CHARLOTTE, N.C., July 4, 2018. Around the world, many countries commemorate their national independence each year. But in this writer’s opinion, nothing is more uniquely patriotic than our own American Independence Day. Celebrated annually on the Fourth of July, our celebration of America’s independence breaks out in towns and cities large and small. Parades, hot dogs, apple pie, picnics, baseball, fireworks and outdoor cookouts are all wrapped up in red, white and blue bunting. And the patriotic music of the day traditionally includes one or more rousing marches by America’s March King, John Philip Sousa.
Clearly, one Fourth of July tradition that is never overlooked (though often lost amid some of our more familiar customs) is the resonating, patriotic sound of a good old-fashioned march. Though many of us may not be able to recite the name of a particular march, there’s no denying that everyone recognizes the music. Without a doubt, no music ever made Americans feel more proud of their freedoms, liberty and independence than the rousing patriotic fanfares and marches of John Philip Sousa.
John Philip Sousa: Perfect pitch, perfect opportunities
John Philip Sousa was third of ten children of João António de Sousa (John Anthony Sousa). His father was of Portuguese and Spanish ancestry. His wife, Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus, was of German descent.
Their son, John Philip Sousa, seemed destined for musical success. He was born with with the gift of perfect pitch.
In his own way, John Philip quickly began his rise to become the “Mozart of Marches” by learning music at an early age. When he was 13, Sousa was offered a job as a circus musician which, at the time, proved most appealing to his youthful ambitions.
Sousa’s father, a trombonist who had played with the United States Marine Band, would have none of that. Insead, he quickly arranged for his son to serve as an apprentice in the Marine Band: still the official band of the President of the United States. That arguably tragic loss to the circus world proved to be one of the greatest gifts ever to the inspiring universe of patriotic music.
Sousa’s famous stint in the U.S. Marine Band
For five years John Philip Sousa performed with the Marine Band. He then departed, returning to a life of playing the violin and conducting theatrical orchestras.
At the tender age of 26, Sousa was invited back to Washington and was appointed leader of the Marine Band in 1880. He held that post for the next 12 years.
Popularly known as the Sousa Band at the time, Sousa’s ensemble made numerous tours throughout the United States and Europe.
The March King arises
During his 12-year tenure with the Marine Band Sousa was once moved to tears when he attended a military ceremony. That emotional experience resulted in his composition of his stirring “Semper Fidelis March” in 1888.
Not surprisingly, since 1889, the “Semper Fidelis March” has been the official march of the United States Marine Corps. Of all of his nearly 140 marches, Sousa regarded “Semper Fidelis” as his most musical work.
1889 proved a banner year for Sousa marches. In that year, Sousa also composed another enduringly famous march as a tribute to The Washington Post newspaper. Incorporating a new two-step meter — a quick marching step with skips — the “Washington Post March” remains popular. It’s one of the most popular pieces performed by college marching bands during football games.
As one might expect, Sousa was both a perfectionist and a natural showman. He took great pride in conducting his band in full military uniform. But he was also extremely superstitious. One example: He refused to wear a pair of white dress gloves more than once because he regarded this as bad luck. However, other sources speculate that the real reason behind this habit was not due to superstition. but because his gloves could easily attract ink stains while as he turned the pages of his scores during concerts.
Whatever the real reason, at one point Sousa ordered 110 dozen pairs of white kid gloves (1320 pairs in all) at a cost of five dollars a pair. The bill came to a whopping $6,600 during an era when Americans could purchase a new car for around $700 and a house for about $4,000.
“Stars and Stripes Forever”
What made Sousa’s Marine Band different from all others at the time was the intensity of its performances and the richness of the instrumentation involved. Particularly in his own composisions and arrangements, John Philip Sousa raised the public awareness of march music and musical quality to a higher level of sophistication.
Sousa composed his most famous work in 1897 for the unveiling of a new statue of George Washington in Philadelphia. “The Stars and Stripes Forever” made its public debut at that ceremony in the presence of President William McKinley. Later that year “The Stars and Stripes Forever” was declared the official march of the United States. It has retained that honor for more than 130 years. And counting.
Sousa branches out
But life marches on. Sousa eventually decided to leave the Marines and seek musical opportunities outside the military sphere. So significant at the time was Sousa’s departure from the Marine Band in 1892 that it made front page news in the New York Times.
Though he remains best known for his stirring military music, Sousa had wider musical interests and ambitions as well. Between 1879 and 1915, he composed 11 comic operas — popularly known today as “operettas” — plus two symphonic poems.
Sousa’s writing skills were not limited to music, however. He also wrote three novels and a nonfiction work: his autobiography, “Marching Along.”
A new musical instrument for America’s marching bands
Sousa was a bit of a musical tinkerer as well. Most famously, realizing the difficulties involved for any tuba player in a marching band, he commissioned J.W. Pepper to create a new instrument that would solve that problem. Created around 1893, Pepper’s successful virtual clone of the tuba was popularly dubbed the “sousaphone.”
The somewhat serpantine twist of the sousaphone essentially replicated the deep bass tones of the better known instrument. But the sousaphone’s shape made it far easier for the performer to carry in march formation. At the same time, the new instrument’s elevated bell successfully carried the instrument’s low notes above the other brass instruments in a marching band, enabling audiences to hear them more clearly. Today, the sousaphone remains a staple in most marching bands.
World War I, and the March King’s final march
Sousa’s lifelong sense of patriotism caused him to return to the military. He enlisted in the Navy during World War I and took the leadership of the band training center located at the Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois.
Time, as they say, marches on. On March 6, 1932, John Philip Sousa died of heart failure at the age of 77 in Reading, Pennsylvania.
The legacy of John Philip Sousa
The legacy of John Philip Sousa lives on. His still popular marches are timeless. They will endure and survive forever. For most Americans, it remains impossible to listen to Sousa’s stirring, thoroughly American music without standing proudly with hands over hearts.
Indeed, “taking a knee” is difficult to do as the sounds of a Sousa march echoes into a Fourth of July night while celebratory fireworks displays thunder dazzlingly overhead.
For, you see, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” yet survives, and continues to inspire American pride. That’s a major reason why the music of John Philip Sousa will indeed march on. Forever.
—Headline photo collage: Left: Photo of John Philip Sousa, by Elmer Chickering, 1900. (LOC collection, public domain). Right: Sousa’s birthplace, still standing on G St., S.E., in Washington, D.C. Currently owned by a member of “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band. Via Wikipedia entry on Sousa, CC 3.0 license. (Composite by T. L. Ponick, CDN.)
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com). Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News