The United States Marine Band is the oldest professional musical organization in the country. John Philip Sousa, its most famous leader, elevated it from a town band in Washington D.C. to a national touring band.
In exploring Sousa’s accomplishments, it is necessary to describe the history of the Marine Band. As it turns out, the band would not have needed a leader of Sousa’s qualifications without the previous efforts of another remarkable musician, Francis Scala.
The Marine Band was established by at Act of Congress in 1798 to provide music for the President and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. The Act authorized “a drum major, a fife major, and thirty-two drums and fifes,” but the Commandant at the time recruited performers on other instruments to make a true military band rather than a simple fife and drum corps.
The early years of the Marine Band
The capital moved from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800, and the first documented Marine Band concert took place on August 21 of that year. No record exists of the instrumentation, but later that month, the Commandant issued an order to procure instruments and that they be selected by someone competent to judge them.
By December 1800, the band owned two oboes, two clarinets, two French horns, one bassoon, and a drum. With another bassoon, this instrumentation would have constituted the standard European military band of the time. Although the band had a drum, it took several months more before it could obtain a bass drum.
The band’s official debut took place for a reception given by John Adams at the unfinished Executive Mansion on New Year’s Day in 1801. In March of the same year, it performed for the inauguration of President Thomas Jefferson and has performed at every inauguration since then. Jefferson, one of the most musical of American Presidents, gave the band the title “The President’s Own.” It performed both official and social music during his administration.
The band performed at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal at Georgetown on July 4, 1828 and saluted the entrance of President John Quincy Adams with a performance of “Hail to the Chief.” It marked the first use of this piece to announce the presence of a President. Regular public concerts on the Capitol grounds began on January 7, 1845, on orders of John Tyler.
Francis Scala joins the Marine Band
Italian-born Francis Scala, the best musician before Sousa to lead the band, served in that capacity from 1855 to 1871. He learned music in his native Naples and enlisted in the American navy, even though he did not yet speak English. Within a month of service on the Brandywine, he was appointed the leader of the band, but he hated life at sea. When the Brandywine reached Norfolk, Scala secured his discharge, vowing never again to go near salt water.
Traveling to Washington, he joined the Marine Band in 1842. He later noted, “It was a small reed affair then. We had one flute, one clarionette, one French horn, two trombones, one bugle, one bass drum, and one cymbal player. The nations represented in the band’s makeup were America, England, Germany, Spain, and Italy.” The authorizing Act of Congress had not been updated, so all these men were enlisted as fifers and drummers.
Up to that time, the band’s leadership had been divided between a Fife Major and a Drum Major, with the Drum Major considered the chief leader. Scala became Fife Major in 1854. Upon the retirement of Drum Major Rafael Triay in 1855, Scala was designated Leader of the Band, the first person to hold that title. An Act of Congress in 1861 made the title official.
Scala builds a real wind band
During his tenure, Scala increased the size of the band to about 35 members. Most bands of the time had an exclusively, or almost exclusively brass and percussion instrumentation. Scala established a balanced woodwind/brass band. It turned out to be the wave of the future. Scala led the Marine Band throughout the Civil War, known as the most musical of all wars.
In addition to his skill in leading the band, Scala was a prolific arranger and composer. He composed marches and dance pieces and arranged numerous pieces from the Italian operatic repertoire. His son donated a collection of more than 600 titles to the Library of Congress. Although it is not in his collection, Scala also performed at least one piece by Wagner with the band.
John Philip Sousa’s first years as a member of the Marine Band coincided with the last years of Scala who retired (or was dismissed, sources are unclear) in 1871. German-born Henry Fries became the next Leader of the Band but lasted only two years. Composer Louis Schneider served as Leader from 1873 to 1880 and led the band at an engagement at the Centennial Exposition (Philadelphia, 1876).
John Philip Sousa, early years
Sousa, the eldest son of a trombonist in the U.S. Marine Band, grew up in Washington, D.C. He proved exceptionally gifted in music, so his parents arranged for him to take piano and violin lessons from John Esputa.
A circus bandmaster heard Sousa play when he was 13 (in 1868) and offered him a job. Sousa planned to run away to take the job and write to his parents later. He told a friend, who told his mother of his plan. The next day, his father took him to Marine headquarters and signed him up for the Marine Band’s apprentice program. Sousa knew that if he left without permission, he would be guilty of desertion.
With the circus out of the picture, Sousa thrived in the program. He learned to play most of the band instruments and also took voice lessons. He had enough time off from the band and his lessons to play violin in various local theater and concert orchestras. In addition, he studied music theory and composition with George Felix Benkert. When he was 20, he took his discharge from the Marines and divided his time between orchestras in Washington and Philadelphia. By that time, he had started to compose and had published some songs and piano pieces.
In 1878 in Philadelphia, he played under the baton of guest conductor Jacques Offenbach. Under Offenbach’s inspiration, he started writing operettas. He also started conducting, performing his own arrangement of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. Other Gilbert and Sullivan arrangements soon followed.
Sousa becomes leader of the Marine Band
The position of leader of the Marine Band became open in 1880 upon the dismissal of Louis Schneider. Sousa was in St. Louis, conducting a play for which he had composed incidental music. He received a telegram offering the leadership to him. Then a newlywed, Sousa may have seen the post as more stable employment than theater work, and he may have been influenced by fond memories of his previous time with the band.
Sousa accepted the offer and took over the band on October 1, 1880. He was the band’s first American-born leader, and, at 25, the youngest. He grew a full beard to make himself look older. But his experience justified the invitation. He was the most well-rounded musician up until that time to lead the Marine band.
In his autobiography, Sousa recalled that the band’s repertoire was “limited, antiquated, and a good deal of it poorly arranged and badly copied.” It included “not a sheet of Wagner, Berlioz, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, or any other of the modern composers who were attracting attention throughout the musical world.” He soon set about to remedy that situation by replacing most of the band’s repertoire with classical transcriptions.
He also insisted on raising the band’s standard of performance. His rehearsals were stricter than the band had known before. He also increased the number of performances. Some of the older members resisted his innovations, which interfered with better paying outside work. Eventually, though, he replaced them with younger and better musicians. In the process, he revamped the band’s instrumentation.
The Marine Band and the President
Since the Marine Band is the “President’s Own,” Marine Band leaders must have a close relationship with the Presidents they serve. Sousa served Presidents Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison. On at least one occasion, a President’s request proved awkward for Sousa.
I think I may say that more than one President, relieved from the onerous duties of a great reception, has found rest by sitting quietly in the corner of a convenient room and listening to the music.
Once, on the occasion of a state dinner, President Arthur came to the door of the main lobby of the White House, where the Marine Band was always stationed, and beckoning me to his side asked me to play the “Cachuca.” When I explained that we did not have the music with us but would be glad to include it in the next programme, the President looked surprised and remarked:
“Why, Sousa, I thought you could play anything. I’m sure you can; now give us the ‘Cachuca.'”
This placed me in a predicament, as I did not wish the President to believe that the band was not at all times able to respond to his wishes. Fortunately, one of the bandmen remembered the melody and played it over softly to me on his cornet in a corner. I hastily wrote out several parts for the leading instruments, and told the rest of the band to vamp in the key of E flat. Then we played the “Cachuca” to the entire satisfaction of Mr. Arthur, who came again to the door and said: “There, I knew you could play it.”
The Marine Band gains a national reputation under Sousa
As the band became better and better, it was still nothing more than a town band. It began to acquire an excellent reputation, though. Sousa’s own compositions contributed to it. He received his first acclaim in 1886 with his march “The Gladiator.” Other notable marches composed during his time with the Marine Band include “Semper Fidelis” (1888) and “Washington Post” (1889). By that time, Sousa marches were known and respected internationally. A British journalist suggested that if Johann Strauss, Jr. was the “Waltz King,” Sousa should be known as the “March King.” The name stuck. While Sousa led the Marine Band, he sold his marches to the Philadelphia publisher Harry Coleman for $35 and no future royalties.
Thomas Edison introduced the phonograph to the public in 1877 and established a company to sell records. A competitor, the Columbia Phonograph Company, entered a contract with the Marine Band. Under Sousa’s direction, the Marine Band became one of history’s first recording stars after Columbia released 60 cylinders in the fall of 1890. And, of course, Sousa’s marches became some of the first hit records.
Despite the Marine Band’s growing reputation, it rarely played in other towns, although the exceptions did include at least one concert in Philadelphia and an appearance at the Centennial Celebration of the Ratification of the Constitution of the United States” in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Sousa gets permission for Marine Band tours
Sousa frequently requested permission to take the band on tour, but his superiors routinely refused. Finally, in 1891, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the foremost opponent of touring, went on sick leave. Sousa submitted his request again. Instead of immediately denying it, the Acting Commandant passed it up the chain of command until it finally reached President Benjamin Harrison. Sousa first spoke to Mrs. Harrison, who prevailed upon the President to permit a tour.
Sousa asked Patrick Gilmore’s business manager, David Blakely, to organize a tour. On short notice, Blakely managed to organize 45 concerts in 35 midwestern cities in the spring of 1892. In at least one printed program, Blakely included the following announcement:
The President and Secretary of the Navy have consented to give a leave of absence to the band for a brief tour, in response to many pressing requests, and because they recognize the fact that the people throughout the country should have the opportunity to listen to the band which is maintained by their pleasure and at their expense.
/Pleased with the tour’s success, Sousa and Blakely planned another, which took the band as far as San Francisco. After 73 concerts in 39 cities (including seven in Chicago and six in San Francisco), the band had a nationwide reputation for excellence.
Sousa’s resignation from the Marine Band
That tour started the end of Sousa’s career with the Marine Band, though. Blakely invited him to form a touring civilian band on the model of Gilmore’s band. Sousa sought and received an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps effective July 30, 1892. At his farewell concert on the White House Lawn, members of the band presented him with an engraved baton. His daughters returned it to the Marine Band in 1953. Since then, it has been passed on to each new director of the band.
Although he moved on professionally, he did not end his association with the Marine Band. He led it in a performance of his “Hands Across the Sea” shortly before his death in 1932.
The experiences of a bandmaster / John Philip Sousa via Project Gutenberg
John Philip Sousa / U.S. Marine Band
John Philp Sousa / Marine Corps University
Opera at the bandstand / George W. Martin (Scarecrow Press, 2014)
The President’s Own / John R. Bourgeois © 2012-2021