John Philip Sousa

John Philip SousaOn this day in 1854, the great composer John Philip Sousa was born. I know that marches are not “hip” (whatever that word might mean). People will generally leave me alone as I listen to my old blues and country thinking that it might be super hip and they just don’t know any better. (They’re right!) But no one questions but that marches are strictly the domain of blue haired old ladies and incontinent old men who are always shouting about communism. They are wrong to think this, because marches are a beautiful if extremely constrained art form.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that “The Washington Post” march is one of the greatest compositions ever written. The thing about a march is it has to be technically perfect and yet still have a great deal of musical inspiration. Consider “HM Jollies” by Sousa’s British contemporary Kenneth J Alford. I think it is an amazing piece of music by a brilliant musical mind. Yet despite its use of three common melodies and having once been forced to memorize it, I never find the march floating through my head. But “The Washington Post” plagues me — at least once a week. I only just found out that it was written for the newspaper:

Sousa’s father was a trombonist in the Marine band. He started Sousa’s musical education early — when he was only six years old. When Sousa was 13 years old, he apparently was going to run away and play in a circus band. So his father apprenticed him with the Marine band. I didn’t know they did this. It would be right after the Civil War. Sousa stayed with the band until he was 21. After that, he worked in theatrical orchestras where his facility on many instruments was doubtless highly valued. While doing that work, he learned to conduct — a skill he would use for the rest of his life. In 1880, he rejoined the Marines as the head of the band. After leaving in 1892, he formed his own band which was hugely successful. During his life, it was generally considered that playing in Sousa’s band was the best that a wind player could attain. Many notable people came out of the band, including Meredith Willson, who played flute and piccolo.

What I didn’t know was that Sousa also wrote a number of successful operettas. Sadly, I cannot find any of them that are performed as operettas. They are all instrumentals. But here is a collection of pieces from The Bride Elect, which most tantalizingly originally had an libretto by Sousa himself. This is quite beautiful:

Happy birthday John Philip Sousa!

2 thoughts on “John Philip Sousa

  1. The Washington Post always brings a smile to my face. Not only because it really is a marvelous creation, but because I can’t hear it without thinking of Monty Python and Terry Gilliam’s animations. All of which are guaranteed to improve your mood.

    • I totally forgot that Monty Python used the “Liberty Bell”! I should have mentioned that. That is yet another march I was forced to memorize! Thanks for reminding me.

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