Leo Sowerby very well may be the most-famous-while-alive and least-famous-now composer we’ve looked at.
Hi everybody, I’m Kile Smith, and welcome to Fleisher Discoveries. Fleisher Discoveries is a podcast from the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection.
In Fleisher Discoveries, we uncover the unknown, rediscover the little-known, and take a fresh look at some of the remarkable treasures housed in the Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music in the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Fleisher Collection is the largest lending library of orchestral performance material in the world. There’s a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast up every month on SoundCloud and on Spotify; search “Fleisher Discoveries” and find every one of our podcasts.
There’s a myth about artists that’s gone around a long time that I’d like to clarify, and by clarify I mean shoot down. By artists I suppose I mean composers, since those are the only artists I can speak of with some specific knowledge gained from my 30 years at the Fleisher Collection. It may apply to poets and authors and performers and painters, too, but I’ll leave it at composers. And by myth I don’t mean the Joseph Campbell stories explaining all we have in common as human beings. No, by myth I mean a lie.
The myth says that there are composers who, after a lifetime of neglect, become famous after they die. Well, in all the history of music this has never happened. This is a lie. Even Franz Schubert, who died young, poor, and sick, was known, even well known in some influential circles. No, the composers whose names we know now were known, very well, in their lifetimes. The famous ones today were famous when they were alive. So the sobering lesson to living composers is that—if the historical record is any guide—if we’re unknown now, it isn’t going to change after we die.
But that historical cruelty is balanced by another one. I also learned this from years studying composers, living and dead, at the Fleisher Collection. The fact is this: if you’re famous now, there’s no guarantee you will be after you’re dead. Fame, in fact, is doubly cruel. If you’re not famous now, you won’t be later. But if you are famous now, you probably won’t be later.
My takeaway is this: If you desire everlasting fame, choose another line of work. Better yet, since I’m thinking it applies not only to composition but to all professions, choose another thing to desire. If you really must be a composer, then write the best music you can, don’t worry about fame, and be happy now, no matter what.
Leo Sowerby will be one of the lesser-known names we’ve had the pleasure of looking into on Fleisher Discoveries. But he very well may be one of the most-famous-while-alive and least-famous-now composers we’ve looked at.
If you know his name, chances are you’re an organist, or you have a deep acquaintance with church music, because Sowerby is a revered name in those circles. But he wrote every kind of music, excepting opera, including five symphonies. He not only wrote them, but they were performed. You may have heard of the Rome Prize, where a composer is able to live and work at the American Academy in Rome for three years. Well, Leo Sowerby was the very first person they gave it to, in 1921. His professional debut as a composer was his Violin Concerto, played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was 18.
Howard Hanson, who ought to know, said that in the 1920s no American symphonic composer was performed more than Leo Sowerby. His music was performed in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and he was practically composer-in-residence in Chicago under Frederick Stock. He taught at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where his students included Norman Luboff, Gail Kubik, Florence Price, and Ned Rorem. And in 1946 his cantata Canticle of the Sun, on the words of St. Francis of Assisi, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
But today, outside of organists and liturgical church musicians, we barely know his name. Before going into why that might be, though, we should hear something of his. Let’s start with an early work, from 1924, his From the Northland suite. He wrote it in Italy for piano while enjoying his Rome Prize, playing it in New York himself upon his return to the States. Originally five movements, he orchestrated four of them into the work we’re about to hear.
The inspiration for it goes back to his youth. He was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and on a vacation up at the border with Canada, where the Great Lakes of Superior and Huron meet, the sounds of the wild stayed with him. About the four movements, he wrote:
(1) Forest Voices: In the depth of the green, dark forest I hear not a sound, save the faint magic murmur of the great trees, which seem to chant a song, hushed and mysterious, which betimes surges and swells, and lapses again into primeval silence.
(2) Cascades: The sparkling rivulet laughs its way over stones and pebbles, grinds through rapids, and dashes over a great rock in a cloud of scintillating foam. I should like to listen forever … though when I leave it to its play, it bids me no farewell, but runs carelessly on and on its way, caring not for me…
(3) Burnt Rock Pool: In this pool — who knows how deep — there reigns a silence absolute, a tranquility sweet and wonderful. I reflect on life, and wonder if this is not the great joy, the highest happiness, to be one with nature’s self.
(4) The Shining Big Sea-Water: The blinding light of the summer sun beats down upon the ever-restless Great Lake. The waves hurl themselves with a monotonous never-ceasing rhythm upon the rock wall of the shore. O my lake! in your every mood, pensive or fearful, you, of all nature, tell me most of joy, of youth, of power, of infinity!
On Fleisher Discoveries, From the Northland by Leo Sowerby, performed by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Paul Freeman.
[Leo Sowerby (1895–1968). From the Northland (1924)]
The suite for orchestra From the Northland by Leo Sowerby, which he composed in 1924. The four movements were Forest Voices, Cascades, Burnt Rock Pool, and, in a nod to Longfellow’s Hiawatha, The Shining Big Sea-Water. Paul Freeman conducted the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. This is Fleisher Discoveries and I’m Kile Smith.
It was the 1920s and Leo Sowerby was writing jazz-infused music for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. He knew George Gershwin, was friends with Percy Grainger. He was appointed to the faculty of the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where he would teach until 1962. He won the first of four awards from the Society for the Publication of American Music. After a few years as associate organist at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, in 1927 he landed the prestigious position of organist and choirmaster at St. James Episcopal, today the Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago.
And this, I believe, has a lot to do with the trajectory of his star in the world of modern American classical music. While he continued to compose concert music, and continued to be performed—only in two seasons from the 1920s to ’40s did the Chicago Symphony Orchestra not play one of his works—he threw himself into church music. He wrote dozens of anthems, rich, brilliant, sometimes difficult, always elegant. He wrote large choral works on religious subjects, and sacred songs, often on the Psalms. And he wrote organ music, including commissions for the leading concert organist of the day, E. Power Biggs.
In this music you will find, I believe, the soul of Leo Sowerby. In his early work he was sometimes chided—and sometimes he chided himself—for being an edgy modernist, full of sound and fury. Later, he was sniffed at as a romantic. Those who did the sniffing included Aaron Copland, who ought to have known better, since he well knew what some modernists said about him behind his back. Virgil Thomson, whose penchant for sniffing got the better of his own Midwestern roots, ought also to have known better.
One who didn’t, though, was Ned Rorem, as East-Coast as anyone but who never forgot, and often mentioned, his Midwest background. He came to admire Sowerby, and never forgot that his early teacher was the first person to recognize talent in the young Rorem. But admiration took a while, because Rorem was himself, he readily admits, caught up in appearances:
Leo Sowerby was, with John Alden Carpenter, the most distinguished composer of the Middle West … Of my parents’ generation, a bachelor, reddished complexioned … milky skinned, chain smoker of Fatima cigarettes, unglamorous and nonmysterious, likable with a perpetual worried frown, overweight and wearing rimless glasses, earthy, practical, interested in others even when they were talentless, a stickler for basic training. Sowerby was the first composer I ever knew and the last thing a composer was supposed to resemble. He was a friendly pedagogue…. As to Leo’s music, I was shy of it. That he served as organist and choirmaster of Saint James’ Church … and excelled in sacred music, was stuffy and off-putting. Not until 1943, when I heard … the haunting and sinuous Arioso for organ solo … and a few years later the cantata on texts of St. Francis, did I realize there was more to Sowerby than academic facility.
That was the cantata that won for Sowerby the 1946 Pulitzer. And who did he beat out for the Prize? Virgil Thomson. And who was on the judging committee? Well, along with Howard Hanson, an understandable ally of Sowerby’s, was a fellow named Aaron Copland. So, I guess he did know better, after all.
Let’s hear a later work, All on a Summer’s Day, from 1954, and again, let’s hear the composer tell us about it:
…my desire was to express and to carry over to those who listen the sense of the joy which June brings—a joy sometimes happily carefree, sometimes marked by a touch of wistfulness—and which I experienced at the time of its making. So many art manifestations of our time are studded with problems or seem to be demonstrations of theories, there is much anxiety and gloom expressed in today’s music—and I myself have to answer for my share of it. This time, however, I felt the urge to put these things to one side and to write music which should mirror the sunny moods of exhilaration most of us experience “all on a summer’s day.”
Robert Whitney conducts the Louisville Orchestra in one of the first of their celebrated series of historic American contemporary recordings. All on a Summer’s Day by Leo Sowerby.
[Sowerby. All on a Summer’s Day (1954)]
All on a Summer’s Day by Leo Sowerby. Robert Whitney conducted the Louisville Orchestra. This is Fleisher Discoveries and I’m Kile Smith.
I hope you liked this look into the music and the life of Leo Sowerby on Fleisher Discoveries. What I take away from it is his “sense of the joy,” as he put it in his notes on All on a Summer’s Day. I think that this joy, and his devotion to music for the church, explains as much as anything else whatever his trajectory as a “name” might be or might become. He carried joy and devotion with him, and that seemed to be enough for him, and I come away with nothing but admiration.
The Fleisher Collection is on Facebook, and I’m on Facebook, so you can like us there. I’m also on Twitter, @KileSmithMusic, and on Instagram I’m kilesmithmusic. And you can always drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get right back to you.
Normally I don’t mention last names of those who write in but I’m going to make an exception because I don’t think he’d mind and also because he’s a composer we’ve had on Discoveries, and I’m happy for more and more to know about him! Jeremy Gill wrote in and said, “I’m enjoying your Fleisher Discoveries episode on Frank Bridge. I taught at a summer composition program last week and presented on his piano quintet—a wonderful work I had never heard before a month or so ago. I agree he deserves to be heard much more!”
Tony in New Jersey also wrote to say that Frank Bridge is one of his favorite composers, and Jeff in the Philadelphia suburbs also said that our show reminded him that he needs to check out more Frank Bridge. Thanks to everyone, and remember, you can like us on the Fleisher Collection’s page on Facebook, or on my page, or right where the podcast is on Spotify and SoundCloud, and we thank you!
And remember that all of our podcasts are available all of the time, so do check us out anytime for what we hope are the enlightening stories and wonderful pieces we uncover for every show. Stay tuned for more Fleisher Discoveries podcasts coming to you every month, right here.
And thanks for joining me on Fleisher Discoveries, a podcast produced by the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Every month we have a new Fleisher Discoveries podcast for you on Spotify and SoundCloud. Gary Galván is curator of the Fleisher Collection, and I’m Kile Smith. Stay well, and I’ll catch up with you next time on Fleisher Discoveries.