Whatever our chosen field or life’s work, and no matter how well we prepare ourselves academically or experience-wise, having a mentor or two or three makes sense.
If we want to be the best, we should surround ourselves with the best and then pay attention.
Church music is definitely a mentorship. Those of us who dreamed of doing church music as a vocation spent time practicing and studying and then observing those whom we thought did it well.
For me, Bob Powell was that person.
The Hymnal 1982 is full of big names in Episcopal and Anglican Church music of the 20th Century, those composers, arrangers, editors, performers and seminary musicians who offered their talents to the church.
Merely perusing the service music section of our hymnal, much less the hymns section, will reveal many of these noted names: David Hurd, McNeil Robinson, Healey Willan, Leo Sowerby, Richard Proulx, William Mathias, John Rutter, Calvin Hampton, Gerald Near and Ray Urwin, just to name a few.
We refer to these service music settings by the composer’s last name: the Hurd Sanctus, the Mathias Gloria, et. al.
And then there is Robert J. Powell, who grew up in Benoit, Mississippi, just down the road from Memphis, and who spent the bulk of his career as organist and choirmaster of Christ Church, in Greenville, South Carolina, just up the road from my hometown of Woodruff.
Bob is a prolific composer, in the fullest, literal sense of that word. He has written music for every genre of church music, including anthems, service music, hymn concertatos and large-scale oratorios. Indeed, he has composed at least 500 compositions for organ, choir and handbells alone.
Before coming to Greenville, Bob served as assistant organist of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and at St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Concord, New Hampshire. He served Christ Church from 1968-2003; in his “retirement,” he serves as organist of Trinity United Methodist Church in Greenville.
I first became acquainted with Bob through a college friend who had grown up singing in his parish choirs as a chorister and young adult. I also knew Bob as a composer, but it took me a few years to truly realize that the composer Robert J. Powell was simply my friend’s church organist.
I am easily star-struck, you know, and it often takes me a little while.
Since my college days, Bob has become more and more my mentor. To this day, I guard the unpublished manuscripts of his Gloria and Sanctus. Yes, the very ones printed in our hymnal and the very copies that I distribute to our Christmas and Easter brass players.
Bob has sent me “freebies” throughout the years – choral, organ, children’s anthems – and I make certain to look at each piece. Every piece that Bob writes “works.” His compositions come from something that he needed in his own music program or that someone else needed.
But the latest “freebie” had my name printed at the top of it.
In a recent collection of organ music, Bob dedicated a few of the pieces to various colleagues, students and friends, and his new “Aria” for organ was dedicated to me.
I have joked with Bob for years: “Every composer worth his or her salt has their token ‘Aria,’ and I think you should write one.” And he did, and he put my name on it, which I find one of the most humbling occasions of my life.
During Lent, which arrives in a few weeks, I will premiere Bob’s “Aria” one Sunday morning at Church of the Holy Communion, which will be such an honor.
I am often asked, “Does your congregation love to sing the Powell Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei?” Bob’s settings in our hymnal are among the most popular throughout the Episcopal Church. And I just happen to know him as well.
Thanks so much, Bob. I hope to do you proud.
Read more about composer Robert J. Powell here and here.