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A century later, John Philip Sousa's marches still quicken the pulse

By HOWARD REICH | Chicago Tribune | Published: June 11, 2012

CHICAGO -  What Scott Joplin did for ragtime and Jelly Roll Morton for jazz, John Philip Sousa achieved for another expression of the American spirit – the march.

But unlike Joplin and Morton, who helped create musical genres indigenous to this country, Sousa took on a European idiom and re-energized it. Anyone who has heard "The Stars and Stripes Forever" or "The Washington Post" marches -  and who hasn't? - knows that Sousa brought a palpably American optimism to this music.

More than that, he nurtured and championed the American sound in an era - the late 19th and early 20th centuries - when European culture dominated the concert world, nowhere more than in a rough-and-tumble America that hadn't yet found its voice.

But does anyone remember who John Philip Sousa was?

"Lots of people know the name - fewer people know what he did or who he was," says John Philip Sousa IV, the composer's great-grandson and co-author of "John Philip Sousa's America: The Patriot's Life in Images and Words" (written with Loras John Schissel).

"I had one young lady (while) I was checking out of a market, I gave her a check, she looked at the check and said: 'Wow, what's it like being related to such a great baseball player?' ...

"But if I hum a few bars of 'The Stars and Stripes' or 'The Washington Post' march, people immediately will say, 'Yes!'"

Yet the ubiquity of Sousa's music among high school marching bands and football half-time shows also has served to push these works into a kind of sonic background, easily recognized but just as easily ignored. The high degree of craft that went into these band pieces - which helps explain their enduring appeal -  may be overlooked amid the pomp and circumstance they're used to evoke.

Look at Sousa's works purely as musical compositions, however, and they rank right up there with Joplin ragtime classics such as "The Entertainer" and "Maple Leaf Rag" or Morton's "Jelly Roll Blues" and "King Porter Stomp." Like those works, Sousa's best marches capture a world of thought and color in a few brief minutes, miniature masterpieces without an extraneous note or gesture. Many marches have been composed since Sousa's death in 1932, at age 77, but have any really approached the grandeur of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" or the forward drive of "The Washington Post" or the rousing high spirits of "Semper Fidelis"?

No less than Leopold Stokowski, one of the most extravagantly gifted symphonic conductors of the 20th century, called Sousa "a genius whose music stands supreme as a symbol of the red-bloodedness of humanity in general."

Indeed, above all this music conveys the message that victory is at hand, that all obstacles can be overcome - exactly what America wanted to hear as it began to ascend as a world power in the early 20th century.

"Sousa epitomized order out of chaos," write Sousa IV and Schissel in the sumptuously illustrated "John Philip Sousa's America." "With a wave of a benevolent hand - an autocratically benevolent hand - Americans were somehow reassured that things were going to come out OK in the end. It was the great transition from an agricultural/rural America to an industrial/urban super power. And out of that noisy, cacophonist din came the measured, four-square, reassuring beat of the 'Sousa March.'"

Though Sousa composed 17 light operas (only "El Capitan" gets regularly revived these days) plus books, concert pieces and songs, it's the marches - 136 of them - that distinguish him. His love of the form came early in life, for he heard marches everywhere growing up in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. That his father played trombone in the United States Marine Band, including at the occasion of President Abraham Lincoln's delivery of the Gettysburg Address, practically linked Sousa to this music by blood.

In 1880, at age 25, Sousa became the youngest leader of the United States Marine Band and later emerged a national figure on the popularity of compositions such as "The Washington Post." It was Sousa who arranged for the Marine Band to begin touring, thereby spreading the fame of the institution and his music, but this was only the beginning. The estimated 14,000 concerts Sousa led during his lifetime, the recordings he released as early as the late 1880s and early 1890s and his apparently inexhaustible well of musical ideas _ "If I put pencil to paper, music comes," he once said - made him the living symbol of American band music.

"Sousa's face," the New York Times once noted, "is more recognizable to most Americans than that of the President of the United States."

In 1892, Sousa left the Marine Band to start his own ensemble, presenting it at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago the following year.

"That band was launched in Chicago," says co-author Schissel, a senior specialist in music at the Library of Congress.

Leading his own ensemble, Sousa built on his practice of commissioning band arrangements of music of Strauss, Verdi, Grieg and other classical masters. In so doing, he brought high culture to concert-band audiences that otherwise never would have encountered it live. "Sousa performed excerpts from (Wagner's) 'Parsifal' in Grand Forks, N.D., a decade before it was heard in New York at the Metropolitan Opera," write the authors.

And in 1900, he took his 60-piece band on the first of three European tours, showing the Continent what the upstarts on the other side of the ocean had created.

Europe could not believe its ears.

"The musicians are splendidly trained, not only in artistic education, but also in the custom of rhythmical musical expression," noted the newspaper Tageblatt, in Leipzig, Germany.

"Sousa's Band fairly rivals our Republican Guard Band," conceded l'Aurore, in Paris.

Sousa reveled in these triumphs, and in what he felt they meant for the United States.

"During my concerts at the Paris Exposition in 1900," he said, "'The Stars and Stripes Forever' seemed to make a deep impression on the French people, and they spoke of it as the Musique Americaine with a greater frequency than they did of any other composition. One night, at a dinner, a brilliant Frenchwoman said to me that the march seemed to epitomize the character of our people. 'For every time I hear it,' she confessed, 'it seems as if I can see the American Eagle throwing arrows into the Aurora Borealis."

This response only encouraged Sousa, prompting him to take his band around the globe, visiting a dozen countries between 1910 and 1911. As America entered World War I in 1917, the United States Navy asked for his help in fund-raising, commissioning Sousa as lieutenant and watching him raise millions leading the Great Lakes Naval Training Center band.

If his music can sound somewhat jingoistic to contemporary ears _ especially when it's poorly played - it must be noted that this reflects Sousa's view of the world. Or at least his view of America's place in it.

"I don't believe in an alliance between America and any other country," he said. "We are strong and powerful and prosperous enough on our own account, without making alliances with anybody or anything."

Then, again, what some might interpret as musical bombast Sousa himself saw simply as his means of seizing an audience's attention and holding it.

"My theory was first to reach every heart by simple, stirring music; secondly, to lift the unmusical mind to a still higher form of musical art. This was my mission. The point was to move all America, while busied in its various pursuits, by the power of direct and simple music. I wanted to make music for the people, a music to be grasped at once."

Regardless of how much or how little attention this music commands today, there's no disputing Sousa's impact on the meaning and stature of American music. As a co-founder of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), he helped assure that American composers received royalties from their work (although black composers were mostly excluded from such benefits for decades). Contrary to popular misconception, Sousa's bands rarely marched, yet he created the template for the great marching band and concert band traditions that long have flourished in the Midwest and beyond.

A flutist in Sousa's band wrote the musical that to this day metaphorically celebrates his art on stages across America: "The Music Man," by Meredith Willson, its ode to "Seventy-Six Trombones" as stirring a tribute to the all-American march as any Sousa himself composed. And though the 1952 film "Stars and Stripes Forever," starring Clifton Webb and recently re-released on DVD, can most generously be described as "a Hollywood biography," as John Philip Sousa IV puts it, the music speaks grandly of Sousa's love of country.

"He was an inordinately proud American," says his great grandson. "When he put his band together, while certainly there were immigrants in the band, it was an all-American band. And he was very, very proud, especially on the European tours and the around-the-world tour, to be taking an all-American band overseas and showing off American quality, American talent, American skills and American music. ...

"He was a wonderful ambassador for the United States."

Two weeks Sousa's death, he conducted a concert by a combined Army, Navy and Marine bands, which included his new piece, "The George Washington Bicentennial March."

A fortnight later, on March 6, 1932, he led a rehearsal with the Ringgold Band in Reading, Pa., then "went up to his room and died," says John Philip Sousa IV.

The last piece he rehearsed?

"The Stars and Stripes Forever."

Perfect.

'The Commandant's Own' performed a total of six songs including the 1896, John Philip Sousa classic 'The Stars and Stripes Forever' in 2011.
CRYSTAL DRUERY/COURTESY U.S. MARINE CORPS

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