For more than 40 years, Susan Palo Cherwien, Wittenberg University class of 1975, has traveled the world, studying, composing, and presenting music. In recognition of her exceptional contributions to the worship life of the Lutheran church, she was awarded the 2019 Faithful Servant Award by the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians earlier this year at its biennial conference in Portland, Oregon. The award is presented every two years.
“It was a delight to be honored by my colleagues in the field of church music for the hymn texts that I have written over the past 30 years,” Cherwien said. “Many of these musicians and theologians are friends and cohorts, some of whom have composed melodies for the texts I have written. It was a humbling moment to stand before such an expression of appreciation.”
Cherwien’s musical career began in her hometown church in Ashtabula, Ohio, where she attended Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church and sang in the church choir. During her junior year at Wittenberg, Cherwien studied abroad in Spandau, Berlin, Germany, where she attended the Berliner Kirchenmusikschule music academy and studied organ, conducting, and voice. She believes that Wittenberg prepared her for her life in music by shaping her to be a well-rounded and informed musician due to both the intense music classes and the University’s liberal arts requirements. She found that the music history curriculum in place during her time at Wittenberg gave her knowledge to draw on as a soprano soloist and church musician.
In 1981, Cherwien completed the Abschlussprüfung in voice at the Hochschule der Künste Berlin, the largest art school in Europe. It was there that she studied voice with Irmgard Hartmann-Dressler, one of the most renowned vocal educators in Germany. She then represented the university at the International Mendelssohn Competition in Berlin and the International Pavarotti-Philadelphia Opera Competition in Modena, Italy, and went on to sing at oratorio and lieder concerts throughout the United States and Europe.
Cherwien received a Master of Liberal Studies in 1993 from Mundelein College in Chicago with a focus on spirituality, ritual, and the arts. She also completed a final project titled "Crossing the Threshold: The Transformational Journey of the Mass."
A composer of several popular hymn texts that are used in hymnals throughout the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe, Cherwien has written hymns for The Lutheran, Christian Century, Gather, and Word and World. She is also the author of many hymn text collections including O Blessed Spring: Hymn Texts of Susan Palo Cherwien; vol. II: Come, Beloved of the Maker; and vol. III: Peace, Be Still.
After years of studying and performing internationally, Cherwien said her favorite experience was performing the soprano II solos in Mozart’s Mass in C minor at the Festival of Young Artists Bayreuth under conductor Erich Bergel, whom she calls “a sensitive and insightful Romanian conductor.” She also enjoyed performing Olivier Messiaen's song cycle Harawi with pianist Naoko Mizukami at the Akademie der Künste Berlin.
“It is a deeply complex and mystical work that took all my intellectual resources and vocal nuances to embody, and the fiendishly difficult piano part came to beautiful life from Naoko's spirit and skill,” she said.
Over the years, Cherwien and her husband, David, have presented at numerous hymn festivals across the country, and the reflections from those hymn festivals are collected in three volumes titled Crossings: Meditations for Worship, From Glory into Glory, and To God I Give My Melody.
After a long and incredibly successful career, the Cherwiens now reside in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and spend time with their two sons and three grandchildren.
When asked for advice to give to Wittenberg seniors who will be graduating in the spring, she said, “Be open to the clues and opportunities that the universe is always dropping in your lap. If we pay attention, we will find not only our true calling, but a life that gives both pleasure and fulfillment. Our first efforts and loves are not necessarily our destination. When I was in high school, I thought I would be an archaeologist. In my twenties, all my effort went into becoming an opera singer. Life has woven together a different path for me, and as a writer, I tap into all that has gone before, ever moving, ever evolving. Put your effort into being your utmost at each place along the way.”
-By Mallory Moss ’20, University Communications
-Photo courtesy of Hannah Brandvold