1897 Sousa’s Greatest

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On May 14, at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, John Philip Sousa premiered his most inspired and glorious march, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” As might be expected, it brought down the house. A joyous audience made the Sousa Band repeat it twice more, and critics in the next day’s papers were just as ecstatic. One called the new piece “stirring enough to rouse the American eagle from his crag and set him to shriek exultantly while he hurls his arrows at the aurora borealis.” As the band continued its tour, reviews in Washington, Baltimore, and Boston were equally enthusiastic, if less eloquent. Only in Toronto did one sorehead, understandably lacking in Yankee patriotism, grumble that it was “rather noisy.”

The components of the march had come to Sousa as he strolled the deck of the steamship Teutonic while crossing from Liverpool to New York the previous November. He filed them mentally, and on Christmas Day, two days before his band embarked on a nationwide tour, he wrote out a piano score. In late April he finished the band arrangement in a Boston hotel and gave it to an assistant for transcribing. The musicologist James R. Smart believes it was first played in public on May 1 in Augusta, Maine, as an untitled encore and may have been repeated at other stops before receiving its official premiere in Philadelphia.

Many critics at the time remarked on the march’s “jingoistic” or “martial” character, which reflected the times (war with Spain was brewing) more than any intention on Sousa’s part. His first set of lyrics had included the phrase “Death to the enemy!” but the official version, published in early 1898 (and as little known today as the real words to “Louie Louie”), omitted the belligerent phrase in favor of purely patriotic sentiments like “The emblem of the brave and true / Its folds protect no tyrant crew.”

Although Sousa was already known as the March King, it took “The Stars and Stripes Forever” to make him immortal. Until his death in 1932, no audience would let him leave the podium without conducting it at least once. The masterpiece is still cherished by Americans everywhere, especially by piccolo players, who would never get noticed at all if not for the shimmering obbligato written for them near its end. (Smart cautiously calls this piccolo passage “one of the most famous in music literature,” in recognition, no doubt, of the many other famous piccolo solos to be found in popular music.) “The Stars and Stripes Forever” is unforgettable for its get-up-and-march rhythms and red-blooded melodies that virtually demand to be air-conducted. Yet in the final analysis, the piccolo obbligato is the piece’s truest expression of the spirit of America—a place where even the tiniest instrument in the band gets a chance to be heard.