Herald and Journal Herald & Journal, June 8, 1998

It's an American experience


It's almost like a national anthem.

It's the John Phillip Sousa march, "Stars and Stripes Forever." Whenever it's played listeners have a tendency to stand up, clap their hands to the beat and march. No other patriotic song has such an effect on people.

John Phillip Sousa was born in Washington, D.C. In 1880, at the age of 25, he became the conductor of the United States Marine Band. Under his direction, it became one of the best military bands in the world.

In 1892, he formed his own touring band. Wearing new white gloves for every performance and a uniform with 35 yards of braid, Sousa and his very successful band entertained in America and abroad for almost 40 years.

Along the way, he composed other marches and invented a tuba-like instrument called the sousaphone which is still used today in marching bands. He also wrote instruction books, an autobiography and three novels.

The inspiration for "Stars and Stripes Forever" came in 1896 while he was vacationing in Europe. He was homesick and thought wistfully about Washington, D.C., and pictured the flag flying over the White House.

"To my imagination, it seemed to be the grandest flag in the world, and I could not get back under it quick enough."

Sailing home, Sousa had an experience that he described in his autobiography, "Marching Along,"

"As the vessel steamed out of the harbor, I was pacing the deck, absorbed in thought. Suddenly, I began to sense the rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain. Throughout the voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and re-echoing the most distinct melody. When we reached shore, I set down the measures, and not a note of it has ever changed."

Sousa said that the three themes of the march were intended to represent different parts of the United States. The main melody, full of contrasts, was the North. The South was the lilting piccolo obligato, and the West, the soaring trombone counter melody.

When the Sousa band performed the march, his piccolo and brass sections typically lined up across the front of the stage for the grand finale, playing directly to the audience for a rousing finish.

The march is such a part of the American experience that Congress, in November 1987, easily passed a bill making "Stars and Stripes Forever" America's national march. Fittingly, "Stars and Stripes Forever" was the last composition played under Sousa's baton before he died in 1932. A fragment of his march is inscribed on his tombstone.

Harold C. Schonberg, music critic for the New York Times, said in 1978, "There are those who will say, not cracking a smile, that the "Stars and Stripes Forever" is the greatest piece of music ever written by an American composer."

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