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John Philip Sousa

Biography

Born: November 6, 1854; Washington D.C.   Died: March 6, 1932; Reading, PA  
American bandmaster and composer John Philip Sousa did more than anyone to elevate the status of the military wind band. Sousa's boyhood coincided with the American Civil War. The sounds of military bands were constantly in the air. His first musical training was on the violin, and his father instructed him on several wind instruments. At 13 the lure of a visiting circus was a powerful incentive for the boy to join up as a musician; however, his Read more astute father, himself a bandsman, caught wind of the lad's intention and procured an apprenticeship in the Marine Corps Band for his son. It proved to be a happy move for all involved. The young musician sharpened his skills in that musical organization called the "President's own." He composed his first march, Salutation, at 16.

At 18, Sousa began to play violin in various theater orchestras. In 1880, Sousa was appointed leader of the Marine Corps Band, which he would serve for 12 years, under five presidents. He now began to hit his stride with his own marches, turning out such classics as Semper Fidelis, The Washington Post, The Thunderer, and High School Cadets. In 1892 Sousa, resigning his position with the Marine Corps, organized his own band, known simply as Sousa's Band. Through national, European, and world tours, the band's success was nothing short of a phenomenon, Sousa receiving many honors and decorations from the royal families of Great Britain and Europe.

He continued turning out his series of comic operas, including the highly successful El capitan (1895). From his pen flowed songs, symphonic poems, and more marches, this period seeing The Liberty Bell (1893), King Cotton (1895), Hands Across the Sea (1899) and, most notably, The Stars and Stripes Forever (1897).

With the entry of the United States into World War I, however, Sousa laid aside civilian activity and assumed command of all naval bands. In 1920, he reorganized his band and resumed touring. Sousa died while en route to conduct a high school band in Reading, PA.

Among his other achievements was his role as a founder of ASCAP. He also helped develop the sousaphone, a large tuba which features in parade bands. Ultimately, his compositions are his monument. But particularly it is the marches which endure. Sousa was not afraid to invest his marches with beautiful melody and unusual harmonies, placing them above being merely parade music. Sousa continued to explore within his chosen field until the end and many from his final decade such as The Gridiron Club and Sesquicentennial Exposition are remarkable for their inventiveness and vitality. The composer himself mused upon what constitutes the perfect march, stating that "it should make a man with a wooden leg step out." In virtually all of his creations in this field, Sousa passed this standard with flying colors. Read less
Hands Across The Sea - Sousa Marches / Grenadier Guards
Release Date: 11/13/2007   Label: Kultur Video  
Catalog: 4234   Number of Discs: 1
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Sousa: El Capitan / Byess, Ohio Light Opera
Release Date: 11/09/2010   Label: Albany Records  
Catalog: 1236/37   Number of Discs: 2
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Work: Stars and Stripes Forever

 

About This Work
On the morning of Christmas Day, 1896, American "March King" John Philip Sousa wrote his most enduring masterwork, The Stars and Stripes Forever, in his New York hotel room in a couple of hours. By his own account, Sousa had been in Europe Read more when the news reached him that his business manager had died in New York. As he hurriedly made his way back towards America aboard ship, Sousa paced up and down the deck, his mind burning with The Stars and Stripes Forever, born of his impatience to get back home. Sousa's march took its title from a favored toast once often proffered by Sousa's late mentor, legendary bandmaster Patrick S. Gilmore, "Here's to the Stars and Stripes forever!"

Once the band score was completed on April 26, 1897, Sousa may have tried out The Stars and Stripes Forever on a couple of undocumented occasions before its acknowledged premiere, which took place at a Sousa Band concert held in Philadelphia on May 14, 1897. Although the piece earned three encores at this first outing, The Stars and Stripes Forever's first publication commanded no more attention in terms of sales than most other Sousa marches of the period. Sousa's publisher Church was so nonplussed by the piece that someone on the editorial staff suggested dropping the word "forever" from the title. However, Sousa refused to allow the quotation from Gilmore to be altered.

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Sousa assembled a grand pageant entitled The Trooping of the Colors with which he toured the major American cities. The musical aspect of the show was a compilation of various numbers relating to American patriotic themes, and through careful coordination with local choral societies, Sousa managed to mount the work with voices numbering in the hundreds. In the finale, The Stars and Stripes Forever was trotted out as soldiers from all three branches of the military marched on-stage with flags unfurled, accented by an attractive local maid costumed as "Columbia." The Trooping of the Colors reached millions of Americans in a time where there was no mass media to promote it, and tapped into a public whose patriotism was enervated by the anxiety of war. Through this show, Sousa set a standard for The Stars and Stripes Forever as a vehicle for extravagant patriotic display, which, if anything, has only increased in intensity in the years to follow.

Sousa sought in his later work to outdo the unprecedented popularity of The Stars and Stripes Forever, but never succeeded. In his own programs, Sousa usually placed the piece early on, as he knew it would be requested as an encore, and repeated. In spite of the thousands of times Sousa and his band were required to play The Stars and Stripes Forever, they never tired of it, or of its incredible effect on audiences. The Stars and Stripes Forever has gone on to become the most frequently played American instrumental work of any kind. Read less

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