Paul S. Callaway, OBE

Third Organist and Choirmaster

For a half century, Paul Callaway (1909-1995) was the preeminent musical presence in Washington. Over and above his duties as the Cathedral’s organist and choirmaster from 1939 to 1977, he was also the founding music director of two major musical organizations in Washington—the Cathedral Choral Society, created in 1941 to be the resident symphonic chorus performing great works of sacred music, and The Opera Society of Washington (The Washington Opera), founded in 1956. In 1977 Callaway was made honorary Officer of the British Empire (OBE) by Ambassador Peter Jay upon behalf of Queen Elizabeth II.

In addition to planning and playing a full schedule of liturgical services, the diminutive musician transformed classical music in the nation’s capital by his own towering stature as an artist and by the many significant works that he premiered as either conductor or organ soloist. Hailed by The Washington Post as “the next Toscanini, ” he conducted numerous world premieres, including works by Gian Garlo Menotti, Leo Sowerby, John La Montaine, and John Corigliano. He led the Cathedral Choral Society in the first American cathedral performances of Britten’s War Requiem and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. His formidable skills as an organist enabled him to absorb with ease the most difficult scores created for him by Ned Rorem and Samuel Barber.

Among the emerging soloists whom Callaway engaged for their first professional concerts were sopranos Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle. Appointed by President Eisenhower in 1959 to the Advisory Committee for the planned National Cultural Center, he became a frequent conductor and soloist at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, today a memorial to the president for whom Callaway had directed after-dinner operatic performances at the White House.

The son of a clergyman in Atlanta, Illinois, Callaway graduated from Missouri Military Academy. He had attended Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, for two years when a generous donor agreed to underwrite, at the height of the Depression, his studies with T. Tertius Noble, the famed English organist and choirmaster at St. Thomas Church in New York City. Noble later said there was nothing he could ever tell Paul about how to play because he was already in total command of the instrument by the time they met.

In 1935, Callaway was named organist and choirmaster at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He studied with Leo Sowerby in Chicago and spent the summer of 1938 in France studying with Marcel Dupré. Then in May 1939 came the call to Washington National Cathedral. In recommending his 29-year-old protégé, Dr. Noble predicted that Callaway would “in the course of time, do a great piece of work in Washington. ” He began his new job on September 1, 1939, the day World War II began.