The most important figure in band music and one of America's great cultural icons, Sousa was known as 'The March King' for his legendary march tunes. The composer of The Stars and Stripes Forever, The Washington Post, and Semper Fidelis, his music is still an integral part of America's military traditions. It is often forgotten, however, that Sousa was also a composer of operetta and is credited with introducing ragtime to Europe. At the turn of the twentieth century, he was probably the most famous name in music.
The son of immigrants from Portugal and Bavaria, Sousa was born in Washington DC on 6 November 1854. He was the third of ten children and attended the Esputa Conservatory of Music in the evenings, studying the violin, piano, flute, and brass instruments. At the age of 13, about to run off and join the circus, his father enlisted him in the US Marine Band.
Sousa stayed in the band until he was 20, though he'd continued to perform as a civilian with theatre orchestras and had begun composition studies with George Felix Benkert. In 1875 he became the conductor and composer for Milton Noble's travelling theatre troupe, and also conducted for a travelling vaudeville show. In 1876 he moved to Philadelphia, composing for several theatres and arranging Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. In 1879 he married Jane van Middlesworth Bellis, a young singer from the Philadelphia Church Choir Company.
Sousa's accomplishments had impressed the Marine Corps and in 1880 he was invited to become the conductor of the US Marine Band. Over the next 12 years, he turned the band into the finest military ensemble in America, writing numerous marches and arranging classical favourites for the group to perform. At the same time, his first published operettas, The Smugglers and Désirée were appearing.
Sousa's national and international fame soared and while he was only paid a limited amount for each new march, his publisher, Harry Coleman, made a fortune from sheet music sales. In 1892, Sousa left the military and formed his own band, all the while continuing with his operettas. He made four European tours and one world tour (1910-11) before serving in the US Navy in World War I.
After the war, Sousa's tours began again and continued until bookings were hit by the Depression. The band's last concerts were in December 1931, but they continued to broadcast on radio until Sousa's death from a heart attack on 6 March 1932. In their forty-year history, the band gave over 15,000 concerts.
Sousa's importance in American culture cannot be underestimated, both as an ambassador for the country and as a force in changing musical tastes. While his operettas and songs may have been overshadowed by the more popular marches, El capitan can be regarded as the most important American operetta of the 19th century.Show more