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The Liberty Bell

Sousa: Marches and Incidental Music

John Philip Sousa was born in Washington DC on 6 November 1854. His father was a Portuguese immigrant who played the trombone in the US Marine Band, which John Philip also joined as an apprentice musician when he was 13. He studied the trombone, drums, fife and clarinet, but was working as a violinist when the Marines offered him the post of Bandmaster in 1880.

Under Sousa, the band’s standard of playing and marching improved considerably and he began to write marches for them to play. His favorite, Semper Fidelis, was subsequently used as a dirge at his funeral and takes its title from the Marine’s motto, while The Thunderer refers to the Sobriquet of Sousa’s fellow mason, Myron M. Parker.

Although his reputation is as a composer of marches, Sousa also wrote in other styles. La Reine de la Mer, a set of three waltzes with a wistful coda, is reminiscent of Johann Strauss II, and was written for the wife of the First Secretary of the Navy. La Coquette is a delicately scored caprice, while the chariot race is a miniature tone poem which opens with four off-stage trumpets answered by the rumblings of low saxes and tubas, and then imitates the distant drumming of horses’ hooves. The fully scored climax reaches an almost Wagnerian intensity.

Sousa’s chance to take the Marine Band on an American tour came in 1891 when he engaged David Blakely as tour manager. Blakely had managed similar tours for Patrick Gilmore’s famous civilian band and soon suggested that Sousa form a civilian band of his own. In return, he offered to quadruple Sousa’s salary and share the band’s profits. Sousa took this opportunity, and in July 1892 resigned from the Marines.

Together, Sousa and Blakely attracted America’s finest players to the new band and their first concerts took place in 1892. 1893 saw the premiere of The Liberty Bell at a performance for Florence Ziegfield Snr., in Chicago, and Sousa’s decision to abandon his old publisher, who paid him $35 per work, in favour of John Church of Cincinatti. As a result, The Liberty Bell earned him $40,000 in seven years.

Sousa’s band rapidly gained a tremendous reputation, and during the next 30 years fulfilled prestigious engagements at an extraordinary pace. Manhattan Beach was written in 1893 while the band played the first of its summer at that fashionable resort, and King Cotton was for the Cotton States Exhibition in Atlanta in 1895. During that summer the band was again at Manhattan Beach, and Sousa composed El Capitan to lyrics he had written in part himself. This, the most successful of his operettas, was first performed in Boston, and Sousa subsequently re-used material from all three acts in the El Capitan march. The operetta tells the story of the Spaniards in Peru. And while Sousa revels in the Latin style, he also demonstrates the influence of Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan - he had played as a violinist for Offenbach and orchestrated HMS Pinafore for an American performance.

David Blakely died in 1896 while Sousa was on holiday in Europe. During the return journey , he became obsessed with the ideas for The Stars and Stripes Forever, and wrote in his autobiography, ‘I began to sense the rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain…Throughout that whole tense voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes…When we reached ashore, I set the measures that my brain-band had been playing for me, and not a note of it has ever changed.’

The Sousa band first toured Europe in 1900, and on the fourth of July performed their latest march, Hail to the Spirit of Liberty, at the unveiling of the Lafayette monument in Paris. They were immensely popular and returned to Europe in both 1901 and 1903 when the tour lasted 30 weeks and included 362 concerts. Jack Tar was performed before the Royal family at the Royal Albert Hall and includes a quotation from the Sailor’s Hornpipe as well as three themes combined in triple counterpoint. The band also introduced new American styles to Europe, and Debussy, who heard them in Paris, responded to ragtime with The Golliwog’s Cake-Walk. Sousa himself composed in this style - the ‘danse hilarious’, With Pleasure, is a ragtime - but remained ambivalent about it and was especially suspicious of Jazz, writing in paraphrase of Longfellow, ‘When it is good, it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it is horrid. The greater part of it is very bad.’

The Band toured until 1917, when America entered World War 1 and Sousa joined the Naval Reserve to train the band corps. It regrouped in 1919 and remained extremely popular but toured abroad only once more, going to Cuba in 1922. The Cubaland Suite highlights important events in the island’s history, and its last movement, Under the Cuban Flag , again demonstrates Sousa’s skill in the Latin-American style. It also includes some inventive orchestration - the band imitates a guitar - and a hair-raising cornet part which was written for John Dolan.

As the depression set in, the Band’s appearances decreased, and Sousa composed fewer works. He achieved his ambition of working until the end, and died on March 6th, 1932, just before he was to conduct in Pennsylvania. His contribution to music is summed up in an article in The Musical News of 1903: ‘It may be that in years to come, when the ultra-Straussian developments have reached their climax and the soul of the neurotic musician longs for repose, that we will be only too glad to listen to the strains of Sousa.’

© John Humphries


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