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Sousaphonic Celebrations: Keith Brion talks to Jeremy Siepmann

December 1, 2011

Keith Brion

Keith Brion has been playing Sousa for almost as long as he can remember—back when as a mere slip of a boy he played the records on his father’s sound truck during local elections in his native Pennsylvania. ‘Yes. That was the beginning. But I have to say that after that early experience I really didn’t do much with Sousa. In fact I basically forgot about him—for decades, even. For years I was just a typical college wind conductor. Then when I was in my 40s, and directing the band at Yale, a great new Sousa biography was published—and there’d also been some really interesting private recordings of his music. Through these, I began to gain a deeper understanding of Sousa the man and the musician vs Sousa the legend, and I loved what I was learning! We scheduled a reasonably proper Sousa ‘re-creation’ concert at Yale which was very highly publicised, very widely covered. We took it to Carnegie Hall and Harold Schonberg wrote about it in the New York Times. And that’s when the whole Sousa thing just sprang into life for me. I kept thinking I’d found a magic lamp and rubbed it, and that the genie showed up! It was in 1978 that I began doing him very intensely, and I’ve been doing that ever since.’

What is it, then, that sets him apart from other band composers (and band conductors, come to that)? ‘When he was six years old, his father sent him to an Italian maestro who taught him solfége. By the time he was seven they decided he had perfect pitch, and that he was exceptionally talented, which meant that he could play the violin—that’s how they judged things in those days. So he became a classically trained violinist, later studying theory and composition with Felix Benkert, who’d studied in Vienna with Bruckner’s teacher Simon Sechter. From Benkert, in Washington, Sousa received a complete Viennese musical education. And though to some extent he developed his own more Romantic style, reflecting the time in which he lived, his classical training never left him. In fact he clung to strict forms, harmonic usage and phrase lengths which were closer to Sechter than Brahms! For recreation he read Mozart scores before going to bed, particularly the operas, and he would often emulate Mozart, Offenbach and others in his scoring techniques. Basically, the formal organisation of his music is that of a classical composer writing in the romantic era. You know, in the United States we don’t think of our home-grown people as being sophisticated. But Sousa was extremely sophisticated.’

For all his European sophistication, though, was he not, also, an intensely patriotic composer? ‘Oh indeed he was. But just look at his background. His dad, with the Marine band, played at the White House for Abraham Lincoln. Sousa grew up when the Union armies were marching back and forth on his dirt streets and you could actually see the smoke from the battles in Virginia, across the river. He was really very tightly associated with the United States government, basically from the time he was born. When he was 12, or so the story goes, and it’s probably true, he threatened to run away and join a circus band. So his father took him down to the Marine barracks and enlisted him (at twelve!) as an apprentice to the Marine band, which meant basically that he swept the floors and occasionally played bass drum with the band. This was a five-year enlistment, which meant that from the ages of 12 to 17 he was not only a member of the band (later he would be its director), but an apprentice marine. So this whole patriotic thing is just glued to him. You can’t imagine him without it.’

What’s more, his patriotism was exportable. What was it that made his own band so exceptionally famous, on both sides of the Atlantic? ‘There were other touring professional bands at the time, but the way he was developing the Marine band in the 1880s was attracting a lot of attention. And while Sousa was writing his marches, people were beginning to dance this new dance called the two-step—and doing it to a march, The Washington Post, that he’d written for the band. The music, the dance and the man became one—and Sousa became a pop star. He wrote the piece in 1888 and by 1891, he was a worldwide star because of this association of the two-step with that march. And I mean a huge pop star, even by today’s standards. And that was in Germany, in England, everywhere. So anyway, a Chicago promoter got the money together and offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse. In 1892 he left the Marine band, and was given carte blanche to form his own band, using any players he wanted. Well orchestras weren’t so well fed in those days, and many top players from major orchestras in Europe crossed the Atlantic in the hope of joining Sousa’s band. The same holds true, of course, for players in American orchestras. The Sousa band paid more than any orchestra in the United States. And his musicianship was so extraordinary that he had no trouble keeping those players.’

How wide-ranging is his compositional output as a whole? ‘He’s basically (heresy to many!) an orchestra composer. All his early works were composed for orchestra, and sometimes he would adapt some of them for band. His real idol was Offenbach. And in 1876 Offenbach came to the United States, to contribute to the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and they put together a special orchestra for Offenbach to conduct in Philadelphia. Sousa was in the first violin section and spent the summer as Offenbach’s chief arranger. So the ties there are terrific. He was also very enamoured of musical theatre. His early professional experiences, before he got the Marine band, were as violinist and concertmaster in various theatre orchestras. So as I say, he was an orchestra composer who later adapted himself to the band world, though he certainly had that tradition in his soul as well. But his best writing, I think, is for theatre orchestra. There are 14 Sousa operettas that contain an enormous amount of purely orchestral music, and a lot of those, a lot of the better-known ones I’ve recorded in varying excerpts for Naxos.’

Does Brion (I hardly needed to ask) believe that Sousa is a seriously underrated composer? ‘Absolutely. Yes. Apart from anything else, he was a masterful writer of counterpoint and deserves a lot of credit for that. He was also a born melodist. He wrote fabulous melodies. And the craft is so good. We’re recording now pieces that nobody knows, and I don’t find any diminution in the craft of composition, from the most famous to the least famous—And oftentimes the most famous works come from very early in his career. He made them famous by playing them over and over with his band. Some of the later music may be even better but it didn’t get the same promotion after he died. And you don’t see a lot of difference between things that he wrote in his 20s and things that he wrote in his 70s.’

Apart from The Stars and Stripes, I wondered, what are Sousa’s most outstanding works, and why? ‘Well there’s a march I’m very fond of, called The Invincible Eagle. I also think The Fairest Of The Fair is pretty wonderful—again one of the marches, which is very Brahmsian and has a motive which goes through the entire piece, which is unusual. By the way, the introductions to Sousa’s marches, usually only four bars in length, are virtually all little overtures. Every bar of the introduction is often a quotation from the piece itself. And he only composed the introductions after the piece was finished.’

And which works stand out most for Brion in his latest Naxos disc? ‘There’s one march, called The Salvation Army—a very late March, in which a brass band comes out in the middle of the march—it’s just brass instruments, which again is highly unusual—and it’s gorgeous, composed very late in his life, and nobody knows it. Then there’s a medley which he called Jazz America. He was kind of upset by jazz, actually. He wasn’t sure it was going to be a good thing, but at the same time it was such a rage that he sort of had to join it. So this is a medley of popular tunes from the 1920s, in an arrangement by Sousa. In another march, there are a lot of the main tunes from the operetta The Freelance. We also recorded his ballet suite People Who Live In Glass Houses, which is a kind of anti-temperance piece, in which one very humorous movement is called ‘The Whiskies: Scotch, Irish, Bourbon and Rye’. That’s very amusing. And then, my special favourite, there’s a humoresque on the Jerome Kern song Look For The Silver Lining, which I’d put in the same class as the Hoffnung concerts, Spike Jones, Peter Schickele and so on—it’s that kind of musical humour piece. It’s all very funny, and the end of it has a section in Klangfarben, like Webern wrote, where the tune is played one note at a time, with each note played by a different instrument. There’s also a big band jazz thing in it, a model-T Ford being cranked, a reference to the Keystone Cops, that kind of thing. A fantastic piece!’

So much for one disc. What about the series as a whole so far? Can Brion choose a ‘favourite child’ even there? ‘I think probably my absolute favourite track in all the 10 releases so far comes on the last disc I recorded with the Royal Artillery Band—Volume 8. It’s a suite called At the Kings Court, and the last movement is called ‘Her Majesty the Queen’. It’s a grand Royal March, and the band just went on getting better and better and better with every track we recorded. Sousa wrote the piece for a tour of England, and it’s very British in nature—probably more so than anything else we’ve recorded. And at some point in this piece, the band’s breeding and their experience in playing for the king and queen took over, and they did their thing, not Sousa’s thing. And it was fantastic! I just sort of stood there and let it roll over me. Basically I was just beating time, but they were making it so gorgeous!’

‘Sousa’s thing’. The phrase leapt out at me. How accurately can we tell precisely what Sousa’s thing is? Or was? Unsurprisingly, Brion had the answer at his proverbial fingertips. ‘Happily, Sousa’s rise coincided with the rise of recording, and the Sousa band, for the RCA label, was equal to Caruso in terms of output, popularity, number of records sold, and so on, and on these recordings we can hear just how this music was played in Sousa’s time, especially, of course, because he was conducting.

‘There’s been a very profound difference in the interpretation of the average professional musician between around 1900 and our own day. Particularly in the 1920s and 30s, there was an effort made by many famous musicians to purge the excesses of the preceding romantic era, and get back to playing exactly what was in the score, with no “interpretation”. These included such figures as Toscanini and Casals, to a certain extent, certainly Stravinsky and Copland. In the late 20s, Schoenberg (Schoenberg, of all people!) wrote an article decrying the way in which people were tampering with the traditions. And by the late 20th century, conservatory musicians were trained with many of the normal practices of the romantic period purged from them. Well, if you think the best way to know what a composer is saying is to know how professional musicians played it during his time, all this becomes very important. The score is no longer the true knowledge; the true knowledge is to know how a good player would have played this or that phrase 100 years ago. If it turns out to be very different, well that, of course, is extremely important. And in the case of Sousa, it was very different. For instance, “accidentals”, notes that are out of the key signature, were emphasised in Sousa’s time. During this… I’ll call it a purge … in the mid-20th century, those things were erased. You never played an accidental with extra emphasis—which totally changes the character of something like The Washington Post, for instance. Another case in point is that the longest note in a phrase was generally the most important. Today it’s the moving notes that are often most important, not the sustained notes. This is an entirely black and white difference. Therefore one of the overriding issues in this series has been training the musicians to play in this style—in Sousa’s style, which was typical of any major composer from that time. Well that’s very challenging. And it’s an ongoing thing. But you know, when all is said and done, I really don’t care about the rules; I don’t care about the history. In fact, what happens is simply that the pieces sound better—and about that I care a lot. So that’s the biggest thing that happened along the way. And it continues to be.’

What also continues to inform the series, and what bubbles like champagne in his conversation, is Brion’s contagious combination of enthusiasm, dedication and a sheer sense of fun which remains all too rare amongst serious musicians. And make no mistake, Mr. Brion is one of those too.

Jeremy Siepmann is an internationally acclaimed writer, musician, teacher, broadcaster and editor.

Keith Brion Biography & Discography

John Philip Sousa Biography & Discography

Previous releases from Sousa’s Wind Band Music series:

Keith Brion conducts more American Classics:


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