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John Philip Sousa (November 6, 1854 – March 6, 1932) was an American composer and conductor of the late Romantic era, known primarily for American military and patriotic marches. Because of his mastery of march composition, he is known as "The March King" or the "American March King" due to his British counterpart Kenneth J. Alford also being known as "The March King". Among his best-known marches are "The Liberty Bell", "The Thunderer", "The Washington Post", "Semper Fidelis" (Official March of the United States Marine Corps), and "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (National March of the United States of America).
Sousa started his music education by playing the violin as a pupil of John Esputa and George Felix Benkert for harmony and musical composition at the age of six. He was found to have absolute pitch. During his childhood, Sousa studied voice, violin, piano, flute, cornet, baritone horn, trombone and alto horn. When Sousa was 13, his father, a trombonist in the Marine Band, enlisted him in the United States Marine Corps as an apprentice to keep him from joining a circus band.
Several years long after serving his apprenticeship, Sousa joined 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 led "The President's Own" band under five presidents from Rutherford B. Hayes to Benjamin Harrison. Sousa's band played at two Inaugural Balls, those of James A. Garfield in 1881, and Benjamin Harrison in 1889. The marching brass bass, or sousaphone, a modified helicon, was created by J. W. Pepper – a Philadelphia instrument maker who created the instrument in 1893 at Sousa’s request using several of his suggestions in its design. He wanted a tuba that could sound upward and over the band whether its player was seated or marching. The sousaphone was re-created in 1898 by C.G. Conn and this was the model that Sousa preferred to use.
He organized The Sousa Band the year he left the Marine Band. The Sousa Band toured from 1892–1931, performing at 15,623 concerts both in America and around the world, including at the World Exposition in Paris, France. In Paris, the Sousa Band marched through the streets to the Arc de Triomphe – one of only eight parades the band marched in over its forty years.
U.S. Marine Corps
Sousa served in the U.S. Marine Corps, first from 1868 to 1875 as an apprentice musician, and then as the head of the Marine Band from 1880 to 1892; he was a Sergeant Major for most of his second period of Marine service.
Following the U. S. declaration of war in 1917 the American composer John Alden Carpenter sent a telegram to his friend John Philip Sousa, America's foremost bandmaster and march composer, inquiring whether he might be willing to help develop the Navy band program at the Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Illinois, about forty miles north of Chicago. In an illustrious musical career that began when, at thirteen years of age, he joined the Marine Corps Band, Sousa was, by the time of the Great War, famous around the world. Sousa was sixty-two years of age in 1917, and had composed an unprecedented number of immensely popular marches. Sousa's resume included twelve years as the Marine Corps bandmaster, and, over the years, leadership of several other bands, for example "The President's Own" for Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison, and the Sousa Band, formed in 1892, which was actively performing when the United States went to war in 1917.
In response to the Navy's need for musical assistance, Sousa traveled to the Great Lakes Naval Station to meet with Captain William Moffett, the base commandant, to discuss a unique United States Navy job description. Moffett offered Sousa a commission as lieutenant in the Navy Reserve, serving as the Great Lakes Naval Station Director of Music. "I won't fail you," Sousa assured Moffett. "I'll join. I'm past sixty-two, but you'll find me a healthy fellow."1 The Navy commission greatly pleased Sousa, as he had regretted not having received a Marine Corps officer's commission in the years he had served as the Marine Corps bandmaster.
Lt. Sousa essentially volunteered his services, donating all but one dollar of his annual salary to the Sailors' and Marines' Relief Fund. Though he was permitted to fulfill his previously booked responsibilities as conductor of his own Sousa Band, he spent most of his time fulfilling his Navy responsibilities, organizing some 1,500 musicians into regimental and fleet bands and an elite 350-member "Bluejacket Band," which went on tours to promote recruitment in the armed forces and to raise money for Liberty Bonds and the Red Cross. Having attended a performance of the Bluejacket Band, President Wilson may have spoken for the nation when he declared it "the greatest demonstration of American spirit that is possible to conceive and certainly . . . the greatest band in the world."Sousa's efforts raised about twenty-one million dollars.
Sousa and the Bluejacket Band were in Toronto, Canada, assisting the Canadian government with its Victory Loan campaign, when the Armistice was announced on November 11, 1918. "Never was there such a night!" Sousa recalled. "Not a soul in the city slept." For Sousa the post-war euphoria was only slightly dampened by a bout with the Spanish Flu and an abscess in his right ear; "but," as he rejoiced, "what were pains and pangs and abscesses to the frantic delight of knowing the war was over?"
American participation in the war inspired Sousa to compose both marches—for example, "Sabre and Spurs," and "Solid Men to the Front"— and songs—for example, "We Are Coming," "When the Boys Come Sailing Home," and "In Flanders Fields the Poppies Grow." Canadian Army doctor Lt. Col. John McCrae, the author of the poem "In Flanders Fields," had sent Sousa a manuscript copy of the poem and an accompanying request that the poem might be set to music. McCrae would never hear the music Sousa created for his poem, dying in Boulogne, France, of pneumonia and meningitis ten months before the war's end. For Sousa, McCrae's request became "a priceless memory" of the war. "I was deeply touched by the beauty of the verses," Sousa recalled, "and I should be happy if the music which I made for them may serve, however slightly, to keep that message sounding in the hearts of all lovers of human liberty." In the two years following the war Sousa composed additional patriotic marches inspired by the war—"Bullets and Bayonets," "Comrades of the Legion," and "Who's Who in Navy Blue."
Sousa was relieved from active duty in January 1919, and promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander thirteen months later.8 Though no longer in the Navy, Sousa continued to conduct his own Sousa Band still proudly wearing his Navy uniform until his death in 1932. The last music he rehearsed with his band remains his most famous, "The Stars and Stripes Forever," which, in 1987, Congress designated "the national march" of the United States.9 Sousa is buried at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D. C.