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Leo Nestor (1948-2019): How can we keep from singing?

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We have lost one of the greatest Catholic composers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

In September, The Catholic University of America and the Christian world lost an invaluable resource for the development and composition of sacred music, with the death of Leo Nestor at 70. Nestor will live on in Christ, but his music will afford him a level of immortality on its own, as his important catalogue of sacred music will certainly ring through the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for decades to come.

A doctor in the field of music, Leo Nestor served the Rome School of Music at the CUA as Choir Director and Director of the Institute of Sacred Music from 2001-2016. Those of us who attended CUA during his tenure remember him as an approachable, contemplative mentor who was always up for a discussion of music. Nestor was quick with advice and would give his opinions with complete honesty.

Leo Nestor was an extremely soft-spoken man, but he never struggled to command the attention of his choirs, even the CUA University Singers, which pulls in every student studying voice whether they have an interest in chorus work or not. There, three times a week, Nestor spurred an appreciation for sacred choral music in students that earned him the devoted respect of all involved. There was nothing like seeing his eyes light up when the chorus prevailed over a particularly difficult musical passage.

Nestor was a devout Catholic who worked tirelessly for the Church. He was one of the four founding members of the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians and he served the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as musical advisor to the Secretariat for Divine Worship. He was commissioned to compose new music for all four of the last U.S. papal visits; these pieces include:

St. John Paul II to Los Angeles in 1987 (People of God in the City of Our God/Pueblo de Dios en la ciudad de nuestro Dios), and for Solemn Vespers in St. Louis in 1999 (Magnificat); a concertato on Lord, You Give the Great Commission was composed for the 2008 visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Washington, D.C. Most recently for the historic 23 September 2015 visit of Pope Francis to the nation’s capitol and celebration of the Mass of Canonization of Fray Junípero Serra on the campus of The Catholic University of America.

In May of 2016, Pope Francis bestowed upon him knighthood in the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory, in recognition of his life’s work in the Church.

Pray Tell explains in his obituary that Nestor asked that in lieu of flowers he wished donations to be made to the Little Sisters of the Poor. In his final hours, they report:

[Nestor] was anointed and received Communion. He spoke of the joy he had known in composing and conducting for the church and in teaching. He spoke of wanting forgiveness from anyone he had wronged. He was at his peace. “I have my faith. I have my hope,” are among the last things he said.

The video featured above, our personal favorite of Nestor’s works, is an arrangement of “How Can I Keep From Singing.” While it is not an original Nestor composition, to take an already popular hymn and make it even better shows not only a greatness in artistic design, but also an attention to detail and a desire to glorify God with the best possible music.

We leave you with a prime example of Nestor’s glorious composition “And Peace at Last,” a famous prayer by St. John Henry Newman. This recording comes from the funeral Mass for Leo Nestor, performed on October 28, 2019. The Mass drew together works from Gerald Near, Max Reger, J.S. Bach, and quite a few from the pen of Nestor himself. To hear the whole Mass, click here.

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