NEW YORK — Daniel Dubei reaches for the hymnal tucked into the pew in front of him as the first notes of the church organ ring out through the chapel. He thumbs quickly through the pages, arriving at hymn 195—“How Great the Wisdom and the Love”—in time to add his smooth baritone to the rising tide of voices around him.
The silhouette of the Salt Lake Tabernacle organ appears dark and ornate against the matte green binding of the hymnal. Its real-life counterpart—thousands of miles from the small Mormon meetinghouse in Upper Manhattan—is a towering and beautiful structure, one of the largest organs in the world.
The chapel at Inwood First Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, where Dubei and his family attend church each Sunday, bears little resemblance to the Tabernacle in Utah. The New York chapel, with its small electric organ, is spacious and well-lit. Dated wainscoting stretches halfway up the white walls, and a plain podium carved from light oak serves as the focal point of the room. The space feels simple and sturdy.
But if a passerby closed their eyes to listen to the music bursting from the Inwood chapel, they might imagine a grander space. The ward—or congregation—sounds more like a professional choir than a random collection of churchgoers. Its members deftly toss the melody back and forth between registers and embellish the text of the hymn with perfectly-executed trills and harmonies. The unmistakable timbre of an opera singer’s voice, clear and bright, rings out from the mass of voices.
The final notes of the hymn hang in the silent air of the chapel as the organist returns to his seat. Dubei taps the hard cover of the hymn book with his index finger and whispers “it should be double this size.” The official book was last updated in 1985, but Dubei says hundreds of unofficial hymns have been composed by Mormon musicians in the years since. Some Mormons, including Dubei, want to see the growing diversity of the church reflected in the hymnal—to hear the voices of their brothers and sisters around the world echo in their own chapel. The church is slow to progress on social issues, says Dubei, but their music doesn’t have to be.
Music is a valued part of all Mormon communities, but it is especially important to the congregants at Inwood First Ward. Dubei, who wears a long tie decorated with musical notes, went back to school in his forties to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music. Other members of his ward, he says, are Broadway performers, world-class soloists and accomplished jazz musicians.
Inwood First Ward is a little more liberal in its musical taste than other Mormon wards, its congregants tell me. In Salt Lake City, for example, one might not hear a saxophone accompany the sacrament hymn or a violin solo written by Bach. But in this ward, you can hear both in a single church meeting and observe as ward members rock back and forth to the beat.
The religious significance of music within the Mormon faith stretches back to at least 1830, when a revelation given through the prophet Joseph Smith commanded the prophet’s wife—Emma Smith—to compile a selection of sacred hymns for the church. Dubei readily quotes this verse from the Mormons’ book of Doctrine and Covenants: “For my soul delighted in the song of the heart; yea, the song of righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.”
In the Inwood chapel, the powerful sound of hundreds of voices raised in song expands to fill every corner of the room, filling congregants with warmth and passion. They feel the music in their bodies, a testament to God’s presence. Dubei describes it as opening his heart to God. “Music provides access to the soul—really touches it—in a way words can’t.”
Dubei turns his attention back to the podium as a speaker wraps up her testimony and returns to her seat. A violinist and a guitar player quietly adjust the height of their music stands before the rows of pews. The chapel hums with hushed voices and fussing babies.
The violinist, her long red sleeves swaying as she lifts the instrument to her shoulder, plays the first note. The melody of the hymn fills the chapel, surrounding the rapt audience.
Gradually, as the piece reaches its crescendo, the violinist leans into her instrument, allowing her body to lunge forward into the ascending notes. The scroll of her violin points upwards, as if reaching towards God. Faith and music ring together through Inwood First Ward, each enriching the other.