Sunday, February 21, 2010

United States Marine Corps

Sousa said a march should make a man with a wooden leg step out, and his surely did. However, he was no mere maker of marches, but an exceptionally inventive composer of over two hundred works, including symphonic poems, suites, songs and operettas created for both orchestra and for band. John Philip Sousa personified the innocent energy of turn-of-the-century America and he represented America across the globe. His American tours first brought classical music to hundreds of towns. While Sousa’s fame as a bandmaster needs little comment, far less is known about his formative years as an orchestral composer, conductor and violinist.

Born in Washington DC on 6 November, 1854, Sousa developed with startling quickness. Fame was no accident. Sousa’s father was a trombonist with the United States Marine Band. By the age of six, his musical talent had become apparent and he was enrolled for a year of solfeggio with a local Italian teacher. The boy was found to have absolute pitch, and thus deemed sufficiently gifted to begin basic training in harmony and the study of the violin. These early school days coincided with the great events of the American Civil War, then swirling around the Washington area.

By the age of eleven Sousa organized and led his own ‘quadrille orchestra’. The rest of his orchestra consisted of seven grown men and quickly became a popular dance orchestra in the Washington area. The following year, 1866, he changed music teachers, beginning studies with George Felix Benkert, who had trained in Vienna with the famed theorist Simon Sechter, with whom Schubert planned lessons and whose most famous student was to be Anton Bruckner. Benkert greatly encouraged the young Sousa, allowing him the sort of sophisticated training in composition, harmony, counterpoint and orchestration in Washington that was generally presumed available only in Europe. At the same time, Sousa played first violin for Benkert’s Washington Orchestral Union, as well as performing for regular Tuesday evening string quartet concerts at the home of the Assistant Secretary of State William Hunter. Hunter was an avid classical musical devotee, and for these sessions he imported numerous scores from Europe. He warmly fostered Sousa’s career and was to provide him an invaluable entrйe into Washington’s official community.

At the age of nineteen, Sousa was already an active violinist in theatre orchestras, including Ford’s Theatre and the Washington Theatre Comique (vaudeville). Soon his great talent, extensive training and natural leadership attracted notice, and he assumed duties as an orchestral leader. Since these responsibilities often required the preparation of special materials, he augmented the theatrical productions with numerous incidental pieces and arrangements.

In 1875 Sousa left Washington, touring the Middle-West for a season as the concertmaster and leader for Noble’s acting troupe. He arrived in Philadelphia just as the 1876 Centennial Exposition was beginning. Now 21 years of age, he promptly landed a job in the first violin section of the official centennial orchestra playing for guest conductor Jacques Offenbach. After the Exposition, he remained in Philadelphia for the next three seasons, leading various theatre orchestras. In 1878 he was asked to provide orchestrations for an American performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Sorcerer. The following year, he composed his first operetta Katherine, and prepared the orchestrations for he American Introduction of HMS Pinafore. Pinafore received its Broadway premiиre with John Philip Sousa conducting. The same year, at the age of 25, he was chosen to become Director of the United States Marine Band in Washington. He began leading the Marine Band in January 1880, beginning a fabled 52 year career as a bandmaster.

Despite his success with bands, Sousa never gave up his fascination with the musical theatre. It was his goal to become an American version of Gilbert and Sullivan combined. In all he composed fifteen operettas. His El Capitan of 1895 is believed to have been the first musical by an American composer to enjoy a successful run on Broadway. In many ways, Sousa’s compositions were the equal of Sullivan’s music, but his lyrics sadly never matched the inspirations of Gilbert’s, nor did his attempts at collaboration ever produce a truly worthy librettist. By the turn of the century, his popularity on Broadway began to be eclipsed by the musicals of Victor Herbert, and later by those of Berlin, Kern and Gershwin. Sousa, the classicist was caught in the on-rush of the romantic era. Today, happily for us, the classicist has left a legacy of enduring classics.

Sousa’s associations with the theatre music of Gilbert and Sullivan and with Offenbach had became central to his musical thought. Like these European masters, he fluently composed in the light music and dance styles of his day, using existing classical frameworks. Mozart, however, was Sousa’s ideal composer. His biographer Paul Bierley notes that Sousa’s personal scores of Mozart’s operas had obviously been read and re-read for pleasure. Mozart’s opera scoring techniques are wonderfully evident in Sousa’s orchestrations.

From 1880 Sousa’s career was dominated by his association with military bands. In other circumstances he might have found a place in the theatre, with which he was associated after his discharge in 1874 from the Marine Band at the age of twenty. He had enlisted as a boy of thirteen and returned as a conductor of the United States Marine Band in 1880, continuing there until 1892, when he left to set up his own band, under his own name. With Sousa’s Band he won an international reputation, with regular tours throughout the United States and visits to Europe. His band came to an end in 1931 and he died the following year.

Many aspects of Sousa’s life as a bandmaster reflected his experiences in the musical theatre. His ‘potpourri’ style of programming was based on the same structural ideas that make a successful theatrical production. Superb programming was a hallmark of his phenomenally successful forty years of band touring. Many themes from his operettas found their way into his great marches and concert music. His early days in the theatre also developed his unerring instinct for popular taste. His band mimicked the sound of a symphony orchestra, and no finer band that Sousa’s was ever heard. Sousa modified the existing military band by decreasing the brass and increasing its woodwinds, and by adding a harp to create a truly symphonic sound.

Gleaned also from the musical theatre was his musical salesmanship. Sousa pleasingly packaged classical standards and orchestral treatments of popular fare, establishing a standard style reflected today in the pops concerts of American symphony orchestras. Sousa never spoke at his concerts, preferring non-stop music that spoke for itself. His band played Parsifal excerpts ten years before it was introduced at the Metropolitan Opera, yet combined it with such fare as Turkey In The Straw, ultimately doing more to champion good music than any other American orchestra of the era. Throughout his career, much of Sousa’s output was created simultaneously for theatre orchestra as well as for band, including such marches as The Stars and Stripes Forever, El Capitan, Washington Post, and Semper Fidells, universally acknowledged as the best of their genre.

Sousa astounded Europe by introducing ragtime on his 1900 tour, touching off a fascination with American music which influenced such composers as Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Grainger and Milhaud. The principal commodity Sousa sold however, was pride in America and American music. In the quarter century before radio, improved electronic records, and finally, the miracle of talking pictures. Sousa and his Band and Sousa and his music, was America’s greatest musical attraction.