Leo Sowerby: His Life A Psalm

Beauty cannot equal truth. Every church musician must therefore pray that the two will be congruent in his ministry, through the upward call of the Word and the pressing on of artistic activity. Certainly there have been excelling church musicians who have not subscribed to this. But there have been and are some who have edged delightfully close.

God allows men at cross purposes with him to do beautiful things. But it is always necessary to distinguish between man’s heart and man’s art. While the former is uniquely God’s business, the latter is ours.

This in no way implies that Leo Sowerby was not a Christian. Whatever the answer to this, it remains that he was one of the few twentieth-century Americans who can be called the complete church musician: organist, excellent service player (there is a fundamental difference), choirmaster, composer, and educator. Unlike Ralph Vaughan Williams (see March 14 issue, page 41), whose involvement in church music seemed more to fit the description of Winston Churchill’s attitude toward the Church—“I support it from the outside, like a flying buttress”—Sowerby was essentially a church musician who worked from within while effectively making his mark outside the Church. Twice he won significant prizes: he was the first American to win the Prize of Rome, and in 1945 he won the Pulitzer prize with his Canticle of the Sun.

Sowerby’s long tenure as organist-choirmaster of St. James’ Cathedral, Chicago (1927–62), was exceeded by two years by his service as professor of composition at the American Conservatory (1925–62). He spent his last years as director of the College of Church Musicians, National Cathedral, Washington, D. C., 1962–68. He was one of the music editors ...

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