Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thoughts on John Philip Sousa

I'll be conducting the Mat-Su School District High School Honor Band this early evening - 6:00 pm - at Wasilla High School.  I spent much of Thursday and Friday rehearsing the 45 young musicians in the band.  What a treat!  Their renditions come close to perfect in the four compositions we're going to perform:
The Free Lance by John Philip Sousa
A Yorkshire Ballad by James Barnes
A Night in the Tropics by Louis Moreau Gottschalk
Pageant by Vincent Persichetti
The march that will open the program is one of John Philip Sousa's little-known gems. The Free Lance was the eighth of Sousa's nine completed operettas.  He completed the fairly unsuccessful stage work in 1905, and soon afterward re-orchestrated the march for band. I posted a youtube here earlier in the week of the Italian Army band performing it. 

Sousa is known mostly for the dozen or so of his most famous marches that are constantly being played somewhere or another, all around the planet.  There have been recent efforts, most notably by Naxos, to record excellent performances of all his marches, plus other concert works, and selections from his operettas.

Sousa, though known mostly for wind music, was initially employed professionally as a violinist.  He toured the USA in the 1880s with French operetta composer Jacques Offenbach's orchestra, as first violinist.

He also dabbled in the arts outside of music.  He wrote three novels, one of which championed women's rights over a decade before American women had the right to vote.

He was a critic of what recorded music and the recording industry might do to change aspects of American musical life:
These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a 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.
One might take from this quote that Sousa was an advocate of Darwin at a time when Darwin's ideas were being challenged in much of America.

Sousa was also an ardent shooter:
As a trapshooter, he ranks as one of the all-time greats, and he is enshrined in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame.  He even organized the first national trapshooting organization, a forerunner to today's Amateur Trapshooting Association. Sousa remained active in the fledgling ATA for some time after its formation. Some credit Sousa as the father of organized trapshooting in America. Sousa also wrote numerous articles about trapshooting.
He served in the American military three times, first as a bandsman in the USMC Band, then as its leader.  He served much later, in the U.S. Navy during World War I, as the leader of the Navy Band.  By that time he had become quite wealthy from royalties on his works, and "donated his entire naval salary minus one dollar a year to the Sailors' and Marines' Relief Fund."

Here is a recording of Sousa in 1905, the same year he wrote The Free Lance, directing his own band in a performance of Strauss' On the Beautiful Blue Danube:

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