Before television, movies, radio, or sound recordings, people either had to learn to play musical instruments or attend concerts to experience music. Wind bands provided the majority of concerts. In the golden age of American wind bands, none was as successful and well known as Sousa’s Band.
John Philip Sousa gained the experience and reputation needed to start a successful touring band as leader of the U.S. Marine Corps Band, America’s oldest professional musical ensemble. Before Sousa, it functioned as little more than Washington, DC’s town band. In his twelve years of service, Sousa transformed it to a nationally recognized band.
Under his leadership, the Marine Band started recording for the Columbia Record company. Sousa’s marches became some of the earliest hit records.
After years of trying, Sousa obtained permission to take it on tour. He hired David Blaikley, the former manager of the Gilmore Band, to organize the first tour throughout the Midwest. Its success encouraged a second tour that took the band as far as San Francisco. The success of that tour directly led to the end of Sousa’s leadership of the Marine Band and the formation of Sousa’s Band.
The beginnings of the Sousa Band
Blaikley asked Sousa to resign from the Marine Corps to start a civilian touring band. Sousa earned $1,500 a year with the Marine Band, plus some side earnings from the sale of his marches. Blaikley offered $6,000 plus a percentage of the profits of band tours.
At the time Patrick Gilmore led the best-known touring band. Even he needed to maintain a military connection with New York’s 22nd Regiment. No one had ever attempted what Blaikley proposed, but he had done his homework and finally persuaded Sousa establish a new civilian band.
At first, Blaikley called it Sousa’s New Marine Band, but since it had no connection with the marines, he changed it to Sousa’s Grand Concert Band. Today, it is commonly referred to as Sousa’s Band or the Sousa Band. Programs and souvenirs generally have “Sousa and His Band.”
The contract required Sousa “to make this band equal in executive ability to the band of the Garde Républicaine in Paris.” In other words, Blaikley expected Sousa to build a band that would equal the best wind band in the world. To that end, he had to “make programmes, which, while embodying a good class of music, shall be popular and pleasing, and have regard to business success.”
The plan all along was to create a band that only gave concerts. The March King created a band that, in its 39-year history, only marched eight times.
Sousa was certainly up to the task musically. He knew little about business. For one thing, he had been selling his marches to the music publisher Harry Coleman in Philadelphia, who paid him $35 and no royalties.
Blaikley introduced him to John Church of Cincinnati, who did pay royalties. One of the first of Sousa’s marches published by Church, “The Liberty Bell” (1893), earned him $40,000 in royalties by the end of the century. “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1896) reportedly earned him $300,000 over his lifetime.
One of Blaikley’s assistants rejected all of the photographs Sousa submitted for publicity and gave him detailed instructions for what to require of the photographer for new ones. Also, the business success of the band would depend on Sousa’s personal popularity. His military background had encouraged a certain sternness that would not go over with paying audiences.
Fortunately, Patrick Gilmore proved a great role model for how to operate a band and connect with the general public.
Gilmore’s influence on American bands—and Sousa
Gilmore became a band leader in Massachusetts. During the Civil War, the entire band enlisted as the band of the 24th Massachusetts Regiment. Later, he took charged of music in occupied Louisiana. There, Gilmore presented a “monster concert” with a band of 500 players, plus additional drums and bugles, a children’s chorus of 5,000, plus cannons and cathedral bells.
Back in Massachusetts, he mounted two even bigger monster concerts. The public may have expected him to continue with such gaudy spectacles in other cities. Instead, he took over leadership of New York’s 22nd Regiment Band in 1873, intending to make it as good as that of the Garde Républicaine. Unofficially, it became known as the Gilmore Band.
Gilmore assembled a larger band than any of his rivals (101 members), with a higher percentage of woodwind instruments. He toured frequently, including a European tour in 1878. The tours barely made expenses, but they kept the band together and well-rehearsed during the spring, slack months for bands in New York.
Both on tour and at home in New York, the Gilmore Band played almost daily concerts. Gilmore had a flare for publicity almost the equal of P.T. Barnum. He did not indulge in the kind of ostentatious showmanship Jullien made famous in his 1853 American tour On the other hand, he was never stiff and formal. His way of interacting with his audiences gave him a great personal popularity.
Before Gilmore, band repertoire consisted largely of marches, quadrilles, dance music, and medleys. Gilmore introduced transcriptions of orchestral and operatic masterpieces from Mozart to Wagner. In introducing the latest works of European master composers, Gilmore acted as an educator, but he made no attempt to “elevate” public taste. He saw himself primarily as an entertainer.
Sousa’s Band at the World’s Columbian Exposition
Gilmore had intended to use the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago 1893) as an opportunity for another large-scale jubilee. HIs expensive plans caused Blaikley to break with him. Otherwise, in no way did Sousa and Blaikley reject any part of Gilmore’s example. They continued the woodwind-dominated instrumentation, the mix of repertoire, the large number of concerts, the combination of residency and tours, and the close relationship with audiences.
Sousa’s Band gave its first concert in Plainfield, New Jersey on September 26, 1892. He may have envisioned a rivalry with Gilmore, but Gilmore had died two days earlier. The first piece Sousa’s Band played on its first concert was Gilmore’s composition “The Voice of a Departed Soul.” Nineteen of Gilmore’s best musicians, including cornet virtuoso Herbert L. Clarke, joined Sousa’s band.
Upon Gilmore’s death, the fair’s music director Theodore Thomas offered Sousa a contract as band in residence for the entire summer. Blaikley had already booked Sousa’s Band elsewhere, so it only appeared in Chicago for six weeks.
The Chicago Herald, which was highly critical of Thomas’s policies as music director, claimed that Sousa’s Band drew a larger audience at any one of its concerts than all the other bands combined drew in a week. Its critic was outraged when the band left town.
The fair’s choral director William Tomlin recommended that Sousa allow the audience to sing along with the band on some popular songs. That practice may help account for the band’s popularity at the fair and for the rest of Sousa’s career.
Sousa’s fame at home and abroad
Sousa’s Band traveled more than a million miles. Besides 74 tours of the US, the band toured Europe four times and in 1910-1911 toured the world. Often, it appeared in two towns every day. In 1894 alone, it played 661 times. In its busiest year, 1901, it played 730 times. Surely not all of these were full-length concerts,
The band usually toured between six and ten months every year and spent the summers in residence first at Manhattan Beach on Long Island (1893-1901) and then at Willow Grove Park, Pennsylvania (1902-1926).
Sousa continued Gilmore’s practice of combining “serious” music with popular music, but with two important differences. First, Sousa programmed many of his own marches. Gilmore did not compose many of his own. Second, few American composers had nationwide reputations in Gilmore’s time. Besides his own compositions, Sousa could program works by such illustrious contemporaries as Victor Herbert, George W. Chadwick (his favorite), and Edward McDowell.
Sousa had been a theater conductor before leading the Marine Band and knew that audiences liked encores of popular music. The Sousa Band’s printed programs did not reflect what the band would actually play. For each printed piece, Sousa played one or two unannounced pieces, usually no longer than three minutes long.
Except for the intermission, the band played one piece after another almost without pause. The interval between pieces was never more than 30 seconds. Instead of announcing these encores, therefore, Sousa had someone hold up a placard with the name of the piece.
During the First World War, Sousa enlisted as lieutenant in the Naval Reserve. In addition to the regular tours with his civilian band, he led a navy band on two tours to encourage recruitment, the sale of Liberty Loan bonds, and the Red Cross.
Some of Sousa’s preferences
The basic instrumentation of Sousa’s band always had at least half again as many woodwind players as brass players, and clarinets made up half of the woodwind section. From year to year, however, band personnel changed. Usually the band had between 50 and 66 musicians, but it could have as few as 48 or as many as 76.
Over the existence of the band, Sousa added some instruments and dropped others, searching for what seemed the best sound for the band. Sousa was dissatisfied with the helicon tubas he had used in the Marine Band. He considered their sound too directional. In 1892, he requested the instrument manufacturer J.W. Pepper to make a bass instrument with an adjustable bell. Pepper produced what he called the sousaphone. A few years later, C. G. Conn introduced a better model. Sousa’s Band hardly ever marched, but the sousaphone soon became the standard bass instrument in American marching bands.
Although Sousa was a violinist, he preferred the wind band to the orchestra as a vehicle for modern music. The earliest classical composers (Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven) had a string orchestra in mind, supplemented with wind instruments. These works, he thought, should be left to string orchestras.
Wagner, on the other hand, scored nearly all his leitmotivs for woodwind or brass instruments. In the music of Richard Strauss and other moderns, winds dominated the strings, and some composers introduced the saxophone and other wind instruments unknown to earlier composers. Even though all of them wrote for an orchestra with strings, Sousa (following Gilmore) believed that much of it was more effectively performed by a wind band.
Nonetheless, Sousa frequently featured violin solos. Audiences were just as frequently astounded that a wind band could play softly enough to accompany them.
Like Gilmore, Sousa hired the best-known soloists he could find. The soloists’ numbers were usually limited to the additional numbers not printed in the program. When one or more of them stood and moved to the front, they aroused expectation in the audience. Occasionally, an ensemble of soloists emerged, as with the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor.
Sousa’s band featured numerous soloists over its long history, too many to try to list. Here are some of the better known:
- Cornet: Herbert L. Clark and Frank Simon
- Euphonium: Simone Mantia
- Saxophone: E.A. Lefebre
- Soprano: Estelle Liebling
- Trombone: Arthur Pryor
- Tuba: William Bell
- Violin: Maud Powell
The composition of Sousa’s most famous march
In 1896, when Sousa was visiting Europe with his wife, word came that Blaikley had died suddenly and that Sousa himself would be responsible for the band’s next tour. On the return voyage to the US, Blaikley’s death and the kinds of decisions Sousa would now have to make weighed heavily on him, but he also heard a band playing in his imagination
Throughout the whole tense voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and reechoing 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.”
In performance, when the trombones and piccolos stood for their special parts, it created as much audience excitement as the appearance of soloists.
Sousa’s contemporaries and competitors
Although Sousa’s Band was the best-known professional wind band, it was hardly alone. Here are just some of the other highly-regarded and successful bands during the heyday of the American professional wind band:
- Frederick Innes
- Alessandro Liberati
- Arthur Pryor
- Thomas Preston Brooke
- Mace Gay
- Patrick Conway
- Giuseppe Creatore
- Bohumir Kryl
The decline of professional wind bands and the end of Sousa’s Band
Around 1910, however, audiences for wind bands started to decline. As a result, venues closed and bands had to compete for fewer places to perform. Several social conditions drove the decline.
- Automobile ownership increased. Car owners had a wider choice of places to go for amusement and entertainment than the local band shell.
- Recording technology got better. For the first time, listeners did not have to depend on concert schedules to experience performances by the most famous musicians.
- Radio, motion pictures, and ultimately television likewise provided alternative entertainment.
Although Sousa’s recordings with the Marine Band had helped popularize recordings, he never became comfortable with the medium. Technology came between the performer and the audience and therefore could not provide the same experience as a live performance. Also, the recorded sound lost nuances, balance, and the true timbre of the instruments. Sousa considered the whole process inartistic.
Nevertheless, he could do nothing about these social changes. The Sousa Band completed its last summer season in Willow Grove in 1926. Thereafter, its tours and concerts both became shorter. Sometimes, the band only played for 40 minutes to introduce a movie. After many requests, Sousa finally agreed to perform live on radio. He found it no more congenial than recording. He no longer had control even over what to play or the order of the program.
The Depression proved to be the last straw. Sousa’s Band disbanded in 1931. Sousa died on March 6, 1932, while preparing guest conducting gig.
In all, Sousa composed 136 marches, 70 songs, 15 operettas, 27 fantasies, and dozens of other original compositions, plus 332 arrangements and transcriptions. Not only that, he wrote seven books and 132 articles. Along with Victor Herbert, he led the fight for the 1909 copyright law that compelled recording companies to pay royalties to composer of the pieces they recorded.
“From Yankee Doodle thro’ to Handel’s Largo”: Music at the World’s Columbian Exposition / David M. Guion. College Music Symposium 24 (1984): 81-96
John Philip Sousa / Steve Schoenherr
Marching along: recollections of men, women, and music / John Philip Sousa (Hale, Cushman & Flint, 1928)
Opera at the bandstand / George W. Martin (Scarecrow Press, 2014)
The wind band / Richard Franko Goldman (Allyn and Bacon, 1961)