WHEN HE WAS the 17th director of the Marine Band, John Philip Sousa stated that "the Marine Band is virtually the national band, and the band that should be as great among bands as America is among nations." A bold statement, perhaps, but one made with the conviction of knowing how to achieve that end through effective programming and a natural gift for musical composition. The Sousa style and repertoire is one of the Marine Band's, and indeed the nation's, great legacies.
Sousa was born in Washington, D.C., November 6, 1854. His father John Antonio was a Portuguese immigrant and his mother Maria Elizabeth Trinkhaus was born in Bavaria. The young John Philip was given a basic music education by his father, a trombonist in the Marine Band, and he was enlisted into the Marine Corps as an apprentice musician at the age of 13. This "impressed" service was initiated by the father to circumvent the boy's running off to join a traveling circus band. Sousa remained with the Marines until age 21 when he left the band to pursue a professional career as a theater orchestra violinist (culminating with his being concert master for Jacques Offenbach's American Centennial Concert Tour in 1876). Sousa returned to the Marine Band in 1880 as its leader and remained until 1892. During this period he advanced the standards of performance of the band and experimented widely with setting his own compositions in a more sophisticated instrumentation, a practice he perfected with his own Sousa Band from 1892 until his death in 1932.
The Sousa legacy is the topic of a new book published by the Library of Congress entitled Perspectives on John Philip Sousa. The book presents a diverse collection of essays, from laureate American composer William Schuman's appreciation of the Sousa compositional technique to the personal observations of Sousa's grandson, John Philip Sousa III.
James Smart's essay "Genesis of a March" reads like a fascinating detective story on the most venerable of all Sousa properties, "The Stars and Stripes Forever." We have known Smart before as Sousa discographer but here we are introduced to Smart as a Sousa discoverer; in 1977 he unearthed a pencil sketch of the famous march which has since clouded the accuracy of the exact date of the march's composition. Smart developes his premise masterfully and presents persuasive argument for the adoption of "Stars. . ." as the national march.
Margaret Brown provides the Sousaphile with some new insights into the relationship between Sousa the heir-apparent to the mantle of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore and his impresario-manager David Blakely. In a condensation of Brown's New York Public Library Bulletin articles of 1961 we are confronted by information contrary to Sousa's autobiographical remembrances and material having no citation in Paul Bierley's 1973 biography of Sousa. However, Bierley suggests that the artists--as is perhaps the case with most artist-management relationships--was wary of written contracts. Sousa probably felt it sufficient that he was a man of his word.
Social historian Neil Harris discusses Victorian America in "The Culture of Assurance" and concludes that Sousa "mingled folksiness, martial arts, gallantry and commerce . . . as a bridge between cultural communities and his performance was an occasion to reassure and conciliate an ambitious if unsophisticated public. We no longer have the performances; we do have the marches."
Paul Norton traces the precursors of Sousa in an essay on the American march in the 19th century, and Frederick Fennell presents his considerations for the most important of the 140 Sousa marches from the viewpoint of the experienced conductor. By his careful preparation of more accessible editions of the marches, Fennell has generated the revival of a neglected national heritage and his chapter in Perspectives is a continuance of this labor of love.
The book's handsome format and iconography might initially lure the purchaser into reducing it to coffee- table status, but its contents belie that criticism. Editor Jon Newsom has conjured up a book of magic of a time when America was without apparent cynicism and a book with generous annotation that of itself makes marvelous reading for a wide spectrum of interests. With more than 40 contemporary Sousa photographs and additional illustrations, Perspectives gives us a glimpse into an era when John Philip Sousa reigned over the world as the March King.