Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes John Philip Sousa Marches

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), recording an NBC radio broadcast 1929
John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), recording an NBC radio broadcast 1929

Though he composed many other works – including six operettas – John Philip Sousa’s great and enduring fame rests on his 136 marches.  His first march, Review, was published in 1873; his final march, Library of Congress, begun in 1931, was left incomplete at his death in 1932.  It wasn’t completed until 2003, when the Library of Congress commissioned Stephan Bulla (born 1953, the chief arranger of the United States Marine Corps band) to complete it.

Sousa’s marches are so ubiquitous and so well-known that they have taken on the character of American folk music, as if they grew from “the fruited plain” of America’s soil all by themselves.  Whether or not we know them by their titles – Semper Fidelis (the official march of the United States Marines); The Washington Post; The Thunderer; The Liberty Bell; Manhattan Beach; and El Capitan – we recognize them instantly, so much part of the national fabric they have become.

Rather than attempt to tell the stories behind all or even a few of the Sousa marches on the prescribed discs, I have decided to tell the story of just one of them, as representative of them all.  And for that I have chosen Sousa’s most famous and beloved march of all.

The Stars and Stripes Forever (1896)

The sheet music for the song version of The Stars and Stripes Forever
The sheet music for the song version of The Stars and Stripes Forever (Sousa himself wrote the words, and charity demands that they go unread)

It has been suggested that with the exception of The Star-Spangled Banner, there is no music more likely to swell the patriotic bosoms of Americans than this putative flag waver, The Stars and Stripes Forever.

The march has been perceived this way since its first performance in Philadelphia on May 14, 1897, when the Philadelphia daily newspaper the Public Ledger claimed that:

“It is stirring enough to rouse the American eagle from his crag, and set him to shriek exultantly while he hurls his arrows at the aurora borealis.”

Writing in his book The Works of John Philip Sousa (Integrity Press, 1984), the American music historian, Sousa biographer, and tuba player(!) Paul E. Bierley asserts that:

The Stars and Stripes Forever had found its place in history. There was a vigorous response wherever it was performed, and audiences began to rise as though it were the national anthem. This became traditional at Sousa Band concerts. It was his practice to have the cornets, trumpets, trombones, and piccolos line up at the front of the stage for the final trio, and this added to the excitement. Many bands still perform the piece this way.

With the passing years the march has endeared itself to the American people. The sight of Sousa conducting this, his most glorious composition, always triggered an emotional response. The piece was expected – and sometimes openly demanded – at every concert of the Sousa Band. Usually, it was played unannounced as an encore. Many former Sousa Band members have stated that they could not recall a concert in which it was not played, and that they too were inspired by looking into the misty eyes of those in the audience. That the players never tired of it is surely a measure of its greatness.”

Flowery words, though entirely accurate.…

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