As America prepares to celebrate the Fourth of July with parades, floats, bunting, and marching bands, the music of one composer — and indeed one song he composed — undoubtedly will be played more than any other, from sea to shining sea. The composer is John Philip Sousa and the song, of course, is The Stars and Stripes Forever. For more than 100 years the music of Sousa and the rousing patriotic notes of The Stars and Stripes Forever have been an integral part of America’s celebration of Independence Day.
Appropriately, Sousa was born in Washington, D.C. in 1854. His father played in the U.S. Marine Band, and Sousa seemed to come to music naturally. He became an apprentice musician in the Marine Band at 13, studied musical composition, and wrote music and performed on the violin. In 1880, at the age of 26, he became the conductor of the Marine Band — a band which he molded to his exacting standards and then led to new heights of glory.
As the 1880s progressed Sousa received increasing acclaim for the marches he composed. In 1888, he wrote Semper Fidelis, the official march of the United States Marine Corps. In 1889 he wrote the Washington Post march, which for a time became the most popular song in the United States and Europe. At about the same time the Columbia Phonograph Company selected Sousa and the Marine Band to be one of the first ensembles to make phonographic recordings for sale to the general public. Sousa was so successful he was called “The March King,” just as Johann Strauss, Jr. was called “The Waltz King.” In 1892, Sousa’s friend and manager, David Blakely, convinced him to leave the Marine Band and form his own concert band, which Sousa did to great success.
Blakely also plays an offstage role in Sousa’s composition of The Stars and Stripes Forever. In 1896, while Sousa and his wife were vacationing in Europe, Sousa received word that Blakely had died. Sousa immediately boarded a ship, the S.S. Teutonic, for the voyage back to New York. As he paced the deck of the ship, the rhythm and melody of The Stars and Stripes Forever began to form in his head. In his autobiography, Sousa wrote that he did not transcribe the melody until he reached New York — at which point he wrote it down and it has remained unchanged ever since. Sousa’s band performed the song often until Sousa’s death in 1932, and in 1987 The Stars and Stripes Forever was officially designated by Congress as the National March of the United States.
How to describe the familiar yet stirring strains of The Stars and Stripes Forever, other than to say it makes you want to march? We thrill to the clash of cymbals, the music rising to a crescendo, and above it all the piccolo, sounding like a brightly colored bird darting and diving through a clear blue sky on a warm Independence Day morning. In any case, there is no better way to experience the song than to see it performed by the Marine Band:
Happy Independence Day to all!