Sowerby and students Six of the Fellows of the College of Church Musicians gathered with Leo Sowerby: Bev Ward [standing], Charles Bradley, John Cooper, Ron Rice, Bill Partridge, and Roger Petrich [back to camera]. David Koehring, also one of the original seven Fellows is not seen in this photo.

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And they drew nigh


This anthem by Leo Sowerby was the sufficient cause for my desire to study composition with him. The text itself [from Luke:24] is one of my favorites, and in Sowerby's music this Post-Easter narrative moves into a warmly expressive world, both touchingly human and transcendent.

In person he was somewhat gruff and pragmatic. "How about this?" as he would pencil in some suggestions on my manuscript compositions. "You've done this before, now do something more interesting here."

My tasks in technical comprehension were uncompromising. Sowerby assigned the Franck "Symphony" for harmonic analysis. And so, chord by chord, I penciled in at the bottom of the miniature score pages each chord with its Roman numeral, and inversion, along the way also identifying the non-harmonic notes. He took pleasure in pointing out notes I had missed because these were played by transposing instruments. Attention to detail was expected. And for counterpoint it was a measure by measure journey through the 24 Fugues of the "Wohltempierte Klavier" of Bach, followed by the 12 Fugues of the "Ludus Tonalis" of Hindemith.

There were stories from the Frederick Stock years with the Chicago Symphony, and in a casual moment I saw the complete score and parts of Sowerby's "Third Symphony" neatly tied up with string. A visual memory: Sowerby conducting with a yellow #2 pencil for a baton his "Classic Concerto" for organ and strings. A time to informally visit with John Browning over martinis about his recent performances of the Barber "Piano Concerto" - this was at Sowerby's home on the Washington Cathedral Close. [I was the one mixing the martinis] Noticing the small water color painting by Rainey Bennett, the dedicatee of Sowerby's "Fantasy for Flute Stops."

My own "Choral Variations on 'Ah, Holy Jesus'" was part of the Sowerby years. The music was written on a week by week basis and brought in for comments. The following year Sowerby proposed that Paul Callaway use this music at the Good Friday Liturgy at Washington Cathedral. Sung by the Cathedral's Choir of Men and Boys, the performance was recorded and the score and recording sent to Oxford University Press, which accepted it. To my delight and amazement it still is in print more than forty years later.

For my organ recital at Washington Cathedral, I composed a sprawling choral fantasy on the Norwegian hymn-tune "Kirken." Later, I repeated this music for the ceremony dedicating the statue of St Olaf, which fills a small niche in the south aisle. This was probably the closest I came to appropriating a Sowerby style, though more of an homage than an imitation.

My time with "Dr Leo" was a bit more than two years: one year at the American Conservatory of Music, Chicago, and the following time at The College of Church Musicians, Washington Cathedral, DC. Richly stimulating, productive, and formative. I treasure the memories.

Roger Petrich
© 2008