Stephens, Evan - Biography

Evan Stephens

As Written in the book of "Stories of our Mormon Hymns." By J. Spencer Cornwall

The name of Evan Stephens awakens such a flood of recollections as warms the soul and makes the heart beat faster. "There are moments in life," says one writer, "that we never forget, which brighten and brighten as time steals away." Such moments are often recorded by me, of an intimate association with Professor Stephens of nearly half a century. It is not my intention, however, to write here the story of his life, but to tell of some of my personal contact with him and to describe a few of his unique characteristics.

From the date of his birth in the little town of Pencader, South Wales, June 28, 1854, until the time of his death, October 27, 1930, Evan Stephens' life was one of unceasing activity. When he was twelve years of age, he came over the ocean with his parents in a sailing vessel and walked across the plains, arriving in Salt Lake City, where his desire to become a musi­cian took firm root. His lowly occupations--herd boy, farm hand, wood cutter, hod carrier, railway section hand -- did not stand in his way of ambition. His talents soon secured for him "a place in the sun." Step by step he rose from obscurity to the highest position in the realm of music within the gift of his Church. His struggles and victory under adverse conditions constitute a real life lesson for every young man.

A book might be written on his various musical activities, but the high spot of his career was, of course, his work as director of the Tabernacle Choir. It was while the choir was at the World's Fair, Chicago, in 1893, that President Woodruff said: "A shepherd boy came down from the mountains and is here today to contest in this great competition." The choir won second prize of $1000, and a gold medal for the conductor.

In looking over the diary and scrapbook of Brother Stephens one is utterly amazed at the tremendous and dynamic energy of the man. I doubt if a tab of his life would register one moment of idle time; for his work among children alone a debt of gratitude is due him.

He left many unpublished manuscripts. I asked him once which of all his compositions he liked best. He answered: "Like most fond parents, I find it impossible to answer this seemingly easy question. To me composition like people, vary in personal impression.

Each in its own way may appeal to me strongly. Some arouse within me a feeling of satisfaction and pride for the workmanship as well as the emotional content -- something like a fond parent may feel over having a child who proves a real leader in the community. Among other things he said that just as a mother loves her unpopular and unnoticed children, so his neglected, unpublished creations held highest place in his esteem.

Another song writer expressed the same thought in the following lines:

Oh, my uncared for songs, what are ye worth

That in my secret book, with so much care

I write you this one here and this one there,

Marking the time and order of your birth.

Robert Bridges

Several song books were published by Elder Stephens and twenty-six of his compositions appear in Latter-Day Saint Hymns--more than by any other composer.

Professor Stephens was an ardent lover of nature. Flowers, mountain streams, rocky peaks, and pine clad hills allured him. The charm of his early days in Willard was never dispelled and there were few peaks and nooks in those hills that could not show his footprints. His home on State Street was a beautiful spot and a rendezvous for lovers. In fact, it is remarkable how this bachelor provided so many romantic nooks for lovers' talk, without himself falling a victim to Cupid's dart.

And this love of Nature was the inspiration that caused him to collaborate with Emmeline B. Wells in bringing forth that beautiful song, "Our Mountain Home, so Dear."

Brother Stephens loved Brighton, in the Cottonwoods, and I have a vivid memory of climbing with him in company of Horace G. Whitney and John D. Spencer to what he called the "Crow's Nest" which we afterwards named "Stephens Roost." This "nest" was nothing more or less than a native pine tree flattened by the heavy snows, which lay on the boughs for eight months in that locality, forming a natural platform on a ledge far up on the side of Brighton hills. Here, cross-legged, like the Tailor of Tamworth, Professor Stephens would sit and in imagination lead a mammoth choir made up of the forest crowing the basin below. Here on the right, a grove of fresh young pines represented his sopranos. A little below in the colorful rays of the setting sun, were his contraltos. To the north, there on a raised hill, stood his tenors, and to the extreme right, under the full shadow of the hills, waited his fir tree bassos. Interspread among the pines, the quaking asps sparkled and fluttered and there furnished the brilliant accompaniment for his novel imaginary choir. As the sun slowly sank and the evening breezes played among the soughing pines there seemed almost miraculously to come forth like the legendary "Music of the Spheres,' the magnificent harmonies of nature's singers.

Professor Stephens was a powerful personality -­ self-educated, different from most musicians. He was of the common people and wrote his songs for them. Yet he was in one respect a musical autocrat. He wanted his own way in the conduct of the choir, and when he had it, he succeeded best. He couldn't abide the supervision of committees.

Evan Stephens was a born poet. Had received a higher education in letters he would no doubt have achieved world renown. As it was, his songs and compositions appealed to the religious emotions of the Latter-Day Saints who will forever hold his name in loving Remembrance.

(From St. John, Oneida County, Idaho: A collection of personal histories from the time of the first settlers to the present day, pp. 231-232.)




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Stephens, Evan


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