Leo Sowerby

Leo Sowerby

Leo Sowerby


American organ journals from the period between the two world wars give a vivid picture of the vitality of the organ world in this country in those days. Its practitioners may not have enjoyed the wider historical overview of the instrument which the much more rigorous scholarship of our own time affords us, but they enjoyed an acceptance by the society in which they lived which we cannot help but envy. As we mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of their world’s most distinguished member, it is worth stopping to consider what of his life and times has been lost, what remains, and what may be ripe for revival.

Leo Sowerby came of age at the same time as did American music. With a few isolated exceptions, American composers before the 1920s had merely tried to imitate the voices of their Central European teachers, but Sowerby’s generation, led by such men as George Gershwin, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and Walter Piston, took the old European forms and poured into them music which sounded distinctly American in its melody, harmony, and rhythm. Like the writers of the period in search of The Great American Novel, many composers dreamed of writing The Great American Symphony. Beyond the mere quotation of folk tunes, this “American-ness” was a subconscious evocation of a national soul, as unquantifiable-but-real as the “French-ness” of Debussy and Messiaen of the “English-ness” of Elgar and Vaughan Williams.

They did so at a time when the organ not only fulfilled its traditional role as an instrument of worship, but was a central part of the secular musical life of America as well. Big pipe organs in the symphonic style from the shops of Skinner, Austin, and others represented the cutting edge of style and technology, and were everywhere in the 20s and 30s: in movie theaters and hotel ballrooms, in concert halls and high school auditoriums, in the mansions and even the yachts of the well-to-do. Great organists drew audiences that regularly numbered in the thousands and occasionally in the tens of thousands. Even the organ’s role as a liturgical instrument was much more prominent in the general consciousness: a major New York newspaper then had a regular column called The Choir Loft which chronicled the news and repertoire of the city’s leading church choirs, a situation unimaginable today. It was, as Michael Murray notes in his biography of Marcel Dupre, an era of the grand and consummate, a golden age of the organ.

These two trends, of a distinctly American musical style and of the symphonic organ as an instrument that was central to the American listening experience, came together in the music of Leo Sowerby. To cite one example, the organ’s capacity for sustained tone had produced beautiful slow movements from every European school, but now the organ could also sing in a new language: the yearning and nostalgia of the blues, and torch songs, and long lonely nights, as in Sowerby’s Arioso or the middle movement (Very Slowly) from the Sonatina. In the school of American symphonic composers, only Sowerby, Paul Creston, and Virgil Thomson were organists (and Thomson for only a short time early in his career). Sowerby was the one who extended the reach of the American symphonists into the mainstream repertoire of his instrument in works which include such landmarks of the symphonic organ literature as Comes Autumn Time, the Suite, the Carillon, and others. His organ catalogue reached its monumental peak in the Symphony in G, that epic portrait of the rural, urban, and mythical America that its symphonists sought to enshrine.

Sowerby was born on May 1, 1895 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and spent most of his adult life in Chicago. He was thus one of the authentic musical voices of the Midwest, of the great American heartland. His talent blossomed early – his violin concerto was premiered in 1913, when the composer was 18 years old and his orchestral works were featured on programs by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from his early 20s on. He went on to produce a catalogue of more than 550 works, including other concertos (for piano, organ, cello, and harp), five symphonies, and music in every other genre with the sole exception of opera. He was the first winner of the American Prix de Rome, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for his cantata The Canticle of the Sun, and his orchestral music was played not only by the Chicago Symphony, but by the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and many others. His success extended beyond the traditional classical concert stage. How many people who associate Sowerby only with organ and choral music know that when bandleader Paul Whiteman sought new works in the jazz idiom after his great success with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, one of the first composers he turned to was Sowerby? (He wrote two works for Whiteman’s band, one called Synconata and the other called Monotony, a piece for metronome and jazz band). His music could indeed vibrate with the syncopated urban accents of the Jazz Age, but he painted vivid musical landscapes, such as the tone poems Prairie and Comes Autumn Time (in both its orchestral and organ versions), or From the Northland, his evocation of the forests and Great Lakes of his native Michigan. His reputation as a specialist in sophisticated liturgical music was balanced by the fact that two of his best-sellers during his lifetime were his instrumental settings of The Irish Washerwoman and Pop Goes the Weasel.

With the sole exception of his pupil Ned Rorem, Sowerby was the last American composer with a national reputation in the world of concert music to display any more than a token interest in church music. He was organist of St .James’ Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago for more than 40 years, and his liturgical music occupies a central place in his life’s work and in the history of American church music. He produced a long list of anthems, each of which is a master class in the techniques of writing choral music. They illuminate the sacred texts in a truly symphonic style, and feature organ accompaniments that make integral and idiomatic contributions to the texture of the music – real organ music: no one-size-sort -of-fits-all “keyboard” parts like those which so many church music programs seem to demand today.

Many of Sowerby’s anthems are difficult for both choir and organist. They were written for some of the top choirs of his time, including those of David McK. Williams at St. Bartholomew’s, New York, Paul Callaway at the Washington Cathedral, and his own choir at St. James, Chicago. These anthems, however, were in print almost as soon as they were written and were performed by many other choirs across the nation, both amateur and professional, a wide acceptance which speaks to the standards of musical education in the period. There are some easier ones, too, and they include Love Came Down at Christmas, the beautiful I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes, the unison Jubilate Deo in C Major, and the set of SAB anthems which includes Jesu, Bright and Morning Star, Martyr of God, and All Hail, Adored Trinity.

What is the outlook for Sowerby’s work in his 100th year? Current trends seem to be moving church music further and further away from Sowerby’s liturgical esthetic, and many of the best anthems have gone out of print. Despite this, organists who are unfamiliar with the more difficult choral works should investigate them even if they do not direct choirs that are able to do these works justice. Merely playing through them at the piano can take us back to a time when one of the best that America had to offer was also one of our own, and can encourage our listeners to not be satisfied with music that aims at only the lowest common denominator of musical literacy and skill. The outlook for the organ works seems brighter, thanks in part to the revival of interest in the American symphonic organ. Many are back in print, moving out of the limbo into which they were forced by the American Orgelbewegung. Gail Quillman’s recordings of Sowerby piano and chamber works have opened a window onto this large area of his output, and we can hope that the recent spate of recording activity on behalf of the American symphonists will extend to Sowerby’s orchestral music. The Leo Sowerby Society is engaged in an ongoing effort to publish and promote his complete works, which can now be seen as representing a unique and accomplished voice that sings the song of its exhilarating time and place, an America in which our instrument and the people who play it were central parts of the public’s musical experience. If that time evokes a nostalgic yearning in those of us who have inherited a very different world, there is that quality, too, in the music. Let us hope that the centenary celebrations of this American original will set fast his place in the history of his country’s music.

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