The music of John Philip Sousa encompassed a range of inventive suites, operettas and songs written for both orchestral and band performance. His marches attracted widespread acclaim, remaining his most famous compositions. Sousa's contribution to the musical field in the US embodied the musical landscape of America at the turn of the century.
Sousa was born in 1854 and raised in Washington. It was clear at an early age that he followed in the footsteps of his father, a trombonist in the US Marine Corp Band. Growing up during the latter half of the 19th century, the American Civil War coincided with his early school days. By age 11, John Philip Sousa had organized his own "quadrille orchestra" with seven men. The group quickly became a popular local dance orchestra. Shortly thereafter, the avid young violinist began taking lessons from the famous George Felix Benkert, who was classically trained in Vienna.
Sousa was encouraged under Benkert's tutelage to develop sophisticated musical skills in composition, orchestration, counterpoint and harmony. A short time later, young John Philip Sousa first performed with the Washington Orchestral Union. At a mere19 years of age, Sousa was already raised to the level of orchestral leader. He was also a violinist with Ford's Theatre Orchestra and the Washington Theatre Comique.
By the age of 21, John Philip Sousa had toured the Midwest with the Noble acting troupe, taking on the role of concertmaster. Following the tour, he joined the first violin section in the 1876 Centennial Exposition Orchestra where he performed under esteemed guest conductor Jacques Offenbach. Sousa then remained in Philadelphia for the next 3 years, working as the orchestral leader in various theatres. In 1878, he was asked to provide the orchestration for Gilbert and Sullivan's "Sorcerer." It was no surprise to those following Sousa's extraordinary success that he composed "Katherine," his first operetta, just a year later.
In 1879, John Philip Sousa was selected to prepare the orchestrations for the US premier of "HMS Pinafore." He conducted the orchestra at the operetta's Broadway premiere. Shortly after the premiere, at only 25 years of age, Sousa was named the new director of the United States Marine Band in his hometown of Washington. Holding this post for 52 years, it was inevitable that Sousa was closely linked with band music.
The compositions that John Philip Sousa wrote in his position as the band master were indicative of the strong theatrical influence that had been present in his early career. Indeed, Sousa composed no less than 15 operettas during his lifetime. He wanted to be recognized as an American equivalent to Gilbert and Sullivan. When "El Capitan" was presented in 1895, he became the first musical composer from the US to achieve significant success on Broadway.
As a bandmaster, John Philip Sousa's musical works and the choice of programs he presented strongly reflected his theatrical beginnings. There were many operetta themes and influences within the band performances that he directed and arranged.
Sousa consistently displayed a strong understanding of popular music and developed his own distinctive symphonic sound. The hallmark of John Philip Sousa's musical arrangements was his unique presentation of classical and orchestral treatments of popular music. This in turn saw a number of musical arrangements that aimed to combine traditional American music with excerpts of operetta and classical music. The most famous of Sousa's marches include "The Stars and Stripes," "Forever," "El Capitan," "Washington Post" and "Semper Fidelis."
Throughout the many years that John Philip Sousa toured the world as the director of the US Marine Corp Band, he championed all that was unique in American music. During a tour in 1900, Sousa introduced ragtime to the great composers of Europe. In the wake of his tour, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky built their own interpretations of ragtime music into some of their work.
John Philip Sousa remains a wonderful example of an extraordinary American musician. Through prolific composition in both band music and operettas, Sousa created a defining expression of American music in the latter half of the 19th century.
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