✪ John Philip Sousa was an American composer and conductor of the late Romantic Era known primarily for American military marches. He is famously known as “The March King” or the “American March King.”
Among Sousa’s best-known marches are “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (National March of the United States of America), “Semper Fidelis” (official march of the United States Marine Corps), “The Liberty Bell,” “The Thunderer” and “The Washington Post.”
Unequalled by his predecessors, John Philip Sousa is responsible for bringing the United States Marine Band to an unprecedented level of excellence: a standard which has been upheld by every Marine Band Director since.
Sousa began his career playing violin and studying music theory and composition. Sousa’s father enlisted him in the United States Marine Band as an apprentice in 1868 when he was only 13 years old. He left the band in 1875, and over the next five years, Sousa performed as a violinist and learned to conduct. In 1880, he rejoined the Marine Band and served there for 12 years as its director.
In addition to his musical training in the Marine Band, he studied music theory and composition with George Felix Benkert, a noted Washington orchestra leader and teacher.
From 1880 until his death, Sousa focused exclusively on conducting and writing music. He also aided in the development of the sousaphone, a large brass instrument similar to the helicon and tuba.
Sousa was born Nov. 6, 1854, at 636 G Street, SE, Washington, DC, near the Marine Barracks where his father, Antonio, was a musician in the Marine Band. Sousa was the third of ten children of João António de Sousa (John Anthony Sousa) (September 22, 1824 – April 27, 1892), who was born in Spain to Portuguese parents, and his wife Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus (May 20, 1826 – August 25, 1908), who was German and from Bavaria.
Sousa began his music education under the tuition of John Esputa Sr., who taught him solfeggio. However, this academic collaboration was short-lived due to the teacher’s frequent bad temper. Sousa’s real music education began in 1861 or 1862 as a pupil of John Esputa Jr., the son of his previous teacher under whom Sousa studied violin, piano, flute, several brass instruments and singing.
Sousa progressed very rapidly as a student and was also found to have naturally perfect pitch. During this period, Sousa wrote his first composition, “An Album Leaf,” but Esputa dismissed it as “bread and cheese” and the composition was subsequently lost.
Sousa’s father was a trombonist in the Marine Band, and he enlisted Sousa in the United States Marine Corps as an apprentice to discourage him from joining a circus band. That same year, Sousa began studying music under George Felix Benkert. Sousa was enlisted under a minority enlistment, meaning that he would not be discharged until his 21st birthday.
Sousa left the Marine Corps in 1875. His second period of service in the Marine Corps began in 1880 and continued until 1892. During this period, Sousa led the Marine Band through its development into the country’s premier military band.
Sousa completed his apprenticeship in 1875 and began performing on the violin. He then joined a theatrical pit orchestra where he learned to conduct. Sousa returned to the Marine Band as its head in 1880 and remained as its conductor until 1892. He led “The President’s Own” band under five presidents from Rutherford B. Hayes to Benjamin Harrison. Sousa’s band played at the inaugural balls of James A. Garfield in 1881 and Benjamin Harrison in 1889.
Sousa first received acclaim in military band circles with the writing of his march “The Gladiator” in 1886. From that time on he received ever-increasing attention and respect as a composer. In 1888, he wrote “Semper Fidelis.” Dedicated to “the officers and men of the Marine Corps,” it is traditionally known as the “official” march of the US Marine Corps.
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The Columbia Phonograph Company produced 60 recordings of the Marine Band conducted by Sousa, which led to his national fame. In July 1892, Sousa requested a discharge from the Marine Corps to pursue a financially promising civilian career as a band leader. He conducted a farewell concert at the White House on July 30, 1892, and was discharged from the Marine Corps the next day.
On December 30, 1879, Sousa married Jane van Middlesworth Bellis, who was descended from Adam Bellis who served in the New Jersey troops during the American Revolutionary War. They had three children together: John Philip Jr., Jane Priscilla and Helen.
On July 15, 1881, the “March King” was initiated into Freemasonry by Hiram Lodge No. 10 (Now Hiram-Takoma Lodge No. 10) in Washington, DC, where he remained an active member until his death in 1932. Among other Masonic honors he was named the Honorary Band Leader of the Temple Band of Almas Shriners, the DC-based Chapter of Shriners International.
The marching brass bass or sousaphone is a modified helicon created in 1893 by Philadelphia instrument maker J. W. Pepper at Sousa’s request, using several of his suggestions in its design. Sousa wanted a tuba that could sound upward and over the band whether its player was seated or marching.
Sousa organized The Sousa Band the year that he left the Marine Band and it toured from 1892 to 1931 performing at 15,623 concerts, both in America and around the world including at the World Exposition in Paris and at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In Paris, the Sousa Band marched through the streets to the Arc de Triomphe; one of only eight parades that the band marched in during its 40 years.
Sousa was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve on May 31, 1917, shortly after the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I. He was 62 years old, the mandatory retirement age for Navy officers. During the war, Sousa led the Navy Band at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago. He donated all of his naval salary except a token $1 per month to the Sailors’ and Marines’ Relief Fund. Sousa was discharged from active duty after the end of the war in November 1918 and returned to conducting his own band. In the early 1920s, Sousa was promoted to lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve but did not return to active duty. He frequently wore his Navy uniform during performances for the remainder of his life.
For his service during the war, Sousa received the World War I Victory Medal and was elected as a Veteran Companion of the Military Order of Foreign Wars. He was also a member of the New York Athletic Club and Post 754 of the American Legion.
Sousa was decorated with the Palms of the Order of Public Instruction of Portugal and the Order of Academic Palms of France. He also received the Royal Victorian Medal from King Edward VII of the United Kingdom in December 1901 for conducting a private birthday concert for Queen Alexandra.
In his later years, Sousa lived in Sands Point, New York. He died of heart failure at the age of 77 on March 6, 1932, in his room at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania. Sousa had conducted a rehearsal of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” the previous day with the Ringgold Band as its guest conductor.
Four days later, two companies of Marines and Sailors, the Marine Band and honorary pall-bearers from the Army, Navy and Marine Corps headed the funeral cortege from the Marine Barracks to Congressional Cemetery.
Sousa is buried in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery. Each November 6 the Marine Band performs Semper Fidelis at Sousa’s grave. His house Wildbank has been designated as a National Historic Landmark, although it remains a private home and is not open to the public. ✪