Leo Sowerby (1895-1968) was dubbed “the Dean of American Church Musicians” during his lifetime. Then and now, he is recognized as the greatest composer for the church that America has produced. Far less known is the breadth of his musical output. Besides nearly two hundred choral pieces and eighty-five organ works, Sowerby wrote for virtually every musical medium except opera. Among his more than five hundred fifty scores are five symphonies; concertos for piano, violin, cello, harp, and organ; orchestral suites and tone poems; chamber music; a large group of songs; and numerous piano pieces.
His life was divided between composition, teaching music theory, choir directing, and his chosen instrument, the organ. In all four areas, he was largely self-taught. Sowerby began to compose two weeks after his tenth birthday and continued until twelve days before his death. As an organist, Sowerby had only half a dozen lessons, yet his service playing was superb. His infrequent recitals were packed houses and they gained enthusiastic reviews.
Most of Sowerby’s career centered in Chicago, where he was on the faculty of the American Conservatory for more than forty years and organist-choirmaster at St. James’ (Episcopal) Cathedral for thirty-five years. There is a fourteen-year “prelude” in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was born on May 1, 1895, and a six-year “postlude” in Washington, D.C., where Sowerby was invited in 1962 to found and head a College of Church Musicians at Washington Cathedral. He continued in that work until his death at an Episcopal choir camp near Port Clinton, Ohio, on July 7, 1968.
Sowerby studied German-oriented theory texts on his own at age 11. He was next influenced by Franck and d’Indy in lessons with his only composition teacher, French-trained Arthur Olaf Andersen. He was introduced to English folk-music by a touring English vocal trio and by Percy Grainger and became acquainted with the Italian school during a three-year tenure as the first composer to be awarded the Rome Prize. He was first exposed to jazz by touring with the Paul Whiteman orchestra, and it was Carl Sandburg who introduced him to American folk-songs. Transformed by a fiercely independent personality, these varied influences, plus the liturgical musical tradition of the church at St. James’, made Sowerby an eclectic in the best sense. Here is a craftsman whose products bear the stamp of his distinctive muse, leading one critic to call him “spunky,” another to characterize his music by the single word “exuberant,” and virtually all to recognize an authentic American idiom.