I love John Philip Sousa’s music and it is because of him that I enjoy a good march. We had to play his music in my high school marching band because of being so close to the Nation’s Capital (my last two years of high school were spent in Alexandria, Virginia, about 20 minutes outside of Washington DC). Plus they’re just fun to play, especially if you’re in the woodwind section, which I was (I played clarinet in band for 7 years). While Stars and Stripes Forever will always be my favorite, I also love his piece The Washington Post. In fact, this is the one I am humming while writing this post. My dad used to work down the street from the Marine Barracks in DC, where the Marine Band would give free concerts in the summer, though I never managed to go to one. I found this Muppet version of SaSF while browsing for related material. If you want to see a decent movie about the maestro, check out this 1952 musical film Stars and Stripes Forever starring Clifton Webb as Sousa.
Today’s post topic comes from the celebration of Stars and Stripes Forever Day, which marks the first public performance of on this date in 1897, though it was composed on Christmas Day 1896. It is the offical march of the USA, actually written into the Constitution. So to start, I would like to give a little biography on John Philip Sousa. “March music is for the feet, not for the head,” John Philip Sousa once stated, and that is definitely true as you can’t help tapping your feet along to a good march. Born of German and Spanish parents, Sousa grew up around military bands as his father played trombone in the U.S. Marine Band, which Sousa himself was apprenticed to in 1868 at age 13. In 1872, he published his first piece entitled Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes. He left the Marine band in 1875 and went on to conduct Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore on Broadway. He returns to DC in 1880 to assume leadership of the Marine Band, which he does for two years. Then he goes to form his own band. He composes The Washington Post March in 1889 as part of a commission, from the newspaper, to promote an essay contest. This is the piece that made him famous worldwide. Stars and Stripes Forever is what most Americans think of when they think of July 4th, Independence Day. It is thought to represent the country and its eternal quest for freedom, as you can see from the lyrics. As noted on that website, Sousa composed the march after his band manager died and he had to get back from an European Tour to manage things. “The march was an immediate success – Sousa’s Band played it at almost every concert until his death over 35 years later.” According to Sousa’s own words, he came up with the idea for it while on the ship coming back to NYC :
“Suddenly, I began to sense a rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain. Throughout the whole tense voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and re-echoing the most distinct melody. I did not transfer a note of that music to paper while I was on the steamer, but when we reached shore, I set down the measures that my brain-band had been playing for me, and not a note of it has ever changed.”
Marches were not the only things he composed, though they were what made him the most famous. For a complete list of all of his composed works, check out this page from the Dallas Symphony. I was surprised to learn that he composed 15 operettas and 70 songs that weren’t marches. I will end on this great quote I found from the maestro on an exhibition done by the Library of Congress, as they possess Sousa’s original scores from Stars and Stripes Forever:
“A march speaks to a fundamental rhythm in the human organization and is answered. A march stimulates every centre of vitality, wakens the imagination . . . . But a march must be good. It must be as free from padding as a marble statue. Every line must be carved with unerring skill. Once padded it ceases to be a march. There is no form of musical composition wherein the harmonic structure must be more clear-cut. The whole process is an exacting one. There must be a melody which appeals to the musical and the unmusical alike. There must be no confusion in counterpoint.”