The Stephen Wise community mourns the passing of Allen Jay Sever, our retired music director who lived in Minneapolis from his retirement in 2008 until his death at the age of 91. He passed away peacefully of natural causes on September 29, 2020.
He was preceded in death by his wife Kathryn Cozine Sever, who passed away in 2001. Survived, loved and missed by children Alicia (Eric Johnson) Cozine and Kirk (Elizabeth Short) Cozine of Minneapolis, grandchildren Owen and McLean, cousins Richard and Donna Childs of Fairway, Kansas, and many family and friends. A celebration of Allen’s life will be held in Minneapolis in September 2021.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas, Allen graduated from the conservatory at Northwestern University in 1951 with a double major in piano and organ. After serving in the Air Force, completing a master’s degree in sacred music at Union Theological Seminary, and studying on a Fulbright Scholarship at the Royal School of Church Music in England, Allen played the organ and directed the choir at West End Collegiate Church in New York City for more than 50 years. He also played at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue for 47 years and taught at the Manhattan School of Music and at Hebrew Union College.
As our devoted music director, Allen served Stephen Wise diligently for nearly half a century before retiring from his position in June 2008. Allen came to our congregation in 1961, hand-picked by the venerable Stephen Wise Free Synagogue music director and composer, A.W. Binder. He served with skill and love to become “a precious jewel in the crown of Stephen Wise,” as Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff called him. In the words of the late Rabbi Balfour Brickner, “Allen Sever is an institution. He didn’t want it to happen. He is too modest for that. It happened anyway.”
Born in Kansas City, Kansas, Allen Sever studied piano from the age of five and knew in his early elementary years that he wanted to be a musician. His parents encouraged him and Allen began to study the organ when he was a teenager, taking lessons at his home church, although he was not permitted to practice there. Eager to learn, Allen arranged to play the Sunday evening service at a Kansas City Church in exchange for practice time on their instrument.
After he graduated from Wyandotte High School, Allen studied for one year at the University of Kansas City, and then transferred to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he majored in piano and organ. During his college years, Allen served as organist for Wilmette Methodist Church in Wilmette, Illinois.
After college, Allen enlisted in the United States Air Force. During most of his time in the service, he was a chaplain’s assistant, which meant that he played the organ for chapel services, but also “mopped many a chapel floor.”
Allen returned to his studies and earned a master’s in sacred music from New York’s Union Theological Seminary in 1955. A Fulbright Scholarship followed, and he went to study at the Royal School of Church Music in London. While there, he took organ lessons from Sir William McKie at Westminister Abbey. He returned to Union Theological Seminary in 1956 to pursue a doctorate in Sacred Music. He was finishing his course work when he was called to serve at the West End Collegiate Church.
Allen recalled how he came to Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in 1961:
“I was at school at Union Theological Seminary in the School of Sacred Music and one of the courses was music and liturgy. A.W. Binder was called in to talk about music in the Jewish service. He needed to have someone play the organ to demonstrate the examples of the repertoire. He asked the class who should get up to play, and the whole class said, ‘Allen Sever.’ And so I went up to dutifully play all of the examples. Binder remembered that and when it came time that his present organist would retire, John Huston in order to accept a position at Temple Immanuel, Dr. Binder called upon me to play for a few services to see how it worked. And apparently it worked very well because I’ve been here ever since.”
He also recalled with great admiration and respect his relationship with A.W. Binder and his memory of his first services at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue:
“Dr. Binder was an extremely exacting director. We had choir rehearsal for two hours on Thursday mornings in the choir loft in preparation for the Friday night Sabbath services. The choir did not sing on Saturday mornings. On the days that there were b’nai mitzvah, a soloist from the choir would lead the music for the service with my accompaniment. He was very demanding. He told the choir everything that he expected in musical phrasing, attacks, releases, and would spend any time necessary to get the result. These were all professional singers, so clearly he had an extraordinarily high level of standards set for these musicians.
“At the time that we came, we were very much into the old Union Prayer Book. Much of the service was in English. We began with a psalm in Hebrew, and then the responses of ‘Bar’chu,’ ‘Sh’ma,’ ‘L’ma’an Tizk’ru’ (abbreviated), ‘Mi Chamocha’ (sometimes in English), ‘Hashkivenu,’ ‘V’shamru,’ ‘May The Words’ or ‘Oseh Shalom,’ ‘Aleinu,’ ‘Va’anachnu,’ ‘Bayom Hahu,’ and a closing hymn (many times in English). The services were preceded with the choir and A.W. Binder processing down the left isle, disappearing behind the woodwork and situating itself in the choir loft. At the end of the service, the choir recessed the same way with A.W. Binder leading them down the aisle to the vestibule. The processional and recessional hymn were always the same tunes every week — ‘Come O Sabbath Day’ and ‘Come O Holy Sabbath Evening.’ After the sermon, the choir sang an anthem, which could have been anything from a Hebrew text to a non-Jewish anthem by composers like D’vorshak, Saent Sains, Tchaikowski, Bach, etc.”
In addition to his appointment at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, Allen also served as the organist and choirmaster of West End Collegiate Church starting in 1956. He served on the faculty of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music and was on the organ faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. Allen was an accompanist for the “Messiah Sing-Ins” at Avery Fisher Hall and for the John Harms Chorus. Well respected in the world of both Christian and Jewish sacred music, he also made numerous recordings of cantorial music featuring the voices of world-renowned cantors.
In 1974, Allen married Dr. Kathryn Cozine, an anesthesiologist and faculty member at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. Kathryn was one of Allen’s organ students, and her children, Kirk and Alicia, studied piano with him. Before her death in 2001, Allen enjoyed traveling with Kathryn to medical conventions all over the world. He retired to Minnesota to be close to his son Kirk; daughter-in-law Elizabeth; grandchildren, McLean Allen and Owen Northmore; and his daughter Alicia and son-in law, Eric Johnson — all of whom reside in Minneapolis.
Allen enjoyed extended vacations and relaxation during his retirement. He did come back to visit New York City on occasion, and we remained in touch with one another regularly by phone and in person. I recall fondly visiting Allen a couple of years ago while spending time with my mother who lives near Minneapolis. While at Hebrew Union College, I happened to have won the scholarship that Allen established in memory of his late wife, Kathryn. We remained good friends before, during, and after our time working together at Stephen Wise. I am sad to lose such a dear friend, but I hope to be able to honor Allen in September 2021 along with the many colleagues with fond memories of and admiration for him who have expressed their condolences. He was a brilliant musician in addition to being a very kind and humble man and a dedicated and loyal friend.
Zeicher tzaddik livracha.
May his memory be a blessing.