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ClassicsOnline Home » SOWERBY: Works for Organ and Orchestra
Leo Sowerby (1895-1968)
Works for Organ and Orchestra
Leo Sowerby knew his life vocation prior to leaving elementary school. Born 1 May 1895, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, his first composition came two weeks after his tenth birthday. Both as composer and pianist, his talents quickly went beyond the Grand Rapids musical scene and at the age of fourteen, he was lodged in Chicago to continue his training. That city would be his home until six years prior to his death.
Before his nineteenth birthday his catalog numbered more than ninety works, including a Violin Concerto that had been premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Four years later the same orchestra gave an entire Sowerby concert. Another four years and the composer, now twenty-six years old was asked to be the first recipient of the American Rome Prize, a residency at the American Academy in Garibaldi's former headquarters atop Rome's highest hill. The award came not by competition, but simply on Sowerby's reputation as America's best young composer.
Meanwhile the organ had replaced the piano as Sowerby's chosen instrument. Though he had but five lessons, he became one of the finest church and recital organists of his time. His legacy of nearly eighty compositions for the instrument, including the monumental Symphony in G major (1930-31) is a corpus unequalled in quantity and quality by any composer since Bach. Among the organ works are six large-scale compositions with orchestra beginning with the Medieval Poem and concluding with the as-yet unperformed Second Organ Concerto, written in the final year of Sowerby's life.
Festival Musick and Classic Concerto were both written for E. Power Biggs, who had given the premiere of Sowerby's Organ Concerto in C major with the Boston Symphony in 1938. Festival Musick, written in a single week during the summer of 1953, was first heard on Riggs' weekly CBS radio broadcast from Harvard's Germanic Museum on 3 January 1954. The Classic Concerto had its premiere on the same program on 9 April 1944, having been written in the first three months of the year. In both instances the instrumentalists were from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Richard Burgin conducted.
Festival Musick is in three movements: "Fanfare" begins with a pungently dissonant but effective brass flourish. The organ enters with a toccata-like figuration in the right hand over a strongly angular theme in the left hand and pedals. After a reception of both motifs in another key, the movement elaborates on this material, progressing in excitement and intensity to a bold conclusion. After the unrestrained exuberance (and volume) of the first movement, the quiet "Chorale" is an effective foil. It is in variation form and relies largely upon the organ and one of two of the brasses used intermittently for solo lines of great beauty. The idea for the final movement came from Biggs. The A.G.O. (American Guild of Organists) awards two degrees on the basis of examinations: Associate and Fellow (A.A.G.O.; F.A.G.O.). The three acronyms provide the major thematic content of a movement marked "With verve". While the A, G, and F are, of course, part of the musical scale, Sowerby's dual solution to the "O' is ingenious. To reveal it here, however, would spoil the composer's little joke, so it will be left to the listener.
If Festival Musick represents the composer at his brashest, Classic Concerto emphasizes his lifelong comfort in expressing his distinctive harmonic muse and free counterpoint with traditional formal structures. Its texture is also more transparent than earlier Sowerby scores. The three connected movements in "fast-slow-fast" relationship, the interplay between organ and strings, and the avoidance of lengthy introductions prior to the main thematic content of each movement are all reminiscent of the 17th and early 18th century concerto grosso. Finally, for a composer who was sometimes accused by others and himself of lacking brevity (like Cesar Franck, whom Sowerby greatly admired), the Classic Concerto is tightly compacted. Even the organ cadenza, here found in the third movement is telling in its succinctness.
Medieval Poem was sketched 9-19 January 1926, with the score completed the following month. The first performance was a concert of works for organ and orchestra, sponsored by the Illinois Council of the National Association of Organists, and given in Chicago's Kimball Hall on 20 April 1926. Rollo Maitland was the organist, with an orchestra comprised of first-chair players from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its associate conductor, Eric DeLamarter. The inspiration for the work was a text from the ancient Liturgy of St. James, "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence". In the 1926 program notes, Sowerby wrote that he "Has endeavored to interpret the atmosphere of mystery which pervade the poem by translating into tone something of the vision of the heavenly pageant which St. James or any devout soul might have imagined". The day before the composer set to work on Medieval Poem, he had received a warm letter of appreciation from the Rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Chicago, where he had filled in as organist-choirmaster during a six-week emergency, so the choice of text can hardly have been coincidence. The same rector would hire Sowerby on the composer's thirty-second birthday, 1 May 1927, as permanent organist-choirmaster at St. James' Church, beginning a thirty-five-year career there.
The musical form of Medieval Poem is a rhapsodically free set of variations on an original chorale theme. That theme, however, first appears in unadorned form in the organ near the end of the piece, later echoed by a wordless vocal line off-stage. Thus the form is reminiscent of Vincent d'Indy's Istar Variations, in which the theme appears only after its variations. Sowerby greatly admired d'Indy, and in 1918 had expressed a desire to study with the French master. It is likely then, that the formal similarity is not accidental. Medieval Poem is dedicated to Howard Hanson, Sowerby's compatriot for three years at the American Academy in Rome and subsequent head of the Eastman School of Music for many years. With the composer at the organ and Hanson conducting, Medieval Poem was heard on three occasions at Eastman. The last time, in 1934, was shortly after Sowerby had received an honorary D. Mus. degree from that institution.
Pageant was written 30 May 1931, at the request of Fernando Germani, organist of the Vatican. Germani had played Sowerby's MedievaI Poem on his first concert in the United States, under the composer's baton. The Italian possessed a phenomenal pedal technique, and Sowerby's Pageant was very obviously intended as a direct challenge. In form it is a set of ingenious variations on a rather perfunctory theme, presented after a bravura introduction for pedals alone. Germani's response after receiving the score is legendary: "Now write for me something difficult!" Leo Sowerby died in Port Clinton, Ohio on 7 July 1968, while serving on the faculty of an Episcopal choir camp. He is interned in Washington Cathedral, leaving a legacy that has been described as "two lifetimes of music" - more than 550 scores for every musical medium except opera and ballet.
Ronald M. Huntington, PhD.
editor of The Complete Works of Leo Sowerby
Edited by Victor & Marina A. Ledin
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SOWERBY: Works for Organ and Orchestra