Sowerby, Leo, remarkable American composer and organist; b. Grand Rapids, Mich., May 1, 1895; d. Fort Clinton, Ohio, July 7, 1968. He studied piano with Calvin Lampert and theory with Arthur Andersen in Chicago; also had sporadic lessons with Grainger. He learned to play the organ without a teacher, and yet developed a virtuoso technique that enabled him to hold prestigious appointments as a church organist. He was extremely precocious; on Jan. 17, 1917, he presented himself in Chicago in a program grandiloquently billed “Leo Sowerby: His Music,” which included such ambitious works as a Piano Concerto, with the composer at the keyboard; a Cello Concerto; and symphonic pieces. During World War I, he served as a bandmaster in the U.S. Army. He completed his musical studies at the American Cons. in Chicago (M.M., 1918). In 1921 he received the American Prix de Rome, the first of its kind to be awarded for composition; he spent 3 years at the American Cons. in Rome. Returning to Chicago, he served as a teacher of composition at the American Cons. (1925–62); also was organist and choirmaster at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. James (1927–62); then was founder-director of the Coll. of Church Musicians at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (1962–68). In 1935 he was elected to membership in the National Inst. of Arts and Letters, In 1946 he won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Canticle of the Sun. Sowerby never attempted to discover new ways of making music; his style was eclectic in the positive sense of the word, selecting what appeared to be the best in various doctrines and styles. Hindemith’s invidious reference to Sowerby as the fourth B in music, a “sour B,” is not appropriate, for Sowerby’s music is anything but sour; he certainly knew how to build up sonorous masses, particularly in his vocal compositions.
ORCH.: Violin Concerto (1913; rev. 1924); The Sorrow of Mydath, symphonic poem (1915); Rhapsody on British Folk Tunes (1915); Comes Autumn Time, overture (Chicago, Jan. 17, 1917); 2 cello concertos: No. 1 (Chicago, Jan. 17, 1917) and No. 2 (1929–34; N.Y., April 2, 1935); 2 piano concertos: No. 1, with Soprano obbligato (Chicago, Jan. 17, 1917; rev., 1919, without soprano) and No. 2 (1932; Boston, Nov. 30, 1936); The Irish Washerwoman, transcription (Chicago, Jan. 17, 1917); Money Musk, transcription (1917); A Set of 4: Suite of Ironies (Chicago, Feb. 15, 1918); Concerto for Harp and Small Orch. (1919); 5 syms.: No. 1 (Chicago, April 7, 1922), No. 2 (Chicago, March 29, 1929), No. 3 (Chicago, March 6, 1941), No. 4 (Boston, Jan. 7, 1949, Koussevitzky conducting), and No. 5 (1964); King Esimere, ballad for 2 Pianos and Orch. (Rome, April 8, 1923); Rhapsody for Chamber Orch. (1922); From the Northland (Rome, May 27, 1924); Synconata and Monotony for Jazz Orch. (1924, 1925; Chicago, Oct. 11, 1925); Medieval Poem for Organ and Orch. (Chicago, April 20, 1926); Prairie, symphonic poem (Interlochen, Mich., Aug. 11, 1929); Passacaglia, Interlude and Fugue (1931–32); Sinfonietta for Strings (1933–34); Theme in Yellow, after Sandburg (1937); Concerto in C for Organ and Orch. (Boston, April 22, 1938, E. Power Biggs soloist); Concert Overture (1941); Poem for Viola and Orch. or Organ (1941); Fantasy on Hymn Tunes (1943); Classic Concerto for Organ and Strings (1944); Portrait: Fantasy in Triptych (1946; Indianapolis, Nov. 21, 1953); Concert Piece for Organ and Orch. (1951); All on a Summer’s Day (1954; Louisville, Jan. 8, 1955); untitled work (Concerto No. 2) for Organ and Orch. (1967–68). CHAMBER: Quartet for Violin, Cello, Horn, and Piano (1911); 3 unnumbered piano trios (in D, undated; 1911; 1953); 5 unnumbered violin sonatas (in E, 1912, rev. 1916; in G, undated; in B-flat, 1922; in A, Fantasy Sonata, 1944; in D, 1959); 2 unnumbered cello sonatas (1912, 1920); Sonata for Solo Violin (1914); Serenade for String Quartet (1916); Wind Quintet (1916); Trio for Flute, Viola, and Piano (1919); 2 string quartets (1923–24; 1934–35; both MSS lost); Pop Goes the Weasel for Wind Quintet (1927); Chaconne for Trombone and Piano (1936); Clarinet Sonata (1938); Poem for Viola and Organ (1941); Trumpet Sonata (1945); Ballade for English Horn and Organ (1949); Fantasy for Trumpet and Organ (1962); Suite for Oboe and Piano (1963); Triptych of Diversions for Organ, 2 Violins, Double Bass, Oboe, and Percussion (1962); Dialog for Organ and Piano (1967); an undated Horn Trio. KEYBOARD: Piano:2 sonatas (1912; 1948, rev. 1965); Florida, suite (1929); Suite (1959); Suite for Piano, 4-Hands (1959). Organ: Sonata (1914–17); Sym. (1930); Suite (1934); Church Sonata (1956); Sinfonia brevis (1965); Bright, Blithe and Brisk (1967); Passacaglia (1967). VOCAL: A Liturgy of Hope for Soprano, Men’s Chorus, and Organ (1917); an untitled oratorio after the Book of Psalms (1924); The Vision of Sir Launfal, cantata after James Lowell (1925); Great Is the Lord for Chorus, Orch., and Organ (1933); Forsaken of Man for Chorus and Organ (1939); Song for America for Chorus and Orch. (1942); The Canticle of the Sun for Chorus and Orch., after St. Francis (1944; N.Y, April 16, 1945); Christ Reborn, cantata for Chorus and Organ (1950; Philadelphia, Nov. 1, 1953); The Throne of Godfor Chorus and Orch. (1956; Washington, D.C., Nov. 18, 1957); The Ark of the Covenant, cantata for Chorus and Organ (1959); Solomon’s Garden, cantata for Tenor, Chorus, and Chamber Orch. (1964); La Corona for Chorus and Orch. (1967); numerous anthems, songs, etc.
M. Guiltinan, The Absolute Music for Piano Solo by L. S. (diss., Univ. of Rochester, 1977); L. S.: A Short Biography and a Complete List of His Compositions (Chicago, 1979); D. Bading, L. S.’s Works for Organ with Orchestra or Ensemble (thesis, Univ. of Kans., 1983).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire