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The Incredible Band of JOHN PHILIP SOUSA
By Paul Edmund Bierley
University of Illinois Press Copyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Legacy
A CENTURY AGO
Let us transport ourselves back through history to the end of the nineteenth century. It is Sunday evening, April 10, 1898, and we are attending a concert by John Philip Sousa and his legendary band.
We find ourselves in the revered Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, where Sousa is presenting a patriotic concert instead of the program he had originally planned. He and many others believe the United States is about to go to war with Spain.
The battleship Maine was blown up less than two months before, and "Remember the Maine" is a rallying cry around the country. Congress is petitioning Spain to free Cuba from what it considers harsh rule and oppressive conditions.
Five thousand people are present. They fill every seat, and hundreds more stand in the rear. The program will consist largely of Sousa's own works unless he elects to add other patriotic music, which he has been known to do on the spur of the moment.
The program is well received by the huge audience. A medley of patriotic songs, including "Yankee Doodle" and "Marching through Georgia," builds enthusiasm, and people begin to beat timewith their feet.
Selections from "El Capitan" are played next, and then Sousa's new march "The Stars and Stripes Forever" brings thunderous applause. Cheering breaks out in earnest when the band strikes up "The Star-Spangled Banner," and many stand on their seats. All around the hall, people wave handkerchiefs, hats, canes, and other articles. The outburst is deafening.
The band launches into "Dixie," and there is bedlam. Rebel yells and Union cheers drown out the music, and the crowd goes wild. After the last note is played a man in a gray suit yells, "Three cheers for the stars and stripes! For the North and South! We're all ready!" That is followed by another outburst. "Who says we're not ready for war?" a man in the balcony screams. The crowd lets loose again.
When order is restored the concert resumes. The band is assisted on the final number by a sizable chorus for Sousa's rousing "Unchain the Dogs of War." This draws more cheers, and band and chorus are obliged to repeat it several times before five thousand hoarse and tired individuals make their ways home. The extraordinary display of patriotism was not typical of a Sousa concert, but the incident illustrates how he and his band could make any concert interesting and exciting. Such was the tradition for nearly forty years.
AN AMERICAN PHENOMENON
How a talented young American who had a promising future in theater music began his career as an orchestral violinist and ended that career as the most famous band conductor the world has known is a strange tale indeed.
Such is the story of John Philip Sousa, called the "March King" much as Johann Strauss is known as the "Waltz King." By the time Sousa reached fifty he was the most popular musical figure of the day and in all probability the highest paid.
His legendary band was made up of the finest musicians money could buy, several of whom were recognized as the very best on their respective instruments. The group was called a band but could more accurately be termed a wind symphony. It had substantial impact on America's cultural heritage and was, in a sense, a cultural export. This book is the story of that band.
THE SYMBOL OF AN ERA
The phenomenon of Sousa's Band could not have occurred at any time other than its own era. Sousa came along at the right moment in history, when America was emerging as a world power. The energy of his country is clear in his music, particularly the marches, which people welcomed with great enthusiasm. March music was very popular, and to a certain extent Sousa's mirrored the pulse of the nation.
"The Stars and Stripes Forever" was considered America's national march for more than ninety years before its official designation as such in 1987. Many of Sousa's other marches, such as "The Liberty Bell," "The Invincible Eagle," and "Hail to the Spirit of Liberty," contributed to a wave of patriotism brought on by the Spanish-American War.
ENTERTAINMENT BEFORE MODERN CONVENIENCES
Sousa and his band came on the scene at a time when live entertainment was paramount. People generally did not travel far from home. Moreover, there was no television or radio, nor were there movies. The phonograph was still in its primitive stage and a novelty. Modern highways and automobiles were many years away, so live entertainment was the only practical way to partake of the musical arts.
Sousa's Band, in traveling throughout the land by railroad, was a welcome part of an average American's life. His band took entertainment directly to the people and at a remarkable pace. He was a great composer and also the greatest bandmaster of all time. To understand his impact on the American cultural scene, however, we must think of him as a traveling entertainer.
THE MAN BEHIND THE LEGEND
Sousa, the guiding light of this aggregation, was an American patriot through and through. He was born in Washington, D.C., on November 6, 1854, to a Portuguese Spanish father and a German mother and died in Reading, Pennsylvania, on March 6, 1932.
He was educated in public grammar schools while simultaneously studying music at the Esputa Conservatory of Music, a small private school. For a short period he had his own dance band. At age thirteen he enlisted in the United States Marine Band as an apprentice musician.
The general education and music training Sousa received as a U.S. Marine were valuable, but far more important was the additional study taken with George Felix Benkert, a highly regarded orchestra conductor, violinist, and pianist. Benkert had studied in Vienna, and although he introduced Sousa to the European classical tradition, he strongly suggested that the talented student seek his own compositional style.
While studying with Benkert, Sousa also played in weekly string quartet recitals at the home of William Hunter, the assistant secretary of state. Hunter introduced him to philanthropist W. W. Corcoran, who likely would have sent Sousa to Europe for more formal music study had Sousa asked.
He left the Marine Band at age twenty and began to work as a violinist and conductor of theater orchestras in the Washington area and on tour. During the American Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia he was a member of the first violin section of the orchestra conducted by French composer Jacques Offenbach. Later, he conducted an H.M.S. Pinafore company on a tour of the eastern states.
Sousa's reputation as a journeyman musician and composer attracted the attention of Marine Corps officials, and he was recalled to Washington to serve as leader of the "President's Own," the United States Marine Band. Over a period of twelve years, from 1880 to 1892, he transformed that group into America's finest military band. Sousa resigned from the Marine Corps at age thirty-seven to form his own civilian band, which over the next forty years became a revered American institution, playing an astonishing 15,623 live concerts, not counting radio broadcasts.
The only interruption came during World War I, when Sousa was commissioned by the U.S. Navy to train musicians for fleet duty at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. The Sousa Band resumed operation after the war. On March 6, 1932, Sousa died between tours while in Reading, Pennsylvania, to guest-conduct the Ringgold Band. He was buried with full military honors in Washington's Congressional Cemetery.
Surprisingly, it was not "The Stars and Stripes Forever" that launched Sousa to worldwide fame; it was a march composed for a newspaper three years before the formation of Sousa's Band. The proprietors of the Washington Post asked that he write a march for an award ceremony at a children's essay contest in 1889.
The rhythm of Sousa's new march was a perfect fit for a new dance craze, the two-step, and it gained astonishing popularity in America and abroad. In Germany and Austria, for example, all two-steps were called "Washington Posts." Unfortunately, however, Sousa sold the march outright for a mere $35, whereas the publisher made a fortune from the sheet music. For years it was demanded at nearly every Sousa Band concert.
NOT STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Sousa did not enter the concert field an unknown. People already recognized his name from seeing it on sheet music and hearing bands and orchestras play that music. He also had served under five presidents as leader of the United States Marine Band and made two national tours with the band.
The Sousa Band's founder and first manager, David Blakely, managed the two Marine Band tours and numerous other top attractions. Blakely had a strong advantage over other impresarios in that he had experience as both a conductor and publicity writer and also owned one of the nation's largest printing companies. The combination of Sousa and Blakely was destined for greatness.
MAKING MUSIC HISTORY
From the very beginning Sousa attracted widely experienced musicians to his band. It is an axiom in the music business that talent attracts talent, and within two years many leading instrumentalists had joined, several of whom had already attained wide reputations in Europe.
Sousa was a perfectionist, so the band began to set standards then unattainable by most other conductors. The first tour of Europe was made in 1900, and many critics were stating that Sousa's Band was the world's finest. It thus became an effective musical ambassador, emphatically serving notice that America could no longer be considered a cultural void.
Europe's stereotype of America as a country lacking in cultural refinement was a source of irritation to Sousa throughout his early life. He was sensitive to the fact that nearly all the world's major composers were European, whereas very few American composers were taken seriously abroad. Moreover, people in the fast-growing, unsophisticated New World showed little concern for that state of affairs.
Sousa helped rectify the situation in two ways. First, he educated audiences by presenting classics played to perfection, just as Theodore Thomas was doing with symphony orchestras. This played no small part in encouraging other American musical organizations to improve the quality of their products. Second, he took his band to Europe and demonstrated beyond a doubt that quality music was available in America, even without government support of the arts as was the custom in Europe. Critics overseas agreed almost unanimously on Sousa's originality and marveled at the band's polish and precision.
By the 1920s Sousa's role in the cultural growth of his country was aptly summed up by one midwestern writer: "John Philip Sousa has, without a doubt, done as much or more for music in America and for American music than any other person in the United States."
"I AM MY OWN ANCESTOR"
The talented Sousa would no doubt have excelled in any field he chose. For both practical and idealistic considerations, he chose the band over the orchestra as a musical medium because of its versatility. A band has a wide variety of instrumental combinations and is mobile.
Sousa's Band was a compromise between a symphony orchestra and a nonmarching band. It had a wide range of dynamics, being able to play delicately as well as forcefully. Several musicians in the band had come from symphony or opera orchestras, and most of the others had orchestral experience. He disliked the bombastic sound of most bands and rehearsed sections of his until a balanced, cohesive sound resulted. As one critic put it, "In some of the selections with eyes closed one would have imagined a concert orchestra in his presence, the music being so much like that of a string orchestra."
Audiences on both sides of the Atlantic were unaccustomed to hearing bands play so softly. German audiences were particularly surprised. A military band accompanying a violin soloist, for instance, was unheard of. Most Europeans also appreciated the pleasing combinations of woodwinds that came to be one of Sousa's trademarks.
With a band instead of an orchestra Sousa was not obliged to follow any precedent in programming. In this regard he once quipped, "I am my own ancestor." With a band, he was able to insert humor into programs. He did so in an obvious way, whereas with a symphony orchestra humor is often so subtle and reserved that only trained musicians can detect it. Another advantage of a band over an orchestra is that bands more widely use patriotic music. Humor and patriotism presented in a straightforward manner were staples of Sousa performances.
If those attending Sousa's concerts were to analyze what they heard, beneath the sparkle and excitement they would have found evidence of all his earlier influences: a European classical element, a light-opera element, a patriotic element, dance music, vaudeville music, and of course military music. This becomes obvious in a study of the concert programs (Appendix IV).
Some critics took Sousa to task for mixing transcriptions of orchestral or operatic masterpieces with other music on a program. He viewed this as unwarranted prejudice because he played them with a precision and finesse that could be matched only by the world's finest orchestras.
Did composers of classical music object to Sousa's practice? Quite the opposite appears to be true; composers sent him numerous letters of appreciation. Any serious objection in print would have found its way into Sousa's massive press clipping books.
A few purists were critical of Sousa for playing any piece originally composed for orchestra. When one studies the Sousa Band press books, however, it becomes apparent that the most experienced critics were among Sousa's staunchest supporters. One gets the impression that critics of little renown sometimes imagine their stature is enhanced by being critical of acclaimed performers, that is, pointing out real or imagined shortcomings.
"ME SING WITH A BAND!?"
"What, me sing with a band!?" That was the response of Sousa's first soprano soloist, Marcella Lindh, to her manager when he suggested she make a tour with Sousa. He retorted that she should hear the band before deciding to pass on what he considered a golden opportunity for nationwide exposure. Together they slipped into the back of the auditorium where the band was rehearsing for its first tour. "I'll sing with that band!" Lindh said after hearing Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite.
ACCOUNTING FOR THE BAND'S POPULARITY
Why, modern scholars might ask, was Sousa's Band so popular? There are many reasons, the most significant being the aura of Sousa himself. When the band came to town, people came out en masse. Schools in many towns were dismissed and businesses closed for afternoon performances so people could see the March King. It was common for a town's mayor to declare a Sousa Day.
Another important reason for his popularity was that Sousa was taking his music directly to the people. The band was on the move, quite often presenting a matinee in one town and an evening concert in another. This was something a symphony orchestra could not do with great financial success, so Sousa saw to it that classical music was always represented on his programs. Bands such as Sousa's, not orchestras, were largely responsible for exposing the American public to the classics. Not all did it as artistically as Sousa, but bands did, in fact, introduce classical music to a large segment of the American public.
It has been estimated that in its first eight years of existence the Sousa Band played more concerts than all six of the country's major symphony orchestras put together. Premium entertainment was not available to people in sparsely populated areas, so Sousa provided many classics to audiences that had never heard them. He often, for example, alluded to the fact that he played music from Wagner's Parsifal ten years before that opera was performed in America. As conductor of America's premier concert band, he believed it was his responsibility to lead the way to upgrading his country's musical tastes.
Because Sousa was an entertainer he knew the importance of playing what audiences wanted to hear. Even though his marches largely accounted for the band's popularity, he believed that well-played classics should be on every program to help elevate the public's musical taste. Hence, programs impressed both sphisticated and unsophisticated audiences.
Excerpted from The Incredible Band of JOHN PHILIP SOUSA by Paul Edmund Bierley Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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