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John Philip Sousa

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John Philip Sousa (/ˈsuːsə/; November 6, 1854 – March 6, 1932) was an American composer and conductor of the late Romantic era known primarily for American military marches. He is known as "The March King" or the "American March King", to distinguish him from his British counterpart Kenneth J. Alford. Among his best-known marches are "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (National March of the United States of America), "Semper Fidelis" (official march of the United States Marine Corps), "The Liberty Bell", "The Thunderer", and "The Washington Post".
Sousa began his career playing violin and studying music theory and composition under John Esputa and George Felix Benkert. His father enlisted him in the United States Marine Band as an apprentice in 1868. He left the band in 1875, and over the next five years he performed as a violinist and learned to conduct. In 1880 he rejoined the Marine Band, and he served there for 12 years as director, after which he organized his own band. From 1880 until his death, he focused exclusively on conducting and writing music. Sousa aided in the development of the sousaphone, a large brass instrument similar to the helicon and tuba.
Upon the outbreak of World War I, Sousa was awarded a wartime commission of lieutenant commander to lead the Naval Reserve Band in Illinois. He then returned to conduct the Sousa Band until his death in 1932. In the 1920s, he was promoted to the permanent rank of lieutenant commander in the naval reserve, but he never saw active service again.
John Philip Sousa was born in Washington, D.C., the third of ten children of João António de Sousa (John Anthony Sousa) (September 22, 1824 – April 27, 1892), who was born in Spain to Portuguese parents, and his wife Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus (May 20, 1826 – August 25, 1908), who was German and from Bavaria. He began his music education under the tuition of John Esputa Sr., who taught him solfeggio. This was short-lived, however, because of the teacher's frequent bad temper. His real music education began in 1861 or 1862 as a pupil of John Esputa Jr., the son of his previous teacher under whom Sousa studied violin, piano, flute, several brass instruments, and singing. Esputa shared his father's bad temper, and the relationship between teacher and pupil was often strained, but Sousa progressed very rapidly and was also found to have perfect pitch. He wrote his first composition "An Album Leaf" during this period, but Esputa dismissed it as "bread and cheese" and the composition was subsequently lost.
His father was a trombonist in the Marine Band, and he enlisted Sousa in the United States Marine Corps as an apprentice at age 13 to keep him from joining a circus band. In the same year, he began studying music under George Felix Benkert. Sousa was enlisted under a minority enlistment, meaning that he would not be discharged until his 21st birthday.
Sousa completed his apprenticeship in 1875 and began performing on the violin. He then joined a theatrical pit orchestra where he learned to conduct. He returned to the Marine Band as its head in 1880 and remained as its conductor until 1892. He led "The President's Own" band under five presidents from Rutherford B. Hayes to Benjamin Harrison. His band played at the inaugural balls of James A. Garfield in 1881 and Benjamin Harrison in 1889.
The marching brass bass or sousaphone is a modified helicon created in 1893 by Philadelphia instrument maker J. W. Pepper at Sousa's request, using several of his suggestions in its design. He wanted a tuba that could sound upward and over the band whether its player was seated or marching. C.G. Conn recreated the instrument in 1898, and this was the model that Sousa preferred to use.
Sousa organized The Sousa Band the year that he left the Marine Band, and it toured from 1892 to 1931 and performed at 15,623 concerts, both in America and around the world, including at the World Exposition in Paris and at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In Paris, the Sousa Band marched through the streets to the Arc de Triomphe, one of only eight parades that the band marched in during its 40 years.
Sousa served two periods of service in the Marine Corps. He first enlisted on June 9, 1868 at age 13 as an apprentice musician, his rank listed as "boy". He re-enlisted on July 8, 1872 and was promoted to musician. He left the Marine Corps in 1875 at age 20. His second period of Marine service was from 1880 to 1892, during which he was the leader of the Marine Band in Washington, D.C. Some sources state that he served with the rank of Sergeant Major and was eventually promoted to Warrant Officer, but this is erroneous, as the leader of the band was a separate rank from sergeant major and the Marine Corps did not have warrant officers until 1916. The Marine Band became the premier military band in the United States under his leadership.
The Columbia Phonograph Company produced 60 recordings of the Marine Band conducted by Sousa which led to his national fame. In July 1892, Sousa requested a discharge from the Marine Corps to pursue a financially promising civilian career as a band leader. He conducted a farewell concert at the White House on July 30, 1892 and was discharged from the Marine Corps the next day.
Sousa was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve on May 31, 1917, shortly after the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I. He was 62 years old, which was the mandatory retirement age for Navy officers. During the war, he led the Navy Band at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago, and he donated all of his naval salary except a token $1 per month to the Sailors' and Marines' Relief Fund. He was discharged from active duty after the war's end in November 1918 and returned to conducting his own band, but he continued to wear his naval uniform for many of his concerts and other public appearances. In the early 1920s, he was promoted to lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve but did not return to active duty. He frequently wore his Navy uniform during performances for the remainder of his life.
For this service during the war, Sousa received the World War I Victory Medal and was elected as a Veteran Companion of the Military Order of Foreign Wars. He was also a member New York Athletic Club Post 754 of the American Legion.
On December 30, 1879, Sousa married Jane van Middlesworth Bellis (1862–1944), and their children were John Philip, Jr. (April 1, 1881 – May 18, 1937), Jane Priscilla (August 7, 1882 – October 28, 1958), and Helen (January 21, 1887 – October 14, 1975). All were buried in the John Philip Sousa plot in the Congressional Cemetery. Jane was descended from Adam Bellis who served in the New Jersey troops during the American Revolutionary War.
On March 15, 1881, the "March King" was initiated to the Scottish Rite Freemasonry in the Hiram Lodge No. 10, Washington, DC and later became Master Mason for 51 years.
Late in his life, Sousa lived in Sands Point, New York. He died of heart failure at age 77 on March 6, 1932, in his room at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania. He had conducted a rehearsal of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" the previous day with the Ringgold Band as its guest conductor. He is buried in Washington, D.C.'s Congressional Cemetery. His house Wild Bank has been designated a National Historic Landmark, although it remains a private home and is not open to the public.
Sousa has surviving descendants today; one of his grandsons, John Philip Sousa IV, works as a political activist for the Republican Party.
Sousa was decorated with the palms of the Order of Public Instruction of Portugal and the Order of Academic Palms of France. He also received the Royal Victorian Medal from King Edward VII of the United Kingdom in December 1901 for conducting a private birthday concert for Queen Alexandra.
In 1922, he accepted the invitation of the national chapter to become an honorary member of Kappa Kappa Psi, the national honorary band fraternity. In 1932, he was initiated as an honorary member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music, by the fraternity's Alpha Xi chapter at the University of Illinois.
The World War II Liberty Ship SS John Philip Sousa was named in his honor.
In 1952, 20th Century Fox honored Sousa in their Technicolor feature film Stars and Stripes Forever with Clifton Webb portraying him. It was loosely based on Sousa's memoirs Marching Along.
In 1987, an act of Congress named "The Stars and Stripes Forever" as the national march of the United States.
He was posthumously enshrined in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1976.
Sousa was a member of the Sons of the Revolution, Military Order of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Freemasons and the Society of Artists and Composers. He was also a member of the Salmagundi, Players, Musicians, New York Athletic, Lambs, Army and Navy and the Gridiron clubs of Washington. Sousa was also an honorary brother of the National Music Fraternity, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia. .
Sousa wrote over 130 marches, 15 operettas, 5 overtures, 11 suites, 24 dances, 28 fantasies, and countless arrangements of nineteenth-century western European symphonic works.
Sousa wrote over 130 marches, published by Harry Coleman of Philadelphia, Carl Fischer Music, the John Church Company, and the Sam Fox Publishing Company, the last association beginning in 1917 and continuing until his death. Some of his more well-known marches include:
Sousa wrote marches for several American universities, including the University of Minnesota, University of Illinois, University of Nebraska, Kansas State University, Marquette University, Pennsylvania Military College (Widener University), and the University of Michigan.
Sousa wrote many notable operettas including:
Marches and waltzes have been derived from many of these stage-works. Sousa also composed the music for six operettas that were either unfinished or not produced: The Devils' Deputy, Florine, The Irish Dragoon, Katherine, The Victory, and The Wolf.
In addition, Sousa wrote a march based on themes from Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Mikado, the elegant overture Our Flirtations, a number of musical suites, etc. He frequently added Sullivan opera overtures or other Sullivan pieces to his concerts.
He was quoted saying, "My religion lies in my composition".
Sousa ranked as one of the all-time great trapshooters and was enshrined in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame. He organized the first national trapshooting organization, a forerunner to today's Amateur Trapshooting Association (ATA). He also wrote numerous articles about trapshooting. He was a regular competitor representing the Navy in trapshooting competitions, particularly against the Army. Records indicate that he registered more than 35,000 targets during his shooting career. "Let me say that just about the sweetest music to me is when I call, 'pull,' the old gun barks, and the referee in perfect key announces, 'dead'."
In his 1902 novella The Fifth String, a virtuoso violinist makes a deal with the Devil for a magic violin with five strings. The first four strings excite the emotions of Pity, Hope, Love, and Joy, but the fifth string, made from the hair of Eve, will cause the player's death once played. The violinist wins the love of the woman he desires, but out of jealous suspicion, she commands him to play the death string, which he does. He published Pipetown Sandy in 1905, which includes a satirical poem titled "The Feast of the Monkeys". He wrote a 40,000-word story entitled "The Transit of Venus" in 1920. He also wrote the booklet "A manual for trumpet and drum", published by the Ludwig drum company with advice for playing drums and trumpet. An early version of the trumpet solo to "Semper Fidelis" was included in this volume.
Sousa held a very low opinion of the emerging recording industry and he derided recordings as "canned music", a reference to the early wax cylinder records that came in can-like cylindrical cardboard boxes. He argued to a congressional hearing in 1906:
These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy… in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.
Sousa's antipathy to recording was such that he did not conduct his band when it was being recorded. Nevertheless, the band made numerous recordings, the earliest being issued on cylinders by several companies, followed by many recordings on discs by the Berliner Gramophone Company and its successor the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor). The Berliner recordings were conducted by Henry Higgins (one of Sousa's cornet soloists) and Arthur Pryor (Sousa's trombone soloist and assistant conductor). Sousa claimed that he had "never been in the gramophone company's office in my life". Sousa did conduct a few of the Victor recordings, but most were conducted by Pryor, Herbert L. Clarke, Edwin H. Clarke, Walter B. Rogers (who had also been a cornet soloist with Sousa), Rosario Bourdon, Josef Pasternack, or Nathaniel Shilkret. Details of the Victor recordings are available in the external link below to the EDVR.
Sousa also appeared with his band in newsreels and on radio broadcasts, beginning with a 1929 nationwide broadcast on NBC. In 1999, "Legacy" Records released some of his historic recordings on CD.
Even after death, Sousa continues to be remembered as "The March King" through the John Philip Sousa Foundation. The non-profit organization founded in 1981, recognizes one superior student in marching band for "musicianship, dependability, loyalty, and cooperation." The John Philip Sousa Foundation provides awards, scholarships, and projects such as The Sudler Trophy, The Sudler Shield, The Sudler Silver Scroll, The Sudler Flag of Honor, The Historic Roll of Honor, The Sudler Cup, The Hawkins Scholarship, National Young Artists, The National Community Band, and The Junior Honor Band Project. He won many honorable awards across his lifetime.