John Philip Sousa

Born in Washington D.C. on 06 November 1854 he was the third child and eldest son of a family of ten - four of which died in infancy. His parents were both Portuguese, although his father was born in Spain and his mother in Germany. They met in New York when Marie Elizabeth was visiting an uncle, and Antonio was serving with the US Navy band. The couple moved to Washington D.C. in 1854 and Antonio joined the US Marine band - he was still a serving marine when he was introducing J.P. to the band.

Sousa received his first musical tuition as a six-year old but the classes did not last long because he could not cope with his teacher's temper. He was later to study under the same music teacher's son, whose temper was not much better than his father's. J.P. kept a low profile in the class, but his talent was soon evident for he displayed an unbelievable ability at sight reading and he had perfect pitch. He was enrolled there for 4 years and studied voice, violin, piano, flute, cornet, baritone, trombone and altohorn. He also made his first attempt at composing but it was dismissed by his tutor as "Bread and Cheese".

Philip, as he was known by his family, joined the US Marine band on 09 June 1868 as a "boy" for a tentative 7½ years - of which he was to serve seven years over two enlistments. The greatest influence on his early musical development was George Felix Benkert, and it was he who displayed remarkable foresight in declining to teach Sousa the piano because it would interfere with his composing - "his fingers would fall in familiar places!"

JPS completed his formal musical training at 20, and started to play the violin professionally, and he was also gaining conducting experience from this early age. In his early 20's Sousa secured one of two posts in a Philadelphia orchestra and played briefly under Jacques Offenbach. He was also arranging and composing regularly.

In 1880 and married he enlisted for the third time in the US Marines to become band leader after the unscheduled dismissal of the man who had refused to play his first march. He took a drop in salary to accept the post, but he now had what he had always wanted - his own band!

He set about a systematic improvement of the band to the great joy of all Washington, and in 12 years with them, the US Marine band became recognised as the best in America. He also developed a knack of always being prepared for visits of dignitaries.

The US Marine band was also the first band to be recorded for the new phonograph industry, and "The High School Cadets" and "Corcorans Cadets" were among the first pieces recorded.

Sousa had longed to take his marine band on tours but the rules did not allow it. However, when his commandant was replaced due to illness, he moved quickly to speak to the president via the first lady, and his wish was granted. In fact he was to make only one major tour, for after a period of illness and the death of his father he was enticed to start up his own band. He bought himself out of his contract with $1,000, and his parting was not appreciated by the people of Washington who feared the band would lose its best players and return to its pre-Sousa mediocre state. He left with just one regret - it had not been Marine policy to raise band leaders to officer status (all his successors were to receive a commission!) Nevertheless be was always to speak well of his experiences in the marines.

Sousa set about hiring the best musicians that money would attract and the best soloists, and he worked hard to find that unique sound which was to be his for 39 years. His first concert was on 26 September 1892. He did not want to go down the road of brass and military bands or of the symphony orchestras, all of which, he felt, were hemmed in by traditions and rules. He effected a compromise between a band and an orchestra.

He was also to develop a more astute business acumen: e.g. he had sold, without regrets, the rights to his earlier marches for $25-35. Marches like "The Thunderer", "Semper Fidelis" and The "Washington Post" went for $35, but "Liberty Bell" netted him $40,000 in less than seven years. This was the start of a great financial success story, which made him a millionaire.

Sousa was to experience unparalleled success in musical entertainment. He took the band all over the country, to Europe and around the world, and he did more for US relations in his lifetime than any politician before or since. 

John Philip Sousa spent almost 4 decades, bringing his own brand of music to the common people: "My theory was, by sensible degrees, first to reach every heart by simple, stirring music; secondly to lift the unmusical mind to a still higher form of musical art..." Throughout his life he made a point of always playing what his audience wanted to hear.

He once said that marches should basically appeal to the fighting instincts in man, that they should stir his patriotic impulses and "make goose pimples chase each other up and down your spine" or "make a man with a wooden leg want to step out and march". He standardised the March form as we know it today, and it is also claimed he wrote more high calibre marches than any other composer.

Sousa wrote his first noteworthy march "The Gladiator" in 1886, and in 1888 his own favourite "Semper Fidelis". In 1889 he was asked by a newspaper to compose a piece to promote an essay contest and he obliged with a march which he named after the paper itself "The Washington Post". The march was later adopted by dance bands all over America and Europe for a new dance, the military two-step, and the success vaulted Sousa and The Washington Post into prominence.

John Philip Sousa composed over 300 pieces of which 136 were marches (based on length of compositions marches made up only 30% of his works) and was already an American institution within his lifetime; yet he would have achieved the same status had he only written "The Stars and Stripes Forever", He composed the march in a boat on his way from Europe to his manager's funeral. He claimed his inspiration was his passionate love for his homeland, and fittingly it was to be the last piece he ever conducted. Multitudes rose to their feet on the playing of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" as if it were their National Anthem. Indeed, after years of endeavour, it was adopted as America's national march during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Sousa himself having earlier (1973) been elected to the Hall of Fame for great Americans - on the same day as Franklin D. Roosevelt!

One of the all time top 100 composers, Sousa was for a time the best-known musician in the world, and probably appeared before more people than anyone of his generation. Of conducting he once said that a conductor's job is to convey to the public the central idea of a composition, and that could only be done by entering heart and soul into the music. He believed with a passion that the public was to be entertained, thrilled and intellectually stimulated. He would have no breaks in the program, and regularly recommenced playing before the applause had subsided. 

Of bands, Sousa once said that they had a greater influence than orchestras on the development of music, and boasted, "I did more to spread classical music than all the symphony orchestras put together. He also considered bass drummers to be artists in their own right, and that the bass drum should be felt but not heard.

Sousa originally opposed the recording industry, and was the first to coin the phrase "canned music" which he applied to the first phonographs. However he was eventually to realise the marketing value of this medium, and having been very successful at bringing live first class music to the common man, he was also one of the first to benefit from being heard on every street corner.

He was a man of high ideals and it was said by a former manager that he gave the general impression of trying diligently to be the most honourable man who ever walked on the earth.

Click for soundtrack of the Stars & Stripes