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Ordinary Time 2017

01 August 2016
sound - architecture in

The arch looms.

I moved to St. Louis exactly a year ago, and I knew that there was a great big arch here. Everybody knows about it. It's the totem of this region, like the Space Needle in Seattle, or the Eifel Tower in Paris.

What I didn't know is that it looms so large. You can see it from many different vantage points throughout the city. You see its image plastered everywhere. And the arch itself is a sublime chameleon of the urban skyline.

On a dark winter day I've seen it as a foreboding bent rod of cold iron. When all is gray I've seen it as a careful charcoal sketch in the distance. In the spring I've seen it covered with gleaming foil. One memorable approach I saw it penetrate a persistent December cloud from underneath, the two arms thrust up defiantly into the late-night muck, the top of it invisible to me but still meeting together somewhere in the chaos. Of course it can entirely disappear in the rain, but it still lurks. You know it's still there. It lingers. It looms.

You live with the presence of the arch in this town. It is captivating. And maybe I'm a little obsessed with it. And being a musician I can't help but consider the sonic implications of its form.

When I moved to town a year ago I was sure that the arch was a Howells Psalm-Prelude: an "arch form", as music theorists like to say. Something that starts soft, rises to a thundering climax, and then recedes once again into memory.

But that's not quite right. This concept of the arch form assumes that the listener is taken along for the ride, tracing the sweep of the arch. And while it is interesting (really cramped and a bit bumpy) to ride a tram to the top of the Gateway Arch, this isn't really the point of the structure. And much to Howells's chagrin, there is no such thing as a smooth ride to the top. At least, not with this arch.

No, it is really something else. It is, as its name suggests, a gateway.

The gateway involves movement. Movement toward or away, or around. But ultimately (even if it is only in the psychological dimension) movement through.

And there is perhaps no piece of American music more suggestive of this kind of movement than the Passacaglia from Leo Sowerby's Symphony for Organ.

It is a new kind of "arch form", one that music theorists have overlooked. So today I hereby introduce you to the "St. Louis arch form", or, more accurately "Gateway Arch form".

Leo Sowerby (1895–1968) was a quintessentially Midwestern American church musician: born in Michigan, held sway in Chicago, died in Ohio. The construction of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis began just shortly before Sowerby was called out of the Midwest to the National Cathedral to lead the College of Church Musicians. The arch was inaugurated less than two months before Sowerby's death in 1968. But he prophesied it in 1930.
I might say that my symphony [for organ] has no "program" or extra-musical significance or intent. It is as much a piece of architecture in sound as any of the works of the masters of the Baroque, though I do not pretend to make any further comparisons.

Sowerby, in the liner notes for RCA Victor Musical Masterpiece Series M-894, a recording of the Symphony for Organ by E. Power Biggs, quoted in A Performer's Companion to Leo Sowerby's Symphony in G Major for Organ, a doctoral dissertation by Robert William Parris, Eastman School of Music, 1982. Emphasis added.

Sowerby wrote the Passacaglia first, likely before the rest of the Symphony was conceived. The work was completed in 1930 and published by Oxford in 1932.

The theme, remarkably, is in major. Most organ Passacaglias tend to be firmly in minor. I remember in an organ improvisation class with Jeffrey Smith that he asked that students bring in a ground bass in a major key (other than Pachelbel, which I think we identified during the class). At the next session someone had found something (I think by Handel), but that was it. Just a window into 1) how rare Passacaglias in a major key are and 2) how this Sowerby Passacaglia seems to be on the edge of obscurity.

The theme itself is an arch, and it's high point is in the middle (a rarity for a passacaglia theme).

There is a blue note when Sowerby places a natural sign on the second-highest pitch in the theme, an F. But this isn't by accident. If Sowerby is to be believed, he spent an entire day just crafting the theme of this passacaglia.

One of the best bits in Robert Parris's dissertation is Example 8, found on page 40. It chronicles the harmonic exploits of this F-natural at its every appearance in the piece.

The piece is a model of organic compositional development. But Sowerby guides the music's natural inclinations as only a master composer can do.

I think it's interesting to note the similarities in "organic" composition between Sowerby, an American, and Jean Sibelius, the famous Finnish composer. It's more intriguing still to think that the architect of the St. Louis arch was Eero Saarinen, a Finnish American.

The ethos of the passacaglia is telestic, teleological. It's rooted to an idea, but it's going somewhere. It has big plans. It is transformative.

But this is not your usual passacaglia. Composers so often become hostage to the form's own intensity and cannot help but build the music in one ceaseless, massive crescendo. Sowerby provides another solution.

In "Gateway arch form" we discover that the journey is every bit as important as the destination. At a certain point we "arrive", and then we stop and look up in quiet wonder.

photo by the author

We wonder about what we have done, and where we have been. We wonder, with James Agee, about the miraculousness of life together and wonder "who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth." We wonder what we have lost, and what we will gain. We wonder about who we are, and who we will become.

So halfway through Sowerby's Passacaglia, we arrive. And it really is halfway; there's a symmetry to this, like the arch itself. There is a thundering climax. Massive textures. And then the variation ends abruptly, and a new quiet one simply begins, as it was always destined to do. And after a moment, we emerge from our unexpected contemplation and take a step through the other side.

We keep walking. The arch is a portal. It's not the destination. We have another place to go.

This is hopeful, expansive music. This is American music. This is music to accompany a great journey: one of an individual, one of a family, one of a nation.

This is sacred music. It is a great piece of architecture in sound.

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