Portrait of John Philip Sousa taken in 1900
John Philip Sousa (November 6, 1854 – March 6, 1932), popularly known as "The March King", was an American composer and conductor of the late Romantic era known particularly for American military marches.
Sousa and the Marine Corps Band, 1893
John was born in Washington, D.C., to John António de Sousa and Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus. His parents were of Portuguese and Bavarian (German) descent. John first learned the violin beginning at age 6. He was found to have absolute pitch. When John reached the age of 13, his father, a trombonist in the Marine Band, enlisted his son in the United States Marine Corps as an apprentice. The boy soon attempted to run away and join a circus. John served his apprenticeship for seven years, until 1875, and apparently learned to play all the wind instruments while honing his mettle with the violin.
Several years later, John left his apprenticeship to join a theatrical (pit) orchestra where he learned to conduct. He returned to the U.S. Marine Band as its head in 1880, and remained as its conductor until 1892. Sousa also led the marching band of Gonzaga College High School.
Sousa organized his own band in 1892. It toured widely, and in 1900, represented the United States at the Paris Exposition before touring Europe. Sousa repeatedly refused to conduct on the radio, fearing a lack of personal contact with the audience. He was finally persuaded to do so in 1929 and became a smash hit.
He wrote well over 100 marches; some of his most popular are:
- "Semper Fidelis" (1888) (Official March of the United States Marine Corps)
- "The Washington Post March" (1889)
- "The Thunderer" (1889)
- "The Liberty Bell" (1893) (credits theme for Monty Python's Flying Circus)
- "Manhattan Beach March" (1893)
- "King Cotton" (1892)
- "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (1896) (National March of the United States)
- "El Capitan" (1896)
- "Hands Across the Sea" (dedicated to the band of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets - the Highty Tighties)(1899)
- "Fairest of the Fair" (1908)
- "U.S. Field Artillery" (1917)
- "The Gallant Seventh" (1922)
- "The Black Horse Troop" (1924)
- "Marquette University March" (1924) (Only song ever written for a university)
- "Processional (Wedding March)"
The marching brass bass, or sousaphone, is named after him.
- The Queen of Hearts (1885), also known as Royalty and Roguery
- The Smugglers (1882)
- Desiree (1883)
- El Capitan (1895)
- The Bride Elect (1897), libretto by Sousa.
- The Charlatan (1898), also known as The Mystical Miss, lyrics by Sousa.
- Chris and the Wonderful Lamp (1899)
- The Free Lance (1905)
- The American Maid (1909), also known as The Glass Blowers.
These operetta which Gervase Hughes calls "notable" (1) also show a variety of French, Viennese and British influences. (In his younger days, Sousa made an orchestration of HMS Pinafore and played the first violin on the American tour of Jacques Offenbach.) The music of these operettas is light and cheerful. The Glass Blowers and Desirée have had revivals, the latter having been released on CD like El Capitan, the best known of them. El Capitan has been in production somewhere in the world ever since it was written and makes fun of false heroes. Still more outspoken against militarism is The Free Lance, the story of two kingdoms becoming united, which found its way to Germany (as "Der Feldhauptmann") by the time the Berlin Wall came down.
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 The Mikado march, the elegant overture of Our Flirtations, a number of musical suites, etc.
(1) Gervase Hughes,Composers of Operetta, New York, 1962
Sousa the Freemason
One year after the 1882 Transit of Venus, Sousa was commissioned to compose a processional for the unveiling of a bronze statue of American physicist Joseph Henry, who had died in 1878. Henry, who had developed the first electric motor, was also the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
A Freemason, Sousa was fascinated by what the group considered mystical qualities in otherwise natural phenomena. According to Sten Odenwald of the NASA IMAGE Science Center, this played a significant role in the selection of the time and date of the performance, April 19, 1883, at 4:00 P.M. Dr. Odenwald points out that Venus and Mars, invisible to the participants, were setting in the west. At the same time, the moon, Uranus, and Virgo were rising in the east, Saturn had crossed the meridian, and Jupiter was directly overhead. According to Masonic lore, Venus was associated with the element copper, and Joseph Henry had used large quantities of copper to build his electric motors.
The "Transit of Venus March" never caught on during Sousa's lifetime. It went unplayed for more than 100 years, after Sousa's copies of the music were destroyed in a flood. As reported in The Washington Post, Library of Congress employee Loras Schissel recently found copies of the old sheet music for Venus "languishing in the library's files." The piece was resurrected recently, in time for the 2004 Transit.
Sousa also composed a march, "Nobles of the Mystic Shrine", dedicated to the high degree freemasonry Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.
Other writing, skills, and interests
Sousa exhibited many talents aside from music. He wrote five novels and a full length autobiography, Marching Along, as well as a great number of articles and letters-to-the-editor on a variety of subjects. As a trapshooter, he ranks as one of the all-time greats, and his skill as a horseman met championship criteria.
In his 1902 novel The Fifth String a young violinist makes a deal with the Devil for a magic violin with five strings. The strings can excite the emotions of Pity, Hope, Love and Joy- the 5th string is Death and can be played only once before causing the player's own death. He has a brilliant career but cannot win the love of the woman he desires. At a final concert he plays upon the death string.
In 1920 he wrote another work called The Transit of Venus, a 40,000-word story. It is about a group of misogynists called the Alimony Club who, as a way of temporarily escaping the society of women, embark on a sea voyage to observe the transit of Venus. The captain's niece, however, has stowed away on board and soon wins over the men. 
Sousa held a very low opinion of the emerging and upstart recording industry. In a submission to a congressional hearing in 1906, he argued that:
- 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.
Law professor Lawrence Lessig cited this passage to argue that in creating a system of copyrights in which control of music is in the hands of recording studios, Sousa was essentially correct.
Sousa's antipathy to recording was such that he refused to conduct his band if it was being recorded. Every recording of the Sousa band made before 1929 was made under Arthur Pryor's baton.