John Philip Sousa

At the end of the 19th century the name of the American bandmaster and composer John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was virtually synonymous with the music of marches.

John Philip Sousa was born on Nov. 6, 1854, in Washington, D.C. His father was Portuguese, his mother German. At the age of 10 Sousa began violin lessons and later studied music theory and composition. By the time he was 13 he could play a number of band instruments and enlisted in the Marine Band. He was playing in civilian orchestras as well and subsequently got a discharge from the Marine Band. At 18 he became director of the orchestra at a variety house in Washington and later led orchestras for a comedy troupe and for Morgan's Living Pictures.

In 1876 Sousa joined the orchestra conducted by Jacques Offenbach at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The musical sensation of the exposition, however, was Patrick Gilmore, and it was here that Sousa first heard and admired Gilmore's band. After playing for a number of Philadelphia theaters, Sousa returned to Washington in 1880 to become director of the U.S. Marine Band, a post he held for 12 years. He reorganized the band, altered its instrumentation, raised its prestige, and built up its library.

In 1892 Sousa formed his own band, capitalizing on his fame by calling it the New Marine Band. A concert band rather than a marching band, it made its first public appearance in September 1892 in Plainfield, N.J. Its initial season was only a moderate financial success, primarily because of an unwise selection of cities for the tour. The following year at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago the band attracted thousands of people to each concert. So popular were Sousa's programs that after a few weeks Theodore Thomas, the musical director of the exposition, canceled the more elaborate symphonic and choral events he had planned for the fair, feeling they could not compete. Charles Harris's sentimental ballad "After the Ball" became a national hit during the fair as played by Sousa; its success set a new trend in American popular music.

Soon Sousa's band, operating without any subsidy, proved an economic as well as a musical success. It played for most of the important expositions after 1893, made annual tours through the United States and Canada, and was acclaimed on four trips to Europe and on one venture around the world. Sousa was decorated by the crowned heads of Europe and by various academies and societies. When the United States entered World War I, he was made a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve.

Sousa's fame as a composer was related to his success as a bandleader. Although his marches earned him the title of "March King," he nevertheless was influenced strongly by the style of Offenbach. Sousa's renowned marches include The Stars and Stripes Forever, The Washington Post, The High School Cadets, and The Gladiator. These are characterized by a strong rhythmic propulsion, jaunty, memorable tunes, and more wideranging harmony than normally found in marches. Many of his best marches came from operettas, and some were originally sung.

Sousa's exposure to Offenbach, coupled with the astonishing American success of Gilbert and Sullivan, convinced him to try composing for the stage. He wrote 10 comic operas, achieving greatest acclaim for The Bride Elect, El Capitan, and The Free Lance. For some of his operettas he wrote the lyrics and libretto as well. He composed many other works of miscellaneous variety and wrote three novels. His autobiography is considered among the most readable memoirs in American letters.

Like Patrick Gilmore, Sousa wanted to create commercial music for pure entertainment. His understanding of the great music of the past or of his own day was slight. He succeeded in bringing high-quality military music to the public, achieving an instrumentation for the concert band that permitted effects as soft as those of a symphony orchestra. Artistic results were of secondary importance to Sousa; his first concern was to entertain his audiences. During his 40 years as bandmaster, Sousa lifted the concert band to popular heights it had never attained before, grossed an estimated $40 million, and was one of the most respected musicians of his generation. He died on March 6, 1932, in Reading, Pa.


Further Reading on John Philip Sousa

The best account of Sousa's career is his Marching Along: An Autobiography (1928). Interesting and informative studies are Mina Lewiton, John Philip Sousa: The March King (1944), and Kenneth Walter Berger, The March King and His Band (1957). There is valuable material on Sousa in Harry Wayne Schwartz, Bands of America (1957). Wilfrid Mellers, Music in a New Found Land (1964), contains a penetrating evaluation of his work.

Additional Biography Sources

Bierley, Paul E., John Philip Sousa, American phenomenon, Columbus, Ohio: Integrity Press, 1986?, 1973.

Delaplaine, Edward S. (Edward Schley), John Philip Sousa and the national anthem, Frederick, Md.: Great Southern Press, 1983.

Heslip, Malcolm, Nostalgic happenings in the three bands of John Philip Sousa, Laguna Hills, Calif.: M. Heslip, 1982.

Sousa, John Philip, Marching along: recollections of men, women, and music, Westerville, OH: Integrity Press, 1994.