Sousa, John Philip (1854-1932)

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Sousa, John Philip (1854-1932)

Known as the "March King," John Philip Sousa created more than 100 marches which reflected the optimism, patriotism, and military prowess of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. Sousa was called the "Dickens of Music" and "Knight of the Baton." He described himself as a "Salesman of Americanism, globetrotter, and musician."

Sousa was born on November 6, 1854, in Washington, D.C., to John Antonio and Maria Elisabeth (Trinkhaus) Sousa. His father played a trombone for the United States Marine Band. Musically gifted at a young age, John Philip Sousa studied at a local conservatory and was inspired by Civil War marches he heard during his boyhood. At age 13, Sousa considered joining a circus band, and his father enlisted him in the United States Marine Band.

By the summer of 1872, Sousa conducted and played in orchestras in Washington, D.C., and began composing music. His first published composition was "Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes." Sousa's early work revealed his unique style that would gain him international distinction. Touring as orchestra conductor for various companies, Sousa performed as a violinist during the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. He composed his first comic opera, "The Smugglers," for a Philadelphia choir.

On September 30, 1880, Sousa became conductor of the United States Marine Band. During his leadership, the band improved in quality from a mediocre ensemble into a superb group. Sousa's exacting standards enabled the band to achieve fame internationally for its spirited style. The Marine Band became the model for other bands to emulate. Sousa led the band on national and international tours while composing music such as "Semper Fidelis" (1888).

In the spring of 1892, Sousa resigned from the Marines Corps to create a concert band of civilians. Sousa assembled talented musicians and staged his band's first concert on September 26, 1892, at Plainfield, New Jersey. The band's programming was a unique blending of instrumentalists, a soprano vocalist, and violinist. "In dynamics, I have never heard any orchestra that could touch us," Sousa told Music magazine in 1899. Sousa's band appeared throughout the United States and traveled to Europe, including an around-the-world trip from 1910 to 1912. Sousa and his band enhanced the image of American culture in Europe, proving that American musicians were not inferior to European performers.

Sousa constantly composed new music for his band, such as "The Stars and Stripes Forever," which later was designated the United States's official march. Some critics argue that this composition alone secured Sousa's acclaimed status as a composer. A patriotic and emotional musician, Sousa sought to create music that was assertive and energetic like the United States was militarily at the turn of the twentieth century. He wanted his music to make people proud to be Americans. During the Spanish-American War, Sousa was musical director of the VI Army Corps and prepared a pageant, The Trooping of the Colors.

Nicknamed the "Pied Piper of Patriotism," Sousa thought a march should "make goose pimples chase each other up and down your spine." He stressed that marches should be characterized by simplicity with a steady, stimulating rhythm. Sousa's marches reflected the country's spirit of optimism, and his driving, pulsating tunes emphasized the strength of the country. Sousa's martial music standardized the march form and became popular classics. In addition to his music, Sousa developed a new instrument, the Sousaphone, which resembled a tuba. He also devoted time to protecting composers' rights. He coined the term "canned music" in 1906 when he protested the phonograph industry recording music without compensating composers.

During World War I, Sousa joined the United States Naval Reserve as a lieutenant, directing the Great Lakes Naval Training Station Band which toured the country to raise millions of dollars in Liberty Loan drives. Sousa was a familiar figure, wearing his uniform and carrying his sword at the head of parades. After the war, he toured with his band, promoted music education, and testified to Congress about composers' rights. Sousa's dramatic performances reinforced his reputation as a showman. Choosing entertainment over education, he vowed to present audiences the music that they wanted. His band played in remote parts of the United States where people had never heard a symphony orchestra. Town dignitaries declared "Sousa Day" when the band arrived, and performances were often standing-room-only. Sousa strived to present music that people appreciated while making unfamiliar music, such as early jazz, accessible to them thus influencing Americans' musical taste. Sousa often invited the audiences to sing along with the band.

Americans' interest in bands peaked between 1890 and 1910, and Sousa helped to disseminate band music. Before televisions, radios, and movies, instruments provided entertainment in homes, and people played Sousa pieces, especially popular dance songs. The July 4, 1898, Musical Courier commented, "go where you may, you hear Sousa, always Sousa.… It is Sousa in the band, Sousa in the orchestra, Sousa in the phonograph, Sousa in the hand organ, Sousa in the music box, Sousa everywhere." The name Sousa became a household term, and at one time he was the best known musician in America. Vaudeville comedians imitated him, and towns hosted public celebrations for his birthday. Sousa also received many honors and medals.

Although he refused to perform on the radio because he preferred interacting with live audiences, Sousa was convinced to broadcast concert series in 1929 and 1931 because of overwhelming public demand. Sousa especially focused on encouraging young musicians. He accepted invitations to help amateur bands and supported the school music movement and the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan. Every year John Philip Sousa awards are given by high school band directors to talented band members. The John Philip Sousa foundation recognizes excellent high school, college, and community bands.

Sousa died on March 6, 1932, after a rehearsal at Reading, Pennsylvania. The last piece he conducted was "The Stars and Stripes Forever." The Marine Band played "Semper Fidelis" during his funeral procession. Buried at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., Sousa's gravestone was carved with a bar from "The Stars and Stripes Forever." His music library was donated to the University of Illinois. The movie Stars and Stripes Forever (also called Marching Along) premiered in 1952 with Clifton Webb playing Sousa, and Sousa's family and band members criticized the movie's inaccuracies. In 1957, George Balanchine choreographed the ballet Stars and Stripes. The Public Broadcasting Corporation televised the documentary If You Knew Sousa. The Sousa Stage was dedicated at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and other Sousa memorials include schools and band shells. Sousa's former band members belonged to chapters of the Sousa Band Fraternal Society. In 1997, the United States Postal Service issued a 32 cent stamp, "The Stars and Stripes Forever!," to celebrate the centennial of Sousa's most famous march.

—Elizabeth D. Schafer

Further Reading:

Berger, Kenneth. The March King and His Band. New York, Exposition Press, 1957.

Bierley, Paul E. John Philip Sousa: American Phenomenon. 2nd edition. New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1973.

——. The Works of John Philip Sousa. Columbus, Integrity Press, 1984.

Heslip, Malcolm. Nostalgic Happenings in the Three Bands of John Philip Sousa. Revised edition. Westerville, Ohio, Integrity Press, 1992.

Newsom, Jon, editor. Perspectives on John Philip Sousa. Washington, Music Division, Research Services, Library of Congress, 1983.

Sousa, John Philip. Marching Along: Recollections of Men, Women and Music. Westerville, Integrity Press, 1994.

——. Book of Instruction for the Field-Trumpet and Drum:Together With the Trumpet and Drum Signals Now in Use in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps of the United States. Westerville, Integrity Press, 1985.