Leo Sowerby

Founder and Dean, Cathedral College of Church Musicians

Leo Sowerby (1895-1968) was the leading American composer of church music in the twentieth-century. Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, receiving the Master of Music degree in 1918. Like his pupil and future colleague, Paul Callaway, he served in a world war as a bandmaster in the 332nd Field Artillery. In 1921, he returned to Europe in peacetime after winning the first Prix de Rome, a three-year fellowship for study in Italy offered by the American Academy in Rome.

Sowerby was a fluent yet craftsmanlike composer whose works were fully developed in his mind before being put to paper and seldom changed thereafter. A prolific composer of some 475 published works, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1946 for his oratorio, A Canticle of the Sun. His cantata, Forsaken of Man, was sung almost annually for years by the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys and remains among the most significant twentieth-century settings of the Passion narrative. For the dedication of the Cathedral’s Gloria in Excelsis Tower in 1964, he wrote the Eucharistic hymn, “Come, risen Lord, ” which has since entered the hymnals of most denominations.

In addition to chairing the theory and composition department of the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, Sowerby served for thirty-five years as organist and choirmaster at the Cathedral Church of St. James in Chicago. In 1962, he came to Washington as founder and dean of the College of Church Musicians at Washington National Cathedral. The College’s apprentice-master system of education was the only one of its kind in this country. Among its distinguished graduates are John Fenstermaker and Norman Scribner. Fenstermaker was for nearly thirty years organist and choirmaster at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Norman Scribner, founding music director of The Choral Arts Society of Washington, retired in May 2007 after 47 years as organist and choirmaster at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church on the Cathedral Close. When “Dr. Leo, ” as he was deferentially called by students and colleagues, died in 1968, he was buried in the Cathedral’s Crypt and in 1976, the Leo Sowerby Memorial Swell Division of the newly renovated Cathedral organ was dedicated to his memory.