The March King
June 29, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
If you’ve spent a single Fourth of July in the United States, chances are you’ve heard at least one march by a man named John Philip Sousa. Sousa was a first-generation American, born in Washington D.C. in 1854. His father was Portuguese, but born in Spain; his mother was Bavarian. The Sousa family had ten children, of which John Philip was the third. His father, a trombonist in the U.S. Marine Band, encouraged John Philip to study music, first at the Esputa Conservatory, and later as an apprentice in the U.S. Marine Band. By all accounts John Philip was a fine violinist, playing in local orchestras in the Washington D.C. area. Eventually, he became a teacher at the Esputa Conservatory. His first compositions were written under the guidance of George Felix Benkert, a composer and conductor in D.C.
After he turned twenty, and left the Marine band, he traveled with theater troupes and vaudeville shows, writing music and conducting bands and orchestras. He made some orchestrations of some Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and tried his hand at writing some operettas of his own. When Gilbert and Sullivan’s work HMS Pinafore came to the U.S., Sousa had the opportunity to conduct it in Philadelphia. His growing experience with composing, conducting, and arranging made him an attractive candidate for a position that would change his life.
In 1880, John Philip Sousa was appointed as the fourteenth conductor of the United States Marine Band. From 1880 to 1892, Sousa brought the band to new heights of mastery and expanded their repertoire, transcribing classical pieces for the band. He also composed marches for them to play. Sousa was also the conductor of “the President’s Own” band, playing for five presidents: Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison. All the while, he continued to compose outside of the military milieu, publishing an operetta called The Smugglers in 1882 and Désirée the following year. A march he wrote from this time period, The Gladiator March, was his first big hit, eventually selling more than a million copies. Sousa soon became a household name, and his 1895 operetta, El Capitan was his most successful.
By the end of his tenure with the Marines, Sousa’s publisher was making plans for Sousa to lead a band on a national tour. From 1892 until World War I, Sousa’s Band, as it was known, toured the United States yearly. They even toured Europe four times, and once (from 1910-11) they embarked on a world tour. The band was self-financed and self-sustaining, and they gave over fifteen thousand concerts in their forty years of playing and touring. They often played two shows a day, often without the benefit of lengthy rehearsals. Sousa’s programming included both popular and classical pieces, and demonstrated the band’s mastery of both styles. Part of their success was certainly their enduring quality. Sousa’s Band consistently attracted incredibly well-trained and talented players. At any given time, the band had anywhere from forty-three to seventy-three musicians. In total, about 1200 musicians played for Sousa throughout his career. Some became composers, like Meredith Wilson, composer of The Music Man. Other individuals like Herbert Clarke and Frank Simon became conductors.
As one might imagine, Sousa was a very patriotic American. He spent more than nineteen years in military service. When the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, he was sixty-two years old, but he not only insisted on volunteering for the war effort, he put his own career on hold to do so. He volunteered for the Naval Reserves, serving as a Lieutenant Commander of the Naval Band at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. He was also responsible for forming and organizing fleet bands. For the duration of his service, Sousa donated his salary—his music had brought him great wealth—to the Sailors’ and Marines’ Relief Fund. Even after the war, Sousa proudly wore his Naval uniform when he conducted.
Following the war, Sousa’s Band began touring again and continued for another decade. The next interruption came with the Great Depression. The focus of the band then shifted from touring to playing radio shows. Sousa’s output includes 135 independent, stand-alone marches (not part of larger pieces). The most famous is likely “Stars and Stripes Forever,” a piece that was named as the National March of the United States. Other notable marches are “The Liberty Bell,” which some might remember it as the theme song to Monty Python’s Flying Circus; “The Washington Post,” which was a popular tune for the two-step; and “Semper Fidelis,” the official march of the U.S. Marine Corps. Some of his marches were taken from his other works. The marches “El Capitan,” “The Smugglers,” and “Désirée” come from his operettas.
Sousa’s Band very rarely actually marched, so Sousa could expected warmth and nuance from his players in the concert setting. He took some liberties with his tunes, mostly because he wanted the live performances to be unique. He disliked recordings, once saying that they would “ruin the artistic development of music.” The market deemed recordings necessary so Sousa agreed, but often gave the baton to one of his trusted players. Sousa was one of the original 182 members of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. In his later years, he also made time promote and support school band music.
If you’ve ever seen a marching band or played in one, you are probably familiar with the Sousaphone. In the 1860s, there was an instrument called the helicon, which was a wearable brass instrument manufactured by the German corporation, Melton. The helicon was in turn developed from the saxhorn and saxtuba, which were invented by Adolphe Sax in the 1840s. When Sousa requested the new instrument from Philadelphia instrument-maker, James Welsh Pepper, he asked for a tuba that could be played marching or sitting, and that had a design that allowed the sound to travel over the band in either case. Pepper modified the helicon design and came up with the Sousaphone. Although it is well-suited to marching, Sousa intended to have his low brass players use it primarily in the concert setting. Sousa wanted ease of use, of course, but he was concerned mostly with the timbre (tone color) of the instrument. The Sousaphone we see today has a forward-facing bell, which is a slight tweak on the original design, which had the bell facing upwards. For this reason, they were known in the early days as “rain-catchers.”
The last piece Sousa ever conducted, the day before he died, was “Stars and Stripes Forever.” It was March 5, 1932, and he was rehearsing in Reading, Pennsylvania with the Ringgold Band. He passed away from heart failure at the age of 77. He is buried, in a family plot, in Washington D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery. In the bicentennial year of the U.S., he was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. He received the World War I Victory Medal for this service, and after the war was elected to the order of the Military Order of Foreign Wars.
If you think Sousa had plenty of music to keep him occupiedf for all of his seventy-seven years, and that he probably didn’t have time for anything else, you should know that Sousa was married and had children, was a champion trapshooter (similar to skeet shooting), and wrote three novels, articles on trapshooting, and a manual for trumpet and drums. If you’re now thinking, “someone should make a movie about this man,” it’s already been done. In 1952, 20th Century Fox released a film called Stars and Stripes Forever, featuring Clifton Webb as John Philip Sousa. Loosely based on Sousa’s memoirs, Marching Along, the film used Alfred Newman to arrange and conduct the music for the film.
In many ways, John Philip Sousa embodied the traits we associate with the best in America: loyalty, creativity, service, excellence, generosity, a strict work ethic, and an hearty spirit. His music is part of our national identity, and his legacy continues in the military, in marching band programs, in schools, and in our patriotic celebrations. It has endured for more than a hundred years, and will hopefully continue for many more. Happy Fourth!