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 of the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal and was in constant demand as a lecturer at church-music conferences.

Of his nearly seventy published organ compositions (see Corliss Arnold’s Organ Literature: A Comprehensive Survey, 1973, for a full listing), twenty-nine are based on church tunes. The rest were intended more for concert and recital use, though this distinction, to a well-prepared church musician, is somewhat artificial.

Stylistically, the organ compositions are conservative. Although there are noticeable changes in his later works, they are relatively slight compared to what was going on around him. Even so, as his style evolved it seemed sometimes to get away from the organic wholeness marking the best of his earlier works: Comes Autumn Time, Pageant, the Symphony in G Major. The harmonic language of these and others was honestly drawn from the late Romantic-Impressionist contexts. It combined an obvious technical mastery with a sense of architectural wholeness. The later works that move toward a more advanced harmonic and textural style sometimes lack consistency and flow.

His so-called concert pieces are at their best when they follow the French preference for what I like to call acoustical shape, found so often in Widor, Vierne, Jongen, Langlais, and, above all, Messiaen. Here, compositions, whatever their internal form or lack of it, find their glory in the fusion of brilliant passage work and carefully spaced sonorities, unique organ design and registration, and reverberant acoustics. Sowerby captures this very well in such works as Pageant, Toccota 1940, the Symphony, and the later Deus tuorum militum.

Of his compositions based on church tunes, perhaps the Meditations on Communion Hymns (1940) are the best known. Among the others often played are the preludes on Malabar, Land of Rest, and the aforementioned Deus tuorum.

The following is a listing of some of Sowerby’s anthems worth having in choral libraries: I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes; Now There Lightens Upon Us; I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me; Come Holy Ghost; Behold, O God, Our Defender; Fight the Good Fight; Love Came Down at Christmas; The Lord Ascendeth Upon High; Martyr of God; Psalm 70 Benedictus es, Domine; Jubilate Deo; The Armor of God; and The Snow Lay on the Ground. A trip to any good music store will uncover many, many more. They are not always easy, but their graciousness makes the struggle worth the while. (Much of the above listing comes from tributes to Sowerby by Paul Callaway and Robert Lodine in the July 1969 edition of Music Ministry.)

Those who make up the body of Christ have the right to pray for gifted artists and fearlessly welcome those whom God leads into the width and celebration of their worship. From all that can be gathered, Sowerby was gracious, self-giving, and humble. In the words of the Very Reverend Francis B. Sayre, Jr., at a memorial service for him in 1968, “his whole being was a psalm.…”

HAROLD M. BESTHarold Best is director of the Conservtory of Music, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

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