Yesterday, March 6, marked the anniversary of the death of composer John Philip Sousa. He was known as the “March King” because he composed and directed so many military marches, including such favorites as “Stars and Stripes Forever”; “The Washington Post”; and “Semper Fidelis,” the Marine Corps’ official march.
Sousa was born November 6, 1854, and early showed an aptitude for music. He began studying music—voice, baritone, cornet, flute, piano, trombone, and violin—when he was only six years old. When he was twelve, the circus came to town (Washington, D.C., where Sousa’s family lived at the time), and Sousa, like other kids, was enthralled. On the day the circus left town, an official of the circus was passing Sousa’s home and heard him practicing the violin inside. Knocking at the door, he commented on the high quality of Sousa’s playing and asked if he would like to play with the circus band. Sousa agreed and was ready to pack his bags, but he made the mistake of telling a friend his plans. His friend told his mother, and the friend’s mother told Sousa’s parents. That was the end of that!
But Sousa’s father decided to put his son on a path that would give him a “proper” outlet for his talents and desires. He took him tot he Marine recruiting office and got him enlisted as an apprentice to the Marine Band. (Although the minimum age for such apprentices was fourteen and Sousa was only twelve, his father apparently either lied about his son’s age or had connections enabling him to get into the program.) Sousa remained in the Marines until 1875.
Upon his discharge from the Marines, Sousa began touring the country as a violinist. When he was only twenty-one years old, Sousa conducted the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta HMS Pinafore on Broadway. In 1880, he became the leader of the Marine Corps Band.
Sousa died at the age of seventy-seven. Appropriately, the last piece he conducted was “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Why not honor this great American this week by listening to some of his patriotic and entertaining music?