John Philip Sousa

1854 1932

John Philip Sousa

Composer

Biography

John Philip Sousa was an American composer and conductor known as the “King of the March.” He was wildly successful with his patriotic marches and with the band that he formed and conducted. In addition to music for bands, he composed operettas and songs. Sousa has left a lasting impact on the sound of American – particularly patriotic – music.

Sousa was the third of ten children, born in Washington, DC. His parents were American immigrants of Spanish, Portuguese, and Bavarian descent. Sousa’s father was a professional musician, employed by the US Marine Band on trombone. Sousa was initially educated at home due to poor health, but later, after beginning at local schools, he also began attending the Esputa Conservatory in the evenings where he studied singing, violin, piano, flute, and various brass instruments. By the age of 11, Sousa had organized his own orchestra, an adult quadrille orchestra.

On the verge of joining a touring circus band at the age of 13, Sousa was instead enlisted, with his father’s help, as an apprentice musician in the US Marine Band. He also performed as a violinist in various theatre orchestras at the time. In Washington, Sousa had the opportunity to study both conducting and composition with George Felix Benkert, and also played violin in his chamber orchestra.

Sousa’s work was recognized by the Marine Corps officials, who appointed him the 14th conductor of the US Marine Band in 1880. Within a year, Sousa was able to advance the band’s quality, making it one of the finest military bands. For the band, Sousa composed many marches and transcribed numerous classical works.

Though busy with the US Marine Band, Sousa found time to compose operettas. His first published operetta wasThe Smugglers (1882), followed closely by Désirée (1883). His passion for operetta led him to form the Washington Operatic Association. He also conducted many oratorio productions during this time.

Sousa’s early marches earned him very little attention, though The Gladiator (1886) was very popular. This work sold over a million copies through his stingy publisher, Harry Coleman, who made a fortune on Sousa’s work but payed Sousa meagerly.

During Sousa’s last two seasons with the US Marine Band, he came into contact with David Blakey, from the management, who persuaded him to form his own band. Sousa’s new band, a self-financing civil band, became known as ‘Sousa’s Band’ and was comprised of 43-73 musicians. With his band, Sousa became an icon in the entertainment world, shaping the musical tastes of America. The band was incredibly talented and successful. They toured throughout the world, playing rapidly changing and diverse programs. During World War I, the band’s activities were interrupted as Sousa had volunteered to serve in the US Navy. Marches composed during the WWI era, such asSabre and Spurs (1918), US Field Artillery(1917), and Solid Men to the Front (1918), have remained popular. The band began touring again after the war, but their activities ceased during the Great Depression of 1929. Their last concert was in 1931, but they continued to play radio concerts for a time. The band played more than 15,200 concerts during their 40 years.

Sousa often composed works for his band that he did not allow to be published, or he would have his band play a different arrangement than that of the published version. He introduced many new works to the band repertoire, such as his transcription of excerpts from Wagner’sParsifal, which he presented before the opera was ever performed in New York. Sousa was a deeply patriotic man and many of his works are patriotic in nature, telling the story of America. His works sound characteristically American and are energetic, though diverse. His earlier marches are much simpler, militaristic, and well-suited to marching, while his later marches are much more sophisticated. This sophistication was suitable for Sousa’s Band, as they did not march.

His most popular pieces include The Stars and Stripes Forever (1896), Semper Fidelis(1888), and the Washington Post (1889). The Stars and Stripes Forever was adopted as the official march of America, whileSemper Fidelis became the official music of the US Marine Corps. TheWashington Post march was popular worldwide and introduced Europe to the two-step dance. The great majority of Sousa’s marches are of a quickstep variety and feature simple melodies and harmonies with a more complex “break” section. All of his works make an impressive final statement.

Though most well-known for his marches, Sousa composed around 15 operettas which are most similar in style to those of Gilbert and Sullivan, though slightly influenced by Offenbach, Suppé, and Wagner. His operettas are very optimistic in character, and though they were successful in his time, they have experienced little success when revived.

Sousa also composed at least 70 songs, most of which are quite serious in mood. As with his marches, the songs are composed of simple melodies and harmonies.

In the last decade of his life, Sousa became increasingly interested in music education and became involved with school music and band contests. He died of a heart attack in 1932 after a rehearsal of his legendaryThe Stars and Stripes Forever. Sousa’s impact on the American style of music is still evident and his marches remain very popular today among bands.

Header and other images courtesy of public domain

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