Leo Sowerby was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he began to compose at the age of ten. His interest in the organ began at the age of 15, he was self-taught at the instrument. He studied composition with Arthur Olaf Andersen at the American Conservatory of Music, Chicago. Early recognition came when his violin concerto was premiered in 1913 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He spent time in France during World War I in the role of bandmaster. In 1921 he was awarded the Rome Prize (from the American Academy in Rome), the first composer to receive this. He joined the American Conservatory of Music as faculty in 1924. 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). Previously, Sowerby was associate organist at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago (1919).
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 (Stalford & Meckna 2001). 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 and ballet. His later works, done at St James's, Chicago, and Washington Cathedral, are primarily church music for choir and organ.
This piece on the Gregorian chant melody "Veni Creator" is from a collection of Choral preludes for the church year, and takes the form of an improvisation, constantly crescendoing until the last TUTTI measure...