John Phillip Sousa- American Phenomenon (Paul E. Bierley)

John Phillip Sousa- American Phenomenon (Paul E. Bierley)

As I went through this beautifully written book, I highlighted passages that stood out to me, so I could refer back quickly.  There is obviously much more to glean by obtaining the book, which I highly encourage. 

This book chronicles the life, works and symphonic band of John Phillip Sousa, revealing much about his personal life and the times in which he lived, as well as his meteoric rise to fame in American culture around the first few decades of the 20th century.

He was known as the ‘march king’ and “was the symbol of an era and was known as the man who did one particular thing better than any other.  He was to the march what Johann Strauss was to the waltz, and he has been described as the ‘Dickens of Music,’ the ‘Kipling’ of Music,’ the ‘Berlioz of the Military Band’...He came along at precisely the right moment in history, and his marches are an imperishable reflection of his country’s spirit.”

“Sousa made his mark in the world not only as a composer but also as an entertainer.  He spurned the opportunity for a musical education in Europe and chose instead the world of entertainment…By the late 1890s Sousa was recognized as much more than a popular composer; he was considered one of the most polished conductors of the Western world…It can be said that he developed his natural gifts to the greatest degree.  He composed without a piano or the aid of any other musical instrument or device, something which the layman might think impossible.  Throughout his life he emphatically stated that his music came not from within, but from another source.”

“There were four major turning points in Sousa’s life.  The first was at the age of thirteen, when his plans for running away with a circus band were interrupted by his father, who enrolled him as an apprentice in the U.S. Marine Band.  The second, at age twenty, was when he decided against a European musical education after his release from the Marine Corps.  The third was when he was appointed to the leadership of the Marine Band at the age of twenty-five, after seemingly being headed for a career in theater music.  The fourth came after twelve years as leader of the Marine Band, when he resigned to organize his own band.”

As a composer, “His total production dwarfs that of nearly every other American composer…He was one of the few American composers who could present a varied program entirely from his own compositions.”

“Sousa made an indelible impression abroad, moving the Old World toward recognition of America’s progress in the arts.  The Sousa Band made four tours of Europe between 1900 and 1905, and then a tour around the world in 1910-1911.  The band’s excellence caught Europe by surprise, and in all probability it did more to further American prestige than any other organization of its time, musical or otherwise…At home the influence of Sousa and the Sousa Band was even greater.  The band was on a par with the country’s leading symphony orchestras, partly because Sousa had enticed some of the finest symphony and opera musicians to his own band.  Together they made more of a contribution to the advancement of good music that any symphony orchestra in the New World before the advent of radio.  As a touring organization they brought classics to remote areas of the country and to hundreds of towns where people had never heard a symphony orchestra.  By bringing a first-class musical organization to the American people, Sousa was dissolving the long-held notion that only European musicians could be competent…when the Sousa band came to town, other activities ceased.”

“His style of programming was unique, and no one has since duplicated it with such astounding success…The Sousa band was not a marching band, as people are prone to imagine, but rather a concert band.  In fact, it marched only seven times in its history.  It was a band of artists.”

Sousa, himself, was originally trained as a violinist, and held several leading positions in theater orchestras.  As he continued in his career, he shifted to becoming a band-leader.  “Why did John Phillip Sousa, a reasonably accomplished violinist and orchestra leader with a promising future, choose the band as his career?  Simply because he chose to entertain rather than to educate.”

Sousa once wrote, “I had before me four distinct bodies, comprising the instrumental combinations, to select from.  First, the purely brass band.  Second, the so-called military band, differing in its composition in every country…Thirdly, the beer hall or casino string band…and fourthly, the symphony orchestra, containing all the essentials for a perfect performance of the classical writers.  I realized that each of these musical bodies was hemmed in by hide-bound tradition and certain laws as unchanging as those of the Medes and Persians.  I carefully weighed the conditions surrounding these musical bodies and their governing influences and concluded to form a fresh combination in which I would be untrammeled by tradition and in a position to cater for the millions rather than the few…”

“The Sousa band was in actuality a compromise between a band and a symphony orchestra.  Sousa’s demonstration that a concert band could play many classical selections as well as a symphony orchestra was a revelation to those who heard his band.”

As an American Patriot, “he endeavored to write music which would make people stand erect and be proud to be called Americans, with such compositions as ‘Hail to the Spirit of Liberty’, ‘The invincible Eagle’, ‘The Liberty Bell’ and ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’.  “In times of war, the pulse of Sousa’s marches fired the hearts of his countrymen.”  Sousa, himself “spent over nineteen years in military service, serving the Marine Corps and the navy and twice attempting to enlist in the army.  During World War I, he shortened his highly profitable band tours to enlist in the U.S. Navy at the grand salary of one dollar per month.  He was sixty-two years old at the time.”

Sousa had a profound impact on other art-forms in his generation.  In the field of the operetta, he was one of the pioneers of the American musical theater.  Nine of his fifteen operettas were produced, and eight were published.  ‘El Capitan’ (1895) was very successful until after the turn of the century.  All of his later operettas fared well, but they could not replace the perennial Gilbert and Sullivan favorites…Another of Sousa’s contributions to the world of music, strange as it may seem was in the field of jazz- not so much because of his original compositions as because of his use of jazz material in his band programming.  His interest began with one of jazz’s forerunners, ragtime…It was Sousa…who was initially responsible for the popularity of ragtime in Europe.”

Regarding the burgeoning recording industry, “it was Sousa who first coined the term ‘canned music’ in 1906 when he was waging a campaign against the phonograph industry’s abuses of composers’ rights.  He was reconciled with the recording industry in time, but only because the industry yielded to what he considered a composer’s constitutional guarantee of his privileges.”

Although Sousa’s main ambition with his music was to make it acceptable to the public, “by no stretch of the imagination could Sousa be called a commercial composer, because he seldom composed music on order.” 

Sousa summarized his experience in the Marine Corps as follows: “Apart from the musical opportunities, it was a great experience for the development of character.  In official life a man has to stand right up to the job.  He makes his mark or he fails.  The temperamental ‘flowing-tie variety’ of musician could not exist under these circumstances, and sometimes I think it would be a very good thing for the world if he couldn’t exist anyway.  The discipline is invaluable.  One learns that whether he will or not, he has to adjust to the workings of a great organization, and I don’t know any experience that better enables a man to find himself, if he hasn’t already done so, than just that…”

Sousa, however, ultimately left the organization.  “The salary he was to receive as conductor of his own band was certainly an incentive for leaving, but there were other reasons as well.  One thing that disturbed him was the fact that he was never made a commissioned officer.  He thought his position was worthy of a commission and resented those who outranked him ordering him to play their own preferred numbers at any time.  His successors did receive commissions.  He was also anxious to have the pay of his musicians increased and was especially provoked at ambiguous legislation which inadequately defined the salaries of the bandsmen.  When he asked for clarification, no action was taken.  These things were doubtlessly considered when he made the decision to separate.”

Sousa had become a well-known name in America, and used his influence politically to influence the direction of legislation for American composers.  Victor Herbert and Sousa were good friends and twice joined forces to fight for composers’ rights when important bills were before Congress.

Towards the end of his life, Sousa “became increasingly interested in the development of school bands and orchestras.  He was much in demand as a guest conductor and did not refuse a request if conditions permitted.  It was a joy to him to see the founding of the National High School Orchestra and Band Camp at Interlochen, Michigan.  He was guest conductor there during the last two summers of his life and dedicated the march ‘The Northern Pines’ to them.”

The last two weeks of his life were eventful, as he would have wished.  On February 22, 1932, he conducted the combined bands of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps in front of the Capitol building in a performance of the “George Washington Bicentennial,” a march written for the 200th anniversary celebration of George Washington’s birth.  In Philadelphia, March 6, 1932, he was to direct a concert.  As he was there, visiting a close friend, James Francis Cooke, he made comments that “suggested that he might have a presentiment of death.  Upon arriving he asked Cooke if he believed in God.  He then complained that much modern music would fail; it lacked inspiration because many foolish composers did not believe in God.  He made declarations of his own beliefs and elaborated on his oft-expressed statement that he composed only with the help of a ‘higher power.’  In the following twenty-four hours he returned to this subject four more times.  Each time he went into greater depth, as though he were making one last effort to clarify his innermost religions convictions.  That evening he died in Cooke’s home.”

Sousa, was known to be “basically a simple, unassuming man with an unbounded optimism…from his earliest years he was exceedingly active, making efficient use of his time.  Each day was judiciously planned, including times of leisure.  He always kept himself physically fit, even when on tour; conducting four to six hours per day was physically exhausting, and he certainly did his share of walking between train stations, concert halls, and hotels.  Morally, Sousa was a man of the highest of ideals.  This was revealingly and succinctly stated by one of his former managers, who observed that Sousa gave the general impression of one trying diligently to be the most honorable man who ever walked on the face of the earth.  Obscenities were repulsive to him.  He would not tell an off-color story and would simply leave the company of those who did.  He often just stared them down.  He disliked profanity…it should be noted that he wore a white uniform on Sunday, while on weekdays he usually wore black.  He sincerely believed that, facilitated by music’s universal appeal, a sermon could be preached with music as well as with words.  He not only believed that his own melodies were divinely inspired but that the ‘unseen helper’ also prepared the way for them by touching the public heart.”

Sousa was a determined man.  “There were countless examples of his making scheduled appearances in spite of sickness and many other personal hardships.  The supreme example of his grim will occurred when he appeared before the public only ten weeks after he had broken his neck in 1921- while leading the public to believe that he had suffered only a broken arm or collarbone.  It was with great pain that he stood erect.  Audiences did not see the perspiration streaming down his face as he conducted, and they were not aware of his state of near exhaustion after leaving the stage.  Yet during this period he was composing some of his liveliest music.”

“Punctuality was another of his virtues.  When a Sousa Band concert was scheduled for eight o’clock, it began promptly at eight o’clock, and when the train pulled out of the station, Sousa had been there waiting for half an hour.”

“The most amazing thing about this relationship (with his band members) was that Sousa never criticized his musicians either publicly or privately.  A musician seldom made the same mistake repeatedly.  If he did, he was often approached by Sousa inconspicuously and in a polite manner.  Sousa would immediately put the errant musician at ease by pleasant small talk and, like a master psychologist, methodically steer the conversation to the man’s own personal problems while making no mention of any dissatisfaction in his playing.  He was paternalistic in these interviews.  Upon determining the source of trouble, he would attempt to offer friendly advice or else give the man a few days off with pay so he could resolve his problems.  This indirect method of correction was highly effective and was much appreciated by the bandsmen…he was more than fair in the matter of salaries and would generally grant increases when personally requested by the bandsmen.  Even when the musicians’ union established minimum scales, Sousa’s salaries would often exceed the scale.”

Sousa’s opinion of music was that “music for entertainment was of more value to the world than music for education.  This concept, which evolved during his early career as a theater musician, led him away from a possible career as a composer or conductor of more serious music.  In 1910 he wrote of his ‘mission in music’: “It seemed to me, in my early life, that the principles of this type of music might be so far elaborated and utilized as to reach the entire world directly and effectively…My theory was, by insensible degrees, first to reach every heart by simple, stirring music; secondly, to lift the unmusical mind to a still higher form of musical art.  This was my mission.  The point was to move all America, while busied in its various pursuits, by the power of direct and simple music.  I wanted to make a music for the people, a music to be grasped at once.”

Sousa had a profound understanding of the classics…He vigorously studied great music all his life…To him, Bach was the greatest of all composers, and he often facetiously remarked that Bach would have thought of him as a lazy apprentice…Strangely, his greatest influence came from two men whom he seldom credited with being a controlling element in his own musical cultivation- Gilbert and Sullivan…It was Sousa’s firm belief that lasting music could come only from inspiration…felt that a composer must lead a contented life.  He once wrote: “The music that becomes valuable in the world’s repertoire is formed by the combination of a man with a power beyond himself…First compositions almost invariably show the influence of tradition or environment.  It is not until the composer feels that his work must be done with no thought of what others have done that he arrives at the fruition of his genius.  Then it will be found that the Unseen Helper not only guides the composer’s mind to a successful effort but prepares the ears of the world for its advent…Somebody helps me and sends me a musical idea, and that Somebody helps the public to lay hold of my meaning.”

Sousa had ‘perfect pitch’ “He could identify notes of the musical scale in any register, at any time.  combined with his ability to mentally re-create a score, this pitch orientation enabled him to compose and arrange with uncanny speed…His combined talents of ‘perfect pitch’ and being able to hear what he saw enabled him to compose without the aid of a piano or any other musical instrument.  Some composers would think this impractical or even impossible, but with Sousa it was a way of life.  A piano was totally unnecessary…Sousa was also aided by an uncommon, but peculiar, power of concentration.  He could compose in nearly any environment- on trains, in hotels, in backstage dressing rooms- but a single note of music in the background would seriously distract him.  He was known to have composed in his study at the Sands Point home with many guests milling around and was undisturbed until someone drifted to the piano of hummed a melody within the range of his hearing.  This broke his concentration.”

As a conductor, he once told a reporter, “Is it not the business of a conductor to convey to the public in its most dramatic form the central idea of a composition?  And how can he convey that idea successfully if he does not enter heart and soul into the life and story of the music?  How, otherwise, can he give the performers...the spirit they require?...what I am endeavoring to do all the time- to make my musicians and myself a one-man band.  Only, instead of having actual metallic wires to work the instruments, I strike the magnetic ones.  I have to work so that I feel every one of my…musicians is linked up with me by a cable of magnetism.”

“Sousa compared the role of a conductor with the role of an orator.  Whereas good orators capture audiences by believing in the parts they are acting, Sousa reasoned that conductors must reinforce their own feelings in order to keep the interest of the audiences.”

In his programming, he combined skill, variety, and showmanship.  “Showmanship was essential to every Sousa program, and the Sousa Band was an aggregation of showmen.  ‘The man who does not exercise showmanship is dead,’ he said many times.”

“It was Sousa’s observation that life was more hurried in the United States than in most other countries.  Being restless, audiences expected more in the way of showmanship.”

He once wrote, “I learned very early in life that if musicians depended upon musicians for their support there would be no musicians.  The support of all art depends entirely upon those who love art for art’s sake, and as music is universal, it becomes necessary to heed the wishes of the masses if one hopes to succeed.  It is not incongruous to me to see a comedy scene immediately following a tragic scene in Shakespeare or any other of the master dramatists, or laughter following tears in the romantic drama.  Therefore, as I have nature and the best examples of men as my champions, I have no hesitation in combining in my program clever comedy with symphonic tragedy, rhythmic march or waltz with sentimental tone pictures.”

“The Sousa Band was totally dependent upon public approval for its survival, and it was something of a miracle in show business for a musical organization of its size to have played to capacity houses for thirty-nine years.  In a single season it presented formal concerts to approximately two million people.  And no other musical organization of its time- or perhaps any other time- under a single conductor, traveled so extensively.  One of Sousa’s ambitions was to travel a million miles with his band, an ambition realized in 1927.”

Travelling with the Sousa band, were well-known soloists on his programs.  Among these were Arthur Pryor, known as the Paganini of the trombone, the legendary euphonium player Simone Mantia, Maud Powel, one of the most distinguished women violinists in America, and vocalists Marcella Lindh, Marjorie Moody, Nora Fauchald, and Estelle Liebling.  “Of the Sousa alumni entering the field of education, a number taught on the university level.  Anton Horner, regarded as America’s top French Horn player during the forty years he was with the Philadelphia Orchestra, was also on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music.”

Conclusion:  I didn’t know much about John Phillip Sousa.  As I read through this book, I became increasingly aware of similarities to my own personal journey.  This was a truly great man who exhibited self-discipline and strong leadership, bringing joy and a spirit of patriotism to his country.  His unassuming reverence for God and his strong moral character provide an excellent example for today’s artist.