John Philip Sousa, better known as the ‘March King’ was born in Washington, DC, on the 6 November 1854. He is one of the most famous American bandmasters and composers of military marches from the late Romantic era. He grew up in an environment charged with military band music; not only was he son of a trombone player in the U.S Marine Band and but also grew up at the time of the American Civil War. Sousa is admired because of his successful endeavors that elevated the genre of military band music to its zenith.
He began his musical training at the age of 6, learning violin under the tutelage of John Esputa and harmony and musical composition from George Felix Benkert. As he grew older, his interest in music sparked even more after visiting a circus, his judicious father picked up on Sousa’s intentions and enrolled him in to the Marine Corps Band as an apprentice. Over the years, he sharpened his skills and at the young age of 16 he composed his first march, Salutation. After finishing his apprenticeship, Sousa began playing the violin at theatre orchestras and learnt how to conduct. A few years later in 1880, he assumed the leadership of the US Marine Band, which he went on to keep for the next 12 years. Sousa began composing his own marches that proved to be timeless classics, such as, ‘The Thunderer’, ‘The Washington Post’, ‘The Liberty Bell’ and ‘Semper Fidelis’.
He resigned from his post at the US Marine Band to form his own band, ‘Sousa’s Band’ that brought him fame and phenomenal recognition such as honors from the British and European royal families. Not only was his band proficient in military music but it mastered a branch of Western classical music as well, symphonies. His first operetta, ‘El Capitan’, made its debut in 1896 and was one of his most successful piece of work. Altogether, he wrote 11 comic operas some of which were highly acclaimed such as ‘The Bride Elect’ and ‘The Free Lance’. The band gave Sousa opportunities to go on tours to U.S, Europe and eventually around the world in 1910. However, as the First World War began he gave up his involvement in his band and committed himself to headship of the naval bands. In 1920 he returned to civilian life and reorganized his band.
Sousa’s recognition may largely comprise of his contributions to military band music, but it is not entirely limited to them. After the War, he developed a new passion for rights of musicians and composers. In sight of this vision, he founded The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publisher (ASCAP), which is remembered as one of his most important contributions. Not only this, but the ‘Sousaphone’ is yet another achievement of his that has helped him leave an unforgettable mark upon band music. Furthermore, he also left behind a hefty number of songs, dance pieces, suites and humoresques.
On his way to Reading, PA, John Philip Sousa passed away on March 6, 1932. The last piece that he conducted before his death was ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’, which is one of his monumental and most renowned works especially since it was declared as the official national march of the US. This ultimately highlights the important place that Sousa holds in American society due his talent as a composer and his patriotism. Sousa’s gift to the genre of band music elated it from a medium often dismissed as simple parade music to a medium enriched with exciting structural and rhythmic complexities.