all turned to see Noah above them. Gray Wolf, who had crept up behind him, threw his arm up as he fired. Jim waited for no orders, but seizing Jasper’s gun, fired, and all had the satisfaction of seeing Noah throw up his arms and plunge headlong into the canyon.” (p. 124)

The novel ends immediately, “’Bess, Bess, come to me!’ shouted Jim, and the proudest man in the world might have envied Jim his joy, and Bess her sense of safety.” (p. 124)

Well, I didn’t say it was a subtle book. But it was a hit in 1907.


A Séance in the Mormon Tabernacle: Art and Spiritualism of Natacha Rambova

First published: July 2009

“In the frenzy of despair that gripped the globe, several suicides were reportedly committed in reaction to [his] death…”

This passage was written, not about Michael Jackson in the summer of 2009, but about Rudolph Valentino, whose death in August 1926 set off an international whirl of mourning. The Latin Lover had seemed to rally after an operation to repair a perforated ulcer but died a few days afterward. Women threw themselves off of rooftops. Fans wept in the shrines they built in their homes.

In New York, 10,000 mourners arrived outside of Campbell’s Funeral Church on Manhattan’s upper-west side before dawn to view the body on the day of his funeral. By the afternoon, that number tripled. The mourning mass broke through a line of 50 policemen and crashed through the plate glass windows. Outside, cars were overturned, and store windows smashed. A dozen mounted police officers pulled out clubs and trampled fallen bodies onto the street as Valentino’s corpse lay undisturbed inside. He had collapsed after his wife, the woman who had created his image and guided his meteoric career left him and filed for divorce.

Mrs. Valentino was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, the great-granddaughter of Heber C. Kimball. Born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy, she changed her name to Natacha Rambova and became an artist in a dizzying range of endeavors. Here is a snapshot of her accomplishments:

Wink, as she was nicknamed, studies ballet in London as a teenager and determines after watching Anna Pavlova, that ballet will be her career.

When World War I begins, Wink studies with Theodore Kosloff in New York and changes her name to Natacha Rambova to tour with his company. She falls in love with Kosloff at age 17.

Performing in Hollywood, she meets Cecil B. DeMille and designs costumes for his film, The Woman God Forgot.

After Kosloff loses everything in the Russian Revolution, she and Kosloff settle in Los Angeles. She teaches dance to young Agnes DeMille and designs costumes for more of Cecil B. DeMille‘s films. Natacha escapes from the oppressive Kosloff who shoots her in the leg as she flees out a window.

For avant garde filmmaker, Alla Nazimova, she designs costumes and sets for Camille, featuring struggling Italian actor, Rudolph Valentino.  

Rambova is art director for Salome, considered America’s first art film.

Valentino and Rambova marry after much drama (including a scandalous bigamy trial). She takes over his career, negotiates contracts, selects his roles, costumes them, instructs how he is to be filmed, photographed, and interviewed. He becomes an international star.

Valentino signs a film contract with United Artists at $10,000 a week plus 42% of the profit from his films but with the strict proviso that Rambova be forbidden from the set.  He agrees and she, feeling betrayed, leaves him and sues for divorce.

Rambova turns to spiritualism. After Valentino’s death, she conducts daily séances and receives many messages from Rudy which she turns into a book. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writes to her to note he can’t keep enough copies in his Psychic Bookshop.

She becomes a stage actress.

She opens a fashion design shop in New York.

Rambova and spiritualist George Wehner, conduct séances for society figures throughout America. They go to Salt Lake City:

“There they held a séance in the Mormon Tabernacle while a cousin, Edward P. Kimball, gave them a private recital on the world-famous organ. The powerful strains of music echoing throughout the chamber enabled Wehner to receive messages from the Mormon religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, and from Brigham Young, the Mormon pioneer patriarch, as well as such relatives as Heber C. Kimball…. Afterwards, when these spirits faded away, Wehner claimed to see a most remarkable vision: ‘I saw the whole interior of the Tabernacle shimmering in a glorious blaze of golden light, in the midst of which appeared in the air above the organ, the figure of a young man in blue robes holding a long trumpet of gold. From my clairvoyant description of this radiant being my friends recognized the spirit as that of the Angel Moroni…who led his people across the plains and deserts to ultimate safey…as a beacon light of faith and love.’”[i]

Rambova vacations in Spain, meets, and marries Count Alvaro de Ursaiz in 1932 and settles in Mallorca.  She befriends General Franco. As Spain collapses into war, Mallorca is bombed and overtaken. Franco arranges for Rambova to stow away on a coal freighter bound for France. Her husband remains in Spain.

She becomes interested in all religions, including ancient rites, and gets a grant from Paul and Mary Mellon to study universal symbols in sacred art, myth and history for the Bollingen Foundation.

She corresponds with Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell.

In 1950 she travels to Egypt and is allowed access to the shrines of King Tut-Ankh-Amon discovered by Howard Carter in 1922-23. She and her mother purchase objects of antiquity, particularly from Egypt. The first volume of her Egyptian series is published in 1954.

Rambova and her mother donate furnishings and Egyptian artifacts to the University of Utah, forming the core of what will become the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. To the director, I. Owen Horsfall, she writes, “It has always been one of my fast vanishing dreams to someday start a small museum of religious symbolism—complete with archive, research library, and exhibition room where lectures could be given.”[ii]

Rambova’s health begins to fail. Scleroderma, a hardening of tissues and organs. She continues to write, until her fingers bleed. Unable to eat, she weighs 65 pounds but continues her work on spirituality and universal symbols.

She collapses and is flown to relatives in California. She dies in 1966 in Los Angeles.  Her scholarship and artworks are left to the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

Quite a life.

I thought of her story recently when a friend who owns a small auction house in New York called me to say that some drawings by a Mormon Artist named Natacha Rambova had been consigned to him. They were designs for Cecile B. DeMille. He asked if I had heard of her.

I picked up her biography, Madame Valentino: The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova, by Michael Morris, a fascinating read. Here, I thought, is the American Zelig. She seemed to be everywhere and had dabbled in a bit of everything. The Mormon connection interested me because I am Mormon. I don’t suppose that she would have described herself that way. Yet, her probing spiritualism is familiar enough. I can list several world-class artists who began life as Mormons and, even though they moved away from the Church, they continued to search for spiritual things which they placed in their art. Belief informs their work in undeniable ways. It reads to me as “Mormon Art” because it is informed by Mormonism and it also influences our culture. That is certainly true for Rambova.

[i] Madame Valentino: The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova, by Michael Morris, pp. 195-6

[ii] Ibid, p. 249 


Mormon Jazz Age Cartoonery

First published: August 2008

For the last 1,000 Mondays, my postman has delivered to my door the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine. Here’s my reading pattern: first, I look at the cover; and then I flip through the pages to laugh at the cartoons; finally, I look for something to read. Call me shallow if you want, but humor has been at the heart of this sophisticated publication since its first issue, February 21, 1925—it’s a guilty pleasure without the guilt. 

In the April 21, 1925 issue—seven weeks after The New Yorker began publication—a Mormon cartoonist first appeared. The image was titled “The Rumrunner’s Sister-in-law.” The artist’s name was John Held, Jr.

For the next eight years, 125 of Held’s cartoons appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. Held’s work was everywhere in those days. More or less the official illustrator of the period, (his cartoons illustrated F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story collection "Tales of the Jazz Age,” fittingly), Held regularly contributed covers and cartoons to books and to the era’s best magazines: Life, Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, House and Garden, Century Magazine, and Redbook

Held’s images were all about budding youth, vivacious twenties fashion, and colorful urban chic. His cartoons for The New Yorker, on the other hand, had almost none of that. They looked like throwbacks to an earlier age created in etchings and woodcuts. These cartoons are particularly interesting to Mormons because they can easily be viewed as a group stylistically and also because Held’s Mormonness peeks out in curious ways that aren’t apparent in other publications. The cartoons’ major themes are America’s shifting morals and the consequences of vice. In The New Yorker of all places? Why? 

Held was a bit of a prodigy. Life magazine purchased a cartoon from Held when he was only fifteen. (Legend has it that he sold his first cartoon at the age of nine.) At sixteen, he landed a job at The Salt Lake Tribune. He was its sports cartoonist. 

When he was twenty-three, he moved from Utah to New York. It was 1912. Held proudly stated throughout his life that he had no formal art training and that he had only two teachers—one was his father, the other was Mahonri Young, who also worked at the Tribune. By 1912, Young had already moved east. He took under his wing a generation of Mormon artists who came to New York to train and work, including Held.

John Held, Sr. was also an artist. He was born in Switzerland. An early Mormon educator named John R. Park apparently discovered him while he traveled through Europe in search of talent. Park legally adopted Held, brought him to Salt Lake City, and groomed him to teach art at Deseret University, a profession he declined. Instead, he had a successful career as a local illustrator and engraver. Held, Sr. (who is said to have illustrated an edition of the Book of Mormon) married Annie Evans, whose father had converted to Mormonism in England and was a handcart pioneer. Their son John Jr. was born January 10, 1889.

Here are a few of Held’s cartoons for The New Yorker. Note the upright tone of them. They illustrate the consequences of contemporary vices—gambling, drinking, smoking, and womanizing—in the stylistic guise of Victoriana. This is in sharp contrast to the other New Yorker cartoonists of the era—notably the celebrated Peter Arno, William Steig, and James Thurber—who cheerfully embraced the Prohibition-bashing, sexually adventurous era of the 1920s and early 30s.

Not all of Held’s New Yorker cartoons detailed the wages of sin, but many did. It’s a mistake to take all the cartoons at face value; he was a humorist after all. Held’s melodramas have a cheekiness that allows the reader some ethical wiggle room. I doubt that turn-of-the-century Sunday School teachers lectured on the defensive virtues of a hat pin, for example, even Mormon Sunday School teachers. Still, there is no denying that his background informs the cartoons with a certain ethical judgment and sensitivity to the victims of moral wrongdoing…destitute wives of alcoholics aren’t fodder for merriment, as it turns out. Held let his Utah roots show. And being in the business of satire, he occasionally flings a barb or two back west. 

How did Held sneak all of these cartoons past the magazine’s unsuspecting editors? Was he pulling a fast one? Quite the opposite. The legendary editor and founder of The New Yorker, Harold Ross, was fully in on the joke. You see, Ross had moved to Utah at age of seven and was John Held, Jr.’s high school classmate in Salt Lake City. 

Looking at work by Mormon artists and hunting for LDS clues is a slippery slope and especially in commercial work is not particularly useful. But here is a case of a famous artist who let his Mormon cultural background move to the foreground. He played with its message, looked at it from all sides, investigated it, teased it, and he commented on it. And this all played out before a cosmopolitan audience of bathtub gin-loving, Roaring Twenties-something New Yorkers.

Held’s career bloomed in the 1920s and it faded in the 1930s. His considerable wealth was lost in the Depression, a victim of a fraud scheme. He took the reversal of fortune hard and suffered a nervous breakdown. His second marriage (of four) ended unhappily.  Furthermore, The New Yorker practically ignored the Depression as a topic which must have made Held’s personal situation even more uncomfortable. 

By 1932, Held was done with The New Yorker cartoons. The Jazz Age was over. America had a hangover, and Held’s early cartoons came to possess a look of sober prophesy. His last New Yorker cartoon on appeared in the September 17 issue of that year. His cartoons mostly disappeared in American magazines by 1934, including his most popular cartoon characters, Betty Coed and Joe College. He designed the sets for the 1937 Broadway smash, Hellzapoppin, but otherwise his market was drying up.

Held turned to fine art and sculpture. He wrote novels and children’s books. He was artist-in-residence at Harvard and the University of Georgia in 1940. Finally, he moved to Wall, New Jersey in 1945, and he spent the remainder of his life on a dairy farm, occasionally publishing a cartoon here and there. He died of cancer in 1958.

Further Reading

•    The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker (Black Dog and Leventhal, 2004);

•    John Held Jr: Illustrator of the Jazz Age, by Shelley Armitage (Syracuse University Press, 1989);

•    The Most of John Held Jr., Foreword by Marc Connelly (Stephen Green Press, 1972);

•    History Blazer, Utah History to Go, 1995;

•    “Artist held an era's attention,” by Jon Blackwell (The Asbury Park Press, January 1, 2001);

•    “Relevant Magic in the Art of John Held, Jr.,” by Kori Alexander, History of Cartoon Drawing, Virgina Commonwealth University - Honors Module, David J. Bromley, Inst.



•    The Works of John Held, Jr., by John Held, Jr. (Kessinger Publishing, 2007);

•    The Museum of Art, Brigham Young University has a collection of Held’s work that can be viewed online at http://www.lib.byu.edu/online.html