Works by Chicago stalwart Leo Sowerby experience a rediscovery

Pulitzer Prize winner Leo Sowerby served as St. James Cathedral's organist-choirmaster from 1927 through 1962 and wrote many of his best-known works while holding down that position.

Library of Congress

Outside the narrow worlds of organ and Episcopal church music, Leo Sowerby doesn’t generate much name recognition these days.

But at the peak of his career, the composer-organist reigned for several decades as one of the most prominent figures on the Chicago classical scene and won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1946.

His slide into obscurity might have been hastened by his embrace of Romanticism long after the compositional style fell out of favor.

“He didn’t dabble in atonality. He didn’t do serialism. He didn’t go with the flow of 20th-century music in the way that so many other composers did. He stuck with his style, which was very much an outgrowth of the late 19th century,” said Stephen Buzard, who wrote a 2017 essay on Sowerby for the online journal Vox Humana, affiliated with the American Guild of Organists.

Sowerby’s woodwind quintet is featured on Episode 19 of CSO Sessions, a series of small-ensemble concerts streaming on the CSOtv portal. Published in 1931, the work has three movements marked Jauntily, In an elegiac mood and At a steady trot.

Sowerby had a considerable early history with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Frederick Stock, the orchestra’s second and longest-tenured music director from 1905 through 1942, championed his music. The conductor premiered Sowerby’s Violin Concerto in 1913, when the composer was still in his teens.

When Buzard, a Champaign-Urbana native took over as director of music at St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago nearly five years ago, he immediately realized he needed to get up to speed on Sowerby, because his musical forbear was a towering figure in the history of that church, and, indeed, the whole city.

Stephen Buzard is the director of music at Chicago's historic St. James Cathedral, where his predecessors included Leo Sowerby. 

Sowerby (1895-1968) served as St. James’ organist-choirmaster from 1927 through 1962 and wrote many of his best-known works while serving in the position. When he took over, his resume included the Rome Prize from the American Academy in the Italian capital and scores of compositions. “He was already a rising star at that point,” Buzard said.

While he had previously written works in a wide variety of forms, including expansive tone poems, Sowerby began to focus primarily on organ and church music. Part of this change was due to a retrenchment of performances of larger-scaled works during the Depression, and some of it was attributable to shifts in his own life.

“I understand that he also became quite a faithful and committed Christian during his time at St. James,” Buzard said. “He had been kind of agnostic before, and when he came here, he was baptized and confirmed. I think [by this point in his career] he felt like the purpose of his art was expressing his faith.”

If Sowerby does not have the widespread acclaim he once did, he remains a favorite among church musicians, in part because of the lingering influence of his teaching. After his retirement, he was recruited to be the founding director of the College of Church Musicians at the Washington National Cathedral. He also taught extensively at summer camps in the field.

“I get the sense that everyone back in that era studied with him at some point or he influenced their musical voice in some way,“ Buzard said. ”I think as a result his music has continued to be performed pretty regularly among his students.”

Perhaps even more important, younger generations of church musicians are rediscovering him. What has helped is the more open-minded bent of today’s organ world. Sowerby emerged when the symphonic-style organ, one that imitated the sounds of symphony orchestra, was popular.

In the 1940s and ’50s, the emphasis shifted to Baroque-style organs — instruments that would best serve the music of J.S. Bach — and pervaded through the 1970s and ’80s. Sowerby’s music is not suited to such organs, and it consequently lost popularity.

“Now, I feel like the current trend is to embrace it all,” Buzard said. “When you are playing a Romantic instrument, you play Romantic music, and you play it in a Romantic way. And when you are playing a Baroque instrument, you play Baroque music. That seems to be the common-sense thing. So more and more people seem to be tackling his repertoire, even more than when I was starting 15-20 years ago.”

In addition to his organ music, some of Sowerby’s sacred choral pieces are regularly performed, especially within the Episcopal Church. One of the most frequently heard is an anthem titled Eternal Light. “It’s a short introit,” he said. “It’s just a few pages but really beautiful.”

As noted earlier, Sowerby, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., wrote very much in a post-Romantic style, but at the same time, his music is marked by what Buzard calls a Midwestern aesthetic. On one hand, it’s honest and forthright. “I feel like he is trying to get to the emotional heart of what he is communicating and really kind of lays it out there on a platter,” Buzard said. “It’s not so much about the artifice around it but really expressing something directly.”

On the other hand, it evokes the open landscape of the middle United States. “He writes with a broad sweep — lots of long, legato lines which remind me of waving cornfields or the flat expanse that we have that is so beautiful about the Midwest,” Buzard said

Is a broader revival of Sowerby’s music in the offing? Buzard doesn’t think so. Beyond works by such famed composers such as Copland, Stravinsky or Hindemith, much of the music from the mid-20th century gets little airing today. When orchestras and other ensembles venture into more offbeat repertoire beyond the historical stalwarts, there is a tendency to focus on contemporary voices.

“I could be wrong,” he said, “and maybe if the right orchestra plays the right piece at the right time, I think there is something about the music that is quite populist and could be appealing. But it’s just getting over that hurdle — the fear of the unknown that so dominates classical audiences these days.”