The Stars and Stripes Forever!

John Philip Sousa

The 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 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.