About this Recording
8.223873 - SOUSA, J.P.: Stars and Stripes Forever (The) (Slovak Radio Symphony, Brion)

John Philip Sousa (1854–1932)
The Stars and Stripes Forever


Sousa said a march “should make a man with a wooden leg step out”, and his surely did. However, he was no mere maker of marches, but an exceptionally inventive composer of over two hundred works, including symphonic poems, suites, songs and operettas created for both orchestra and for band. John Philip Sousa personified the innocent energy of turn-of-the-century America, still a new nation, and he represented America across the globe. His American tours first brought classical music to hundreds of towns. While Sousa’s fame as a bandmaster needs little comment, far less is known about his formative years as an orchestral composer, conductor and violinist.

Born in Washington DC on 6th November, 1854, Sousa developed with startling quickness. Fame was no accident. Sousa’s father was a trombonist with the United States Marine Band. By the age of six, his musical talent had become apparent and he was enrolled for a year of solfeggio with a local Italian teacher. The boy was found to have absolute pitch, and thus deemed sufficiently gifted to begin basic training in harmony and the study of the violin. These early school days coincided with the great events of the American Civil War, then swirling around the Washington area.

By the age of eleven Sousa organised and led his own quadrille orchestra. The rest of his orchestra consisted of seven grown men and quickly became a popular dance orchestra in the Washington area. The following year, 1886, he changed music teachers, beginning studies with George Felix Benkert, who had trained in Vienna with the famed theorist Simon Sechter, with whom Schubert planned lessons and whose most famous student was to be Anton Bruckner. Benkert greatly encouraged the young Sousa, allowing him the sort of sophisticated training in composition, harmony, counterpoint and orchestration in Washington that was generally presumed available only in Europe. At the same time, Sousa played first violin for Benkert’s Washington Orchestral Union, as well as performing for regular Tuesday evening string quartet concerts at the home of the Assistant Secretary of State William Hunter. Hunter was an avid classical musical devotee, and for these sessions he imported numerous scores from Europe. He warmly fostered Sousa’s career and was to provide him an invaluable entrée into Washington’s official community.

At the age of nineteen, Sousa was already an active violinist in theatre orchestras, including Ford’s Theatre and the Washington Theatre Comique (vaudeville). Soon his great talent, extensive training and natural leadership attracted notice, and he assumed duties as an orchestral leader. Since these responsibilities often required the preparation of special materials, he augmented the theatrical productions with numerous incidental pieces and arrangements.

In 1875 Sousa left Washington, touring the Middle-West for a season as the concertmaster and leader for Noble’s acting troupe. He arrived in Philadelphia just as the 1876 Centennial Exposition was beginning. Now 21 years of age, he promptly landed a job in the first violin section of the official centennial orchestra playing for guest conductor Jacques Offenbach. After the Exposition, he remained in Philadelphia for the next three seasons, leading various theatre orchestras. In 1878 he was asked to provide orchestrations for an American performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Sorcerer. The following year, he composed his first operetta Katherine, and prepared the orchestrations for the American introduction of HMS Pinafore. Pinafore received its Broadway première with John Philip Sousa conducting. The same year, at the age of 25, he was chosen to become Director of the United States Marine Band in Washington. He began leading the Marine Band in January 1880, beginning a fabled 52 year career as a bandmaster.

Despite his success with bands, Sousa never gave up his fascination with the musical theatre. It was his goal to become an American version of Gilbert and Sullivan combined. In all he composed fifteen operettas. His El Capitan of 1895 is believed to have been the first musical by an American composer to enjoy a successful run on Broadway. In many ways, Sousa’s compositions were the equal of Sullivan’s music, but his lyrics sadly never matched the inspirations of Gilbert’s, nor did his attempts at collaboration ever produce a truly worthy librettist. By the turn of the century, his popularity on Broadway began to be eclipsed by the musicals of Victor Herbert, and later by those of Berlin, Kern and Gershwin. Sousa, the classicist was caught in the on-rush of the romantic era. Today, happily for us, the classicist has left a legacy of enduring classics.

Sousa’s associations with the theatre music of Gilbert and Sullivan and with Offenbach had became central to his musical thought. Like these European masters, he fluently composed in the light music and dance styles of his day, using existing classical frameworks. Mozart, however, was Sousa’s ideal composer. His biographer Paul Bierley notes that Sousa’s personal scores of Mozart’s operas had obviously been read and re-read for pleasure. Mozart’s opera scoring techniques are wonderfully evident in Sousa’s orchestrations.

From 1880 Sousa’s career was dominated by his association with military bands.In other circumstances he might have found a place in the theatre, with which he was associated after his discharge in 1874 from the Marine Band at the age of twenty. He had enlisted as a boy of thirteen and returned as a conductor of the United States Marine Band in 1880, continuing there until 1892, when he left to set up his own band, under his own name. With Sousa’s Band he won an international reputation, with regular tours throughout the United States and visits to Europe. His band came to an end in 1931 and he died the following year.

Many aspects of Sousa’s life as a bandmaster reflected his experiences in the musical theatre. His “potpourri” style of programming was based on the same structural ideas that make a successful theatrical production. Superb programming was a hallmark of his phenomenally successful forty years of band touring. Many themes from his operettas found their way into his great marches and concert music. His early days in the theatre also developed his unerring instinct for popular taste. His band mimicked the sound of a symphony orchestra, and no finer band than Sousa’s was ever heard. Sousa modified the existing military band by decreasing the brass and increasing its woodwinds, and by adding a harp to create a truly symphonic sound.

Gleaned also from the musical theatre was his musical salesmanship. Sousa pleasingly packaged classical standards and orchestral treatments of popular fare, establishing a standard style reflected today in the pops concerts of American symphony orchestras. Sousa never spoke at his concerts, preferring non-stop music that spoke for itself. His band played Parsifal excerpts ten years before it was introduced at the Metropolitan Opera, yet combined it with such fare as Turkey In The Straw, ultimately doing more to champion good music than any other American orchestra of the era. Throughout his career, much of Sousa’s output was created simultaneously for theatre orchestra as well as for band, including such marches as The Stars and Stripes Forever, El Capitan, Washington Post, and Semper Fidelis, universally acknowledged as the best of their genre.

Sousa astounded Europe by introducing ragtime on his 1900 tour, touching off a fascination with American music which influenced such composers as Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Grainger and Milhaud. The principal commodity Sousa sold, however, was pride in America and American music. In the quarter century before radio, improved electronic records, and finally, the miracle of talking pictures, Sousa and his Band and Sousa and his music was America’s greatest musical attraction. This Marco Polo recording series provides the musical world its first opportunity for a broad assessment of Sousa’s elegant orchestral creations.

Further reading: John Philip Sousa, American Phenomenon, by Paul E. Bierley 1973; and Marching Along, the autobiography of John Philip Sousa, edited by Paul E. Bierley 1994; both from Integrity Press, Westerville OH.

Overture to the Irish Dragoon

Sousa’s operetta The Irish Dragoon was composed in 1915. For reasons still unknown, but likely having to do with libretto problems, Sousa’s fully scored operetta was withdrawn without ever being performed. The overture is full of crackling Irish jigs and love-songs from the show. The present writer conducted the première with the Utah Symphony Orchestra in July 1990.

March: Bullets and Bayonets

The patriotic fervour of the First World War inspired some of Sousa’s greatest marches. Bullets and Bayonets, written in 1918, was dedicated by Sousa to the men of the infantry. It is heard as he performed it, replete with gunshots.

Rêverie: Nymphalin

While in his early twenties, Sousa was making his mark in the musical theatres of Washington and Philadelphia as a concert master, orchestra leader, composer and arranger. It is possible that the salon-like themes for Nymphalin originated as background music for a theatre review. The music was published in 1880. Alternating melodies for violins and cellos, and their final joining in counterpoint suggest the coupling and entwining of two lovers. Nymphalin was later re-scored by Sousa for his band concerts. It became one of the Sousa Band’s most frequently performed violin solo encores.

March: Jack Tar

Sousa opened the march Jack Tar by adapting two melodies from his musical Chris and the Wonderful Lamp. To this he added a lilting trio and the sailor’s hornpipe refrain, completing a nautical march. The scoring also calls for ship’s bell and whistle. The 1903 world première took place in the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of the King and Queen. That evening, Sousa and his Band were augmented with the bands of the Scots Guard, the Irish Guards, the Coldstream Guards, the Himenoa of New Zealand and the Queen’s Hall Orchestra.

Sacred Selection: Songs of Grace and Songs of Glory

In 1892, Sousa assembled a medley of popular religious melodies for his Sunday concerts. Songs of Grace and Songs of Glory opens with a section of Verdi’s Requiem, and continues with Rock of Ages (scored as if for a parlour harmonium), Steal Away, a Negro Spiritual made popular at that time by the Fiske Family singers, Mary and Martha, The Psalms, Nearer My God to Thee in a stirring setting composed earlier by Sousa for the Marine Band to play at President Garfield’s funeral and concludes with Stainer’s Sevenfold Amen. This medley was performed in May 1896 at the world première concert of The Stars and Stripes Forever at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. On that evening, the trombone solo in the Psalms was declaimed by the renowned Arthur Pryor.

March: The Power and the Glory

The march The Power and the Glory was crafted in 1922 as a homage to Thomas E. Mitten. Mitten was Director of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, who owned and managed Willow Grove Park where Sousa’s Band appeared every summer. The ingenious composition contains Mitten’s favorite hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers, of which the melody appears in the midst of Sousa’s own trio melody.

Suite: Dwellers of the Western World

This three-movement descriptive concert suite Dwellers of the Western World was composed in 1910. It was one of Sousa’s major band compositions. Each movement depicts a race that populated the New World, in the order in which they arrived. The Red Man is characteristic of what was then thought to be American-Indian music. The White Man includes a long concert waltz, a touching chorale based on Sousa’s earlier composition O Thou America, Messiah of Nations, and a sequence of musical ideas evocative of the building of railroads, the clearing of forests and square dancing. The final movement, Black Man is a sprightly cakewalk. The suite was scored for orchestra by Otto Merz, one of Sousa’s staff arrangers. It was presumably arranged under the composer’s supervision.

March: The Invincible Eagle

Sousa believed The Invincible Eagle would become one of his most popular marches. Events have at least proved it is one of his finest. He called it his “Sunshine March”. One of his singers observed him writing it one night on the train from Buffalo to New York City in 1901. She remembered him fingering an imaginary violin as he set down the notes.

Humoresque on Gershwin’s “Swanee”

Sousa took great delight in composing his fourteen humoresques. These are elegant statements of the genre and certainly predate, but complement the later musical humour of Spike Jones, the Hoffnung concerts and Peter Schickele. His humorous variations on Swanee from Gershwin’s first hit, Sinbad, was composed in 1920. Sousa obviously had a great deal of fun producing sly musical comments on the lyrics of this then contemporary hit song, popularized by Al Jolson.

Semper Fidelis

After Sousa had been brought to tears by the singing of the Marine’s Hymn, Semper Fidelis was composed in a burst of inspiration one night in 1888 at Quantico Virginia. The contrapuntal build up from the trio’s drum solo and bugle-call through the stirring ending is uniquely famous in the march literature.

Humoresque on Kern’s Look for the Silver Lining

This tongue-in-cheek setting of one of the first great modern Broadway ballads, Kern’s Look for the Silver Lining includes a parody of drunken musicians playing There is a Tavern the Town. There follows a series of imaginative scorings of the ballad, beginning with the cranking, starting and motoring of a model T Ford—complete with interrupting “Keystone Cops” police whistles, then a classic soft-shoe scoring of the tune followed by a big band jazz setting. As a finale, the song is set in a most remarkable manner, with every note of the melody assigned to a different instrument, much like Webern’s use of the technique of “klangfarben”.

March: The Daughters of Texas

Sousa’s title The Daughters of Texas is apt. This late march, composed in 1929, is surely one the most gracefully feminine of all his marches and one of his most beautiful. It was dedicated to the women of Texas Women’s University in Denton, Texas.

March: The Stars and Stripes Forever

Premièred in 1896, The Stars and Stripes Forever has become Sousa’s most famous march. While it is known the world over, in America it has become the official march of the United States and serves as a signature piece for every American band and orchestra.

About This Recording

In 1980 the question “Where is Sousa’s audience today?” gave rise to Keith Brion’s Sousa orchestral concerts. Brion reasoned that in modern America, Sousa’s most natural audience was now attending symphony orchestra pops concerts rather than band performances. Next wondering if a symphony orchestra could perform a band concert, he recalled that Sousa had scored more than eighty of his major band compositions for orchestra. In addition, most of the other music used by Sousa was really orchestral music transcribed for band. So Brion’s “Sousa at the Symphony” concerts were born. For almost two decades now these programmes have been a flourishing attraction on the large circuit of American symphony orchestras that present “pops” concerts. Dozens of orchestras have presented them three times or more. This recording features many of the favourite items heard on these popular concerts.

The Overture to the Irish Dragoon and Nymphalin are performed in their original settings. The two humoresques and Songs of Grace and Songs of Glory are performed in arrangements by Keith Brion. The marches have been enlarged by Brion from their original Sousa versions (for small theatre orchestra) to full symphony orchestra status. The model for these adaptations has been Sousa’s own unpublished concert arrangements for his large symphonic band.

Special thanks to Loras Schissel, Music Division, Library of Congress and to Sousa’s biographer, Paul E. Bierley, author of John Philip Sousa, an American Phenomenon and The Works of John Philip Sousa, Integrity Press.

Keith Brion

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