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Biography

Leo Sowerby (May 1, 1895–July 7, 1968), American composer and church musician, was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1946, and was often called the “Dean of American church music” in the early to mid 20th century.

Sowerby was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he began to compose at the age of ten. His violin concerto was premiered in 1913 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 1921 he was awarded the Prix de Rome (from the American Academy in Rome), the first composer to receive this. In addition he received the 1946 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his cantata, the Canticle of the Sun, written in 1944.

In 1927 he became organist-choirmaster at St James’s Episcopal Church, Chicago, which was consecrated as a cathedral while he was there (1955). It was during his time there that he did most of his work and gained his international reputation.

In 1962, after his retirement from St James’s, he was called to Washington National Cathedral to become the founding director of the College of Church Musicians, a position he held until his death in 1968. He died in Port Clinton, Ohio, while at Camp Wa-Li-Ro, in Put-in-Bay, Ohio, the summer choir camp where he had taught for many years.

His substantial output includes over 500 works in every genre but opera. Early in his career, he was widely known for his orchestral and chamber works, but his later works, done at St James's, Chicago, and Washington Cathedral, are primarily church music for choir and organ. As a teacher Sowerby's pupils included Robert Stewart, Gail Kubik, William Ferris, Florence Price, Ned Rorem, Norman Luboff, Milan Kaderavek, Maylon Merrill (Jack Benny's longtime music director) and Gerald Near.

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