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COVER STORY

Boom Time for Sousa

Herein is put Fourth the story of the man behind the music that withstands march of time.

July 02, 1998|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What would the Fourth of July be without hot dogs, fireworks and marches by John Philip Sousa? Everyone knows them, hums along to them and taps their feet to their infectious rhythms. But for many people, Sousa remains only a name.

Few realize that before Gershwin, Copland or Bernstein, it was Sousa who made respectable American music at a time when it was regarded as a poor cousin of European music. And even though Sousa's musical legacy remains incredibly popular, his work is much more sophisticated and well-crafted than most people realize, and he pioneered a now hallowed tradition in jazz music.

The man who never let a band play one of his marches the same way twice deserves to be called great, say historians and band masters.

What did Sousa do? He educated the American public, invented his own concert format and even became wealthy in the process.

Moreover, Sousa's band members schooled generations of children as they went on to head up high school and college music departments across the United States.

Each remained true to his legacy because the grand old man himself, who performed in a tightly buttoned uniform with immaculate white gloves, trim beard and with a gracious manner of conducting, inspired incredible dedication from them. He consistently treated them with dignity and respect.

"He was Mr. Big around the turn of the century," Sousa biographer Paul E. Bierley said. "He was the most popular composer in the world, and the richest too."

Sousa's musical output includes 136 marches, classics such as "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (made the national march by an act of Congress in 1987), "Semper Fidelis" and "The Washington Post," composed to promote an essay contest the newspaper was sponsoring.

He also wrote 15 stage works (his 1885 "El Capitan" was the first American operetta to succeed on Broadway), 70 songs and 332 arrangements and transcriptions. Add to that three novels, an autobiography and more than 100 magazine articles.

His impact on American music cannot be underestimated, Bierley and others said.

"In the 40 years of his band's existence, they played well over 15,000 concerts," Bierley said. "For comparison, ask the Los Angeles Philharmonic how many concerts they've played in 40 years."

The answer: 5,840, according to an orchestra spokeswoman.

*

The man destined to become the embodiment of American music was born to immigrant parents in Washington, D.C., in 1854. His father, John Antonio Sousa, was born in Spain of Portuguese descent; upon moving to the United States, he became a trombonist in the U.S. Marine Band. His mother, Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus, was born in Bavaria.

A precocious, self-confident and determined child, Sousa demonstrated perfect pitch at age 6 when he began studying voice--as well as violin, piano, flute, cornet, trombone, baritone and alto horns. Because of his father, he grew up around military band music at the time of the Civil War.

He led his own band when he was 12; the next oldest member was 27.

At 13, Sousa tried to run away to join a circus band. Instead, his father enlisted him as a boy musician in the Marines, not uncommon in those days. He became and remained a Marine until he was 19, attaining the rank of warrant officer.

After Sousa's discharge in 1875, he began playing violin professionally, touring and eventually directing theater orchestras, conducting Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore" on Broadway that year.

He married Jane van Middlesworth Bellis, an understudy singer he had met during "Pinafore" rehearsals, on Dec. 30, 1879. None of their three children became musicians.

In 1880, he returned to the U.S. Marine Band, this time at its helm, where he presided for a dozen years. But in 1892, promoter David Blakely persuaded him to leave and form a civilian concert band.

Their first concert took place in 1892 in Plainfield, N.J. Over the next 38 years no band was more popular in the United States, playing to sold-out houses. The band was equally popular in its four tours to Europe in the early 1900s.

"His musicians, believe me, would have followed him to the end of the earth," biographer Bierley said. "He treated them with such great respect. He never raised his voice in a rehearsal. If anyone made a mistake, he didn't say anything about it except, 'Let's go over it again.' "

Sousa was less interested in perfection that in getting a particular tone.

"The thing he insisted on more than anything else was a mellow sound from the clarinets," Bierley said. "Once he spent an entire morning on just the clarinet section. He finally got the lead clarinet to play the way he wanted. Then he got the others to play like that. It became a tradition carried on for nearly 40 years."

*

Sousa wrote music whenever he could.

"He composed without the aid of a musical instrument," Bierley said. "He just wrote on paper what he heard in his head. He always carried music paper. If he got an idea, he would write it down and develop it later when he had more time."

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