I just finished reading my first-edition, first-impression copy of John Philip Sousa’s autobiography. It was published in 1928 by Hale, Cushman, and Flint of Boston. Its subtitle is Recollections of Men, Women, and Music. The book itself is in very good shape, for nearly 100 years old. Its paper is a bit fragile and yellowed, but holding up well. The book has many photos of Mr. Sousa, and the places he visited, people he interacted with, and some of the sheet music and scores he composed.
Mr. Sousa was a very engaging writer, and his book is never dull. He was also quite opinionated and had no difficulty telling it like it was! A reader must be careful to remember that Sousa was a product of his times; born and raised in Washington DC, and some of his ideas would not be acceptable today (he was born in 1854 and died in 1932). He was a child during the Civil War, and does remember some of it. Living in DC, he was right in the thick of things, but war never came to his neighborhood. He had an excellent sense of humor, and was able to see the bright side of incidents that might have been uncomfortable to him at the time. Here’s the first paragraph of Marching Along.
Whether pastry and music can be prevailed upon to go hand in hand is a question. Of course there is one classic instance–M. Rageuneau in Cyrano de Bergerac, whose pastry-cooks delighted in presenting him with a lyre of pie crust! The fact remains, however, that I once came very near being a baker instead of a bandmaster.
He continues with his story of a disagreement he had as a child, with his violin teacher, and the situation was pretty funny! That first paragraph also demonstrates that Sousa was a learned, well-read man. His father was Portuguese, and his mother German, and he had a comfortable childhood in DC. His father played trombone in the Marine Band (you didn’t have to enlist in the Marines in those days to play in the band), and got his son an apprenticeship with the band at age 13. John was very precocious and played multiple instruments; he “had pupils” at a very young age.
I thoroughly enjoyed his tales of playing in the Marine Band himself, and other groups before he came to lead the band. After a few years as leader of the Marine Band, Sousa left to get together his own wind band, and he and his band had a very successful career. They literally toured the world, from America to Europe, to Australia and New Zealand, and he always has good stories about the people he met. And through all this, he was continually composing. Sousa composed overtures, suites, operas, songs, waltzes, and, of course, marches. He describes the places and circumstances when he composed his most famous works. In 1896, his band was touring in Italy when he got a telegram from America to the effect that his long-time manager had died. He cut the tour short and headed home. Here is how Sousa describes his process of composing his famous march “Stars and Stripes Forever“:
Here came one of the most vivid incidents of my career. As the vessel steamed out of the harbor I was pacing the deck, absorbed in thoughts of my manager’s death and the many duties and decisions which awaited me in New York. Suddenly, I began to sense the rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain. It kept on ceaselessly, playing, playing, playing. Throughout the whole tense voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and re-echoing the most distinct melody. I did not transfer a note of that music to paper while I was on the steamer, but when we reached shore, I set down the measures that my brain-band had been playing for me, and not a note of it has ever been changed. The composition is known the world over as The Stars and Stripes Forever and is probably my most popular march.
The entire book is endlessly interesting and informative. His descriptions of the people he met and worked with are incisive and many times humorous. The book was out of print for many years, but is now back. I’m not sure whether it can be found at bookstores, but I found many listings on AbeBooks. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants a good read, with a lot of great history. Sousa’s bands played for at least eight presidents, and he has good stories of all except one. Sorry, you’ll have to read the book to find out which one it was.
One more thing, not about the book. I read the Wikipedia entry about Sousa, and it’s well done. It seems that there is a person today named John Philip Sousa IV, and he is described as a “Republican activist.” Discerning tastes seem to run in the family!
[originally posted at Ricochet.com, now on the Main Feed]