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Biography of the March King: John Philip Sousa

Who was this man who became a musical legend during his own lifetime with such hits as “The Stars and Stripes Forever”, “The Liberty Bell” (best known as the theme song for Monty Python’s Flying Circus) and “The Washington Post”?

Fittingly, John Philip Sousa was born on November 6, 1854, at 636 G Street, SE, Washington, D.C., near the Marine Barracks where his father, Antonio, played trombone in the U.S. Marine Band. John Philip was the third of 10 children of John Antonio Sousa (born in Spain of Portuguese parents) and Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus (born in Bavaria). Young John Philip grew up surrounded by military band music, and when he was just six, he began studying voice, violin, piano, flute, cornet, baritone, trombone and alto horn.

By all accounts, John Philip was an adventure-loving boy, and when at the age of 13 he tried to run away to join a circus band, his father instead enlisted him in the Marine Band as a band apprentice. Except for a period of six months, Sousa remained in the band until he was 20 years old. In addition to his musical training in the Marine Band, he studied music theory and composition with George Felix Benkert, a noted Washington orchestra leader and teacher. It was during his years in the Marines that Sousa wrote his first composition, “Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes”.

Discharged from the Marines in 1875, the 21-year-old Sousa began performing on violin, touring and eventually conducting theater orchestras, including Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore on Broadway.

In 1879, Sousa met Jane van Middlesworth Bellis, and they married on December 30, 1879. Just a year later, the couple returned to Washington, D.C., where Sousa assumed leadership of the U.S. Marine Band. Over the next 12 years, Sousa conducted the band The President’s Own, serving under Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Cleveland, Arthur and Harrison.

In his book, The Experiences of a Bandmaster, Sousa described what it was like to play for presidents:

“The ladies of the White House were always interested in the music, and frequently suggested selections for the programme, Mrs. Hayes being particularly fond of American ballads. During the brief Garfield administration there were no state receptions or dinners given by the President, and the band did not play at the White House, except for a few of Mrs. Garfield’s receptions immediately after the inauguration. While Mrs. McElroy was mistress of the Executive Mansion for her brother, President Arthur, the lighter music was much in favor, as there were always many young people at the Mansion.

Miss Rose Elizabeth Cleveland was much interested in music, and evinced a partiality for Arthur Sullivan’s melodies. Mrs. Harrison’s favorite music was Nevin’s ‘Good Night, Beloved’ and the Sousa marches. The soundness of Mrs. Cleveland’s musical taste was shown by her liking for the ‘Tannhauser’ overture and other music of that character.

The Marine Band played all the music for President Cleveland’s wedding, which took place in the Blue Room of the White House. The distance from the room up-stairs to the exact spot where the ceremony was to take place was carefully measured by Colonel Lamont and myself, in order that the music might be timed to the precise number of steps the wedding party would have to take; and the climax of the Mendelssohn ‘Wedding March’ was played by the band just as the bride and groom reached the clergyman.”

Sousa first received acclaim in military band circles with the writing of his march “The Gladiator” in 1886. In 1888, he wrote “Semper Fidelis”, which he dedicated to “the officers and men of the Marine Corps.” It is traditionally known as the “official” march of the Marine Corps.

Under Sousa, the Marine Band also made its first recordings. The phonograph was a relatively new invention, and the Columbia Phonograph Company sought a military band to record. The Marine Band was chosen, and 60 cylinders were released in the fall of 1890. By 1897, more than 400 different titles were available for sale, placing Sousa’s marches among the first and most popular pieces ever recorded, and making the Marine Band one of the world’s first “recording stars.”

After two successful but limited tours with the Marine Band in 1891 and 1892, promoter David Blakely convinced Sousa to resign and organize a civilian concert band; thus was born Sousa’s New Marine Band.

The band’s first concert was performed on Sept. 26, 1892 at Stillman Music Hall in Plainfield, New Jersey. Two days earlier, bandleader Patrick Gilmore had died in St. Louis. Nineteen of Gilmore’s former musicians eventually joined Sousa’s band, including Herbert L. Clarke (cornet) and E. A. Lefebre (saxophone). Although its original name was Sousa’s New Marine Band, criticism from Washington eventually forced the band to drop the new Marine part of its name.

In 1896, Sousa and his wife were vacationing in Europe when word came that David Blakely had died. The couple immediately left for home. It was on the return voyage home that Sousa was inspired to begin writing his most famous composition, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

From 1900 to 1910, the Sousa Band toured the U.S., Europe, Great Britain, the Canary Islands, in the South Pacific, strengthening its growing reputation as the most admired American band of its time.

After World War I, Sousa continued to tour with his band while championing the cause of music education for all children. He also received several honorary degrees and fought for composers’ rights, testifying before Congress in 1927 and 1928.

Sousa’s last appearance before the Marine Band was on the occasion of the Carabao Wallow of 1932 in Washington, D.C. Sousa, as a distinguished guest, rose from the speaker’s table, took the baton from Captain Taylor Branson, the band’s director, and led the band in “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Later that year, after conducting a rehearsal of the Ringgold Band in Reading, Pa., the 77-year old Sousa passed away. The last piece Sousa had rehearsed with the band was “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

In addition to hundreds of marches, Sousa also wrote 10 operas and a number of musical suites. He had many talents aside from music, authoring three novels and a full-length autobiography, as well as a number of articles and letters-to-the-editor on a variety of subjects.

Sousa is not forgotten. On December 9, 1939, the new Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge across the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. was dedicated to the memory of John Philip Sousa. In a tribute to its 17th leader, in 1974, the Marine Band rededicated its historic band hall at Marine Barracks as John Philip Sousa Band Hall. The bell from the S.S. John Philip Sousa, a World War II Liberty ship, is there. In 1976, Sousa was enshrined in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. And in 1987, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” was designated as the national march of the United States. A White House memorandum states that the march has become “an integral part of the celebration of American life.”

\Sources: The Official Website of the United States Marine Corps and the Dallas Winds Symphony’s John Philip Sousa’s Website

Photo of John Philip Sousa and the United States Marine Band courtesy of the Official Website of the United States Marine Corps