John Philip Sousa: the Marine and Bandmaster

John Philip Sousa, a known American composer, was born on November 6, 1854, in Washington, DC, in a family of former European residents. The legacy of this famous bandmaster is among the greatest national treasures of the United States. In the history of America, this remarkable figure is known as “The March King,” whose music continues to fill hearts with the sense of national pride even nowadays. Regarding his achievements in the musical sphere, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” is the work that has become the national march of the U.S. military forces. Another composition named “Semper Fidelis” has been taken as an official march of the United States Marine Corps. The works of a famous bandleader are, in fact, hard to enumerate within a single passage. Those are very numerous, and the following research will review some of the most prominent marches of all time.

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Education and Peculiar Biographical Facts

John Philip Sousa’s “rise from local musician to one with a burgeoning national reputation” was accompanied by remarkable historical events that had split the USA territory into two countervailing parts (Graziano 475). However, the composer’s earlier years were relatively quiet. It is known that the future bandmaster grew up in a family of Europeans. Sousa’s mother, Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus, was German by origin, and his father, John Antonio Sousa, originated from Spanish. It is known that they met in Brooklyn and lived there for a while. Then in 1848, the family decided to move to Washington, DC. There John Antonio joined the US Marine Band, which had a serious influence on both his own life and the life of his son. Six years later, the third child, John Philip, was born whose immense talent and relationship to music was already marked by destiny.

At the age of six, John Philip Sousa began to attend music classes. He had been studying a variety of wind instruments for about four years. Teachers noticed his extraordinary talent and advised Sousa’s parents to encourage their son to proceed with education. At the age of ten, John Philip started attending the rehearsals of his father’s band. It was exactly the time when the country was split by the tragic events of the Civil War. From 1861 to 1865, the capital remained a military zone serving as the refugee for the wounded. The boy’s regular visits to the hospital to see the wounded served as a background for forming his unique and straightforward worldview (Graziano 475). The chaotic sounds of war continued to arrive for as long as the battles had been raging. However, there was a positive side to this occurrence: military bands could be found everywhere, which served as an additional source of inspiration for the boy.

The first real opportunity to demonstrate his potential as a musician came to Sousa in 1868. A young man was offered a position of a bandmaster with a circus troupe (Graziano 477). John Philip accepted this opportunity very enthusiastically, viewing it as a chance to start a wonderful career. However, the father did not share his son’s enthusiasm and, therefore, enlisted the boy in the Marine Corps for a young man to keep away from the circus. Sousa’s service in the corps lasted for seven years when finally, at the age of 20, he was discharged from the Marines and focused on the career of a professional musician. This is how a new round of the composer’s life began.

Figures that Influenced Sousa’s Perception of Music

Regarding the impact the master’s works make on the audience, one can easily know about that by reading the devoted scholarly articles or critics’ reviews. Camus, in his research, states that “John Philip Sousa is America’s most frequently performed and internationally recognized composer” (547). Naturally, Sousa’s wide renown was impossible without the substantial experience he acquired as a bandmaster. Regarding his manner of composing, the musician was to a greater extent influenced by the stylistic trends of Offenbach. Such works as “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “The High School Cadets” were greatly affected by the style and expressed the strong rhythmic propulsion accompanied by more memorable tunes (Camus 547). The combination of these two features was exactly the factor to distinguish the two mentioned marches from the rest of the works.

The composer’s genuine interest in the style of Offenbach was supported by the exposure to the oeuvre of Gilbert and Sullivan. The success and general recognition of the two remarkable figures forced him to start composing for the stage as well. Sousa then wrote ten comic operettas; the most remarkable of them were “The Bride-Elect,” “The Free Lance,” and “El Capitan” (Wilder 60). It is known that he even wrote lyrics to some of the composed operettas. Nevertheless, music always remained the main subject of his interest. Entertaining the audience by means of a symphony orchestra was the primary concern of the great composer. He, therefore, borrowed all the peculiar techniques from the famous musicians of his time and embodied those into his own unique compositions.

Famous Works

Among the works that brought the worldwide musician fame, the national march of the USA deservedly takes the victory podium. As Camus stresses in his study, “recognition of Sousa’s foremost place among march composers came in 1987 when Congress legislated The Stars and Stripes Forever as the national march of the United States of America” (547). In his later years, Sousa wrote that the march was composed on Christmas day, in 1896. On that very day, John Philip Sousa was on an ocean trip with his wife and had accidentally known about David Blakely’s death, the manager of his band. He was so shocked by the news that he composed a march in Blakely’s name. It happened so that a tragic event served as a premise for creating the most remarkable Sousa’s masterpiece.

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Another famous composition of the master is “El Capitan,” written in 1896. It is an operetta in three acts, which is regarded to be Sousa’s most successful stage work. Regarding the way this play was performed, Hess clearly stated that the “audience loved its toe-tapping marches and jaunty melodies” (123). The operetta had toured across the USA and Canada for nearly four years from 1896 to 1900 and gathered full of the enthusiasm public in practically every city it was staged.

Except for the play, the name “El Capitan” is often associated with the march composed of the themes from a similarly-named operetta. A straightforward language of Gilbert and Sullivan arrived as the major genre feature to guide Sousa in his work on the march. It is notable that the technique he used helped the composer to perfectly reflect a humorous plot of the play and, thus, add popularity to a known operetta.

One more work to pay close attention to is the earlier mentioned “Semper Fidelis,” which has become the official march of the US Marine Corps. This march was written in 1888 as a response to Mr. Chester Arthur’s request, the President of the United States. The phrase “Semper Fidelis” is a Latin equivalent for “always faithful,” which is known to be a motto of the US Marines. By the time the composition was written, Sousa had remained the leader of the United States Marine Corps Band for eight years, and it was quite reasonable for him to mark off this biographical fact by a new work (549). As the composer admitted later in the interview, he wrote the march over one night, and it appeared to be one of the major achievements of his professional career.

Conclusion

John Philip Sousa is a historical figure whose contribution to the cultural development of the United States is impossible to underestimate. Both the life and the career of the great composer were associated with remarkable events the USA encountered in the second half of the 19th century. It is known that Sousa’s parents, his father, in particular, played one of the key roles in forming their son’s unique world perception and unveiling his immense talent. The decision to connect a career with the US Marine Corps was, to a greater extent, influenced by John Philip’s father. It later occurred that Sousa’s service in the corps served as a formidable background for writing such marches as “Semper Fidelis,” “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” “El Capitan,” and many more famous compositions. All of them are currently regarded as a national treasure of the United States of America.

Works Cited

Camus, Raoul F. “John Philip Sousa’s America: The Patriot’s Life in Images and Words by John Philip Sousa IV and Loras John Schissel, and: “Bully for the Band!”: The Civil War Letters and Diary of Four Brothers in the 10th Vermont Infantry Band: Charles George, Herbert George, Jere George, and Osman George ed. by James G. Davis, and: Connecticut’s Fife & Drum Tradition by James Clark.” Notes, vol. 69, no. 3, 2013, pp. 547-551.

Graziano, John. “Making the March King: John Philip Sousa’s Washington Years, 1854–1893 by Patrick Warfield.” American Music, vol. 32, no. 4, 2014, pp. 475-477.

Hess, Carol A. “El Capitan by John Philip Sousa.” American Music, vol. 31, no. 1, 2013, pp. 122-124.

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Wilder, Steven Scott. Sousa’s Descriptive Works and Suites as Class-Cultural Mediations. Diss. The Ohio State University, 2017.

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