For Summertime Patriotism, Nothing Beats Sousa

Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

John Philip Sousa leading bands in the American League Park, June 7, 1923.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Originally, in anticipation of the fourth of July, we were simply going to put together a list of community celebrations to share with our readers. However, when we discussed this with our publisher, Norberto Santana, Jr., he came alive over the marches associated with fireworks: “The only thing I want to hear when I see fireworks on the Fourth of July is John Phillip Sousa. My dad, a Cuban Navy veteran and immigrant from that imprisoned isle was a huge fan and often played marches for us growing up. There’s no other music that speaks to the spirit of the American Ideal like Sousa. His marches get your blood pumping, make you feel alive and get you thinking about what our nation is really all about. His music makes you ponder our best aspirations, our struggles as well as the constant battle to remain free as a people.” This got us thinking: what makes Sousa and the fourth of July such a match made in heaven?

July 4th is upon us and music moves outdoors and gets patriotic, often with fireworks. That means, at some point in the next few months, you’ll probably hear a march by John Philip Sousa, either performed live or canned. Bands play them. Orchestras play them. Jets fly over stadiums as PA systems blare them.

Listen To All of the Sousa Marches Mentioned in This Story

The Pacific Symphony will perform the big three on its Independence Day extravaganza: “The Washington Post,” “Semper Fidelis” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Later in the summer, the orchestra takes a couple more on the road — including “Hands Across the Sea,” which the children in attendance will help conduct — for its free community concerts in Mission Viejo, Costa Mesa, Orange and Irvine.

The venerable Long Beach Municipal Band, celebrating its 110th year, many led by Herbert L. Clarke who was once a star cornet player in Sousa’s band, will no doubt pull out a Sousa march or three as the musicians make the rounds of the city’s parks. Long-standing bands in Huntington Beach, Placentia, Fullerton, Covina and a lot of other places may be practicing “The Fairest of the Fair” or “The Thunderer” or “Pride of the Wolverines” as you read this.

Lots of people will hear Sousa marches, in other words. But will they listen? These musical gems are taken for granted these days, as familiar as Christmas carols wafting through the air at Nordstrom’s during the holidays; you can’t say for sure if everyone will notice their brilliance. Still, they do generally manage to stir up enthusiasm and quicken the pulse. They are quintessentially outdoor music – vigorous, proud and peppy.

Who Was Sousa?

Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Painting of Sousa during US Marine Band era. Artist unknown .

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was a remarkable man and a remarkable musician. In his day, he was one of the most famous people in the country, and was plenty famous outside of it, too. He was a novelist, a composer of operettas, a champion trapshooter (he’s in the trapshooting hall of fame), a founding member (along with Victor Herbert and Irving Berlin) of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and developer of the sousaphone.

He was also the leader of his own band, the Sousa Band, which toured the country and the world. The band made recordings and gave 15,623 concerts between 1892-1931. Though he wrote and arranged all kinds of music, marches are his claim to fame. In his own time, he was dubbed “The March King,” an echo of “The Waltz King” applied to Johann Strauss, Jr.

Marches back then were something a little different than we think of them today, as merely martial and patriotic. In Sousa’s era, marches were popular music. When a new Sousa march was published (he wrote more than 130), they were released in many editions, for large orchestra and small orchestra and band, but also for solo piano, piano four hands, for cornet and piano, banjo and piano, two banjos, guitar and mandolin, two zithers, etc. In other words, in the days before recording became widespread, amateur musicians played these marches in their parlors and on their porches, with friends and family.

Marches For The People

The Dance from ‘Fort Apache’
‘The Washington Post’ Two-Step

It was also the time when every town in the country had a band (there were an estimated 10,000 bands in the U.S. in the late 19th century) and when, in fact, a march wasn’t just a march, but a kind of dance. (A wonderful illustration of what dancing the march must have been like can be seen in John Ford’s Western “Fort Apache,” in which Henry Fonda leads the men and women of the frontier outpost in a march at a fancy dress party indoors.)

“The Washington Post” — written for the awards ceremony of an essay contest for school children sponsored by the newspaper, nothing “martial” there — became such a hit when danced to the two-step, that thereafter, the dance itself was often called “The Washington Post,” whether it was danced to the march or not.

In his marches, Sousa wrote a kind of public music, not just military and patriotic, though plenty of that too. A look at some of the titles is illustrative. There’s “Daughters of Texas,” a march written in response to a petition from the students at the all-girl College of Industrial Arts in Denton, Texas (Sousa wrote several marches for universities); there’s “Nobles of the Mystic Shrine,” written for the Shriners (Sousa conducted a Shriner band of 6200 at the premiere, in 1923); or “New Mexico,” written for the state; or “Boy Scouts of America.” One of his first big hits was called “The Gladiator.”

The music remains extraordinary and retains much of the power and charm that it must have had for its original audiences. This may be a remarkable thing to claim, because there isn’t much if any popular music composed in the 1890s and early 20th century that can still move a modern audience in the way that a Sousa march can. “Stars and Stripes Forever” was written in 1897 and yet a vast majority in our summertime audiences can hum along with it from beginning to end.

Which is to say that Sousa was a great writer of melodies, but not only that. The rhythmic vitality of his marches and their harmonic structure lend these melodies an inevitable feeling — you can almost hear the end of them when they start, as when you hear the rhyme coming in a poem. One can pick out great melodies in Sousa, just as in Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Gershwin. All the melodies in “Stars and Stripes” are great, but especially the third one (the trio). Likewise, the trio sections of “The Washington Post” and “King Cotton.” The first melody in “Manhattan Beach.” One could go on. At any rate, the tunes are eminently memorable. Come back to a Sousa recording after a long time, and you’ll be surprised how much you remember.

And there are few things more musically satisfying than a Sousa countermelody. They seem to intertwine so perfectly with the main melody as to be yin to the yang. Sousa no doubt knew how good he was at it. In “Stars and Stripes” he sets up the trio section in such a way so that he can add not one but two countermelodies (the one for the piccolo being the first and the one for the trombones the second). In “Semper Fidelis” and a couple other of his marches, he creates a section where he can add a layer at a time, like stacked fanfares. It’s possible that some of the countermelodies are even better than the melodies themselves. Listen to the first section of “The Thunderer” and when the countermelody comes in on the repeat decide for yourself.

What Should You Listen To?

My own favorite Sousa march, other than the usual suspects, usually seems to be the one I’m listening to, but I suppose I could name a few: “The Liberty Bell,” “Nobles of the Mystic Shrine,” “King Cotton,” “The High School Cadets,” the rugged “Solid Men to the Front” and the elegant “George Washington Bicentennial.”

In terms of recordings, there are several to recommend. It is hard to beat the long-time favorites in this repertoire, performed the Eastman Wind Ensemble led by the estimable Frederick Fennell. Their recordings of a large sampling of Sousa marches for Mercury remain unsurpassed for vividness and verve.

The United States Marine Band is currently recording all the Sousa marches in chronological order as part of their new edition of the scores. (It’s currently up to march No. 95, “The Gallant Seventh.”) The recordings, scores and parts are all available for free download on the band’s website. I’ve downloaded Volume 3 of the recordings, which begins in 1889 with “The Quilting Party” and goes through to 1898 and “The Charlatan.” These are done with enormous style and compelling warmth, and the Marine Band gets extra points for some truly exquisite soft playing. The clear digital recordings also highlight Sousa’s under-appreciated talent for orchestration (listen to the watery underpinnings of “Manhattan Beach”).

My longtime favorite Sousa recording, however, was released in the ’70s on the Nonesuch label and featured an unlikely ensemble: The Czechoslovak Brass Orchestra led by Rudolf Urbanec. The marches are performed here with such exuberance and feeling (and also a keen ear for the whirring rhythmic motors that make these marches go) that one can’t help thinking that these musicians, trapped behind the Iron Curtain, were dreaming of freedom all the while.

Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at timothymangan5@gmail.com.

Classical music coverage at Voice of OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Voice of OC makes all editorial decisions.