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6.14: Music of John Philip Sousa

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    John Philip Sousa, (b. Nov. 6, 1854-1939) was born in Washington, D.C. to a father, John Antonio Sousa, who played trombone in the U.S. Marine band and a mother, Maria Elisabeth Trinkaus, of Bavarian descent. The young Sousa was raised in a very musical environment and began studying voice, violin, piano, flute, baritone, trombone, and alto horn when his peers were just beginning first grade.

    Sousa was an adventurous young man. At the young age of thirteen, he unsuccessfully tried to run away to join a circus band. Immediately after this episode, his father enlisted him in the Marines as a band apprentice in the Marine Band. There he remained until he reached the age of twenty, complementing his Marine Band training in music by studying composition and music theory with the locally highly acclaimed orchestra leader, George Felix Benkert. During these early years with the Marine Band and under the music mentorship of Benkert, Sousa composed his first piece, Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.40.28 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): John Philip Sousa by Elmer Chickering. Source: Wikimedia

    Upon his honorable discharge from the Marines in 1875, the twenty-one year old Sousa began performing on violin and touring. While playing violin, Sousa performed under the baton of Jacques Offenbach at the Centenary Exhibition in Philadelphia and Sousa’s music later showed Offenbach’s influence. While playing the violin in various theater orchestras, Sousa learned to conduct, a skill he would use for the remainder of his career. This period of Sousa’s career eventually led to his conducting Gilbert and Sullivan’s H. M. S. Pinafore on Broadway in New York. In 1879, while conducting in Broadway, Sousa met Jane van Middlesworth whom he married in December of that year. About a year later,

    Sousa assumed the leadership post of the Marine Band with the couple moving to Washington, D.C. Sousa conducted the Marine Band for the following twelve years, under the

    presidential administrations of Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, Chester Arthur, and Benjamin Harrison. Sousa composed and performed repertoire at the request of these presidents and their respective first families.

    In 1895, Sousa successfully debuted his first opera. In 1886, The Gladiator, using his most recognizable music form of the march, received national recognition from military bandleaders. Two years later, he dedicated his newly composed march Semper Fidelis to the officers and men of the Marne Corps; that piece now is traditionally known as the “official” march of the Marine Corps.

    The Marine Band made its first recordings under Sousa’s leadership. The phonograph had just recently been invented, and the Columbia Phonograph Company, seeking a military band to record, selected the Marine Band. They first released sixty recording cylinders and, within the decade, recorded and released for sale more than 400 different titles. These recordings made Sousa’s marches and their performance by the Marine Band among the most popular to be recorded.

    Having achieved stardom, the Marine Band went on two limited but successful tours in 1891-92. After completing these tours, promoter David Blakely convinced Sousa to resign his post to organize a civilian concert band. Sousa did so, forming the New Marine Band which was a concert rather than a marching band. After receiving criticism from Washington for using the word “Marine” in the title of his civilian band, Sousa eventually dropped it from its name. The new band’s first performance was on September 26, 1892 in Stillman Music Hall in Plainfield, New Jersey. Two days prior to the concert, acclaimed bandmaster, Patrick Gilmore, died in St. Louis. Eventually nineteen former musicians from Gilmore’s band joined Sousa’s band. The names of many of these nineteen musicians are still recognized today, including Herbert L. Clark on cornet and E. A. Lefebre on saxophone.

    While conducting this new band, Sousa also continued to compose music. When vacationing in Europe with his wife in 1896, he received news that David Blakely had died. The couple immediately departed for home. During this time travelling back to the United States, Sousa wrote his most famous composition, The Stars and Stripes Forever.

    From 1900 to 1910, the Sousa band toured extensively. Tours included performances in the United States, Great Britain, Europe, South Africa, Australia, Cana- da, New Zealand, Hawaii, and the South Pacific in the Canary Islands. These performances and tours contributed to Sousa’s band’s reputation as the most admired American band of its time.

    After WWI, Sousa continued to tour with his band and became a champion and advocate for music education for all children; he also testified for composer’s rights before Congress in 1927 and 1928. His success won him many titles and honorary degrees. Other successes included his serving as guest speaker and conductor for the Marine Band in Washington, D.C. in 1932, performing The Stars and Stripes Forever. Later that same year, following a rehearsal of the Ringgold Band in Reading, Pennsylvania, the seventy-seven year old Sousa passed away.

    Sousa had composed 136 marches, many on the fly in preparation for a performance in the next town. Sousa’s best known marches include The Stars and Stripes Forever (may be heard at Audio/Ceremonial/the_stars_and_stripes_forever.mp3), Semper Fidelis (may be heard at, The Washington Post, The Liberty Bell, Daughters of Texas, The Thunderer (may be heard at Portals/175/Docs/Audio/Ceremonial/the_thunderer.mp3), King Cotton (may be heard at, and Manhattan Beach.

    Sousa also wrote ten operas, including El Capitan, The Queen of Hearts, The Smugglers, and Desiree, as well as a series of music suites and seventy songs. Be- sides writing music, he authored several articles and letters to the editors on various subjects and wrote three novels, The Fifth String, Pipedown Sandy, and The Transit of Venus. Marching Along was his comprehensive autobiography.

    A sign of his continuing fame, dedications and recognitions to the Sousa name include: a memory dedication of the newly-built 1939 Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge across the Anacostia River in Washington D.C., renaming of the of the Marine Barracks band hall in his honor in 1974, and many others. In 1987, The Stars and Stripes Forever march was designated as the national march of the United States. Sousa became known as the “March King.”

    For more information on Sousa, Read his obituary at:

    Focus Composition:

    The Stars and Stripes Forever by John Philip Sousa (1896)

    Listening Guide

    For audio, go to:


    As performed by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Corps Band, Washington, D.C.

    Composer: John Philip Sousa
    Composition: The Star and Stripes Forever
    Date: 1896
    Genre: March
    Performing Forces: large military band

    What we want you to remember about this composition:

    •It is the official National March of the United States

    Other things to listen for:

    • After the march introduction, the sections of the march are called strains and then a trio section. The trio sections often have a contrasting section traditionally called a dogfight strain. These often are representative of a traditional silent movie battle scene. The “fight scene” is staged between the different sections of the band (upper and lower voices, brass against the woodwind, brass, woodwind and percussion). The complete form unfolds as follows: (Intro) aabbcdcdc

    A score of the Stars and Stripes may be viewed at:

    file:///U:/My%20Documents/2014-2015/...apter%20Six%20 Romantic/StarsAndStripesForever-Conductor-scan.pdf

    Timing Performing Forces, Melody, and Texture Text and Form
    00:00 Brief lecture introduction by the conductor March Introduction


    Starts in Eb major with the entire band and plays ff (fortissimo, or very loud)

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.46.06 PM.png

    First Strain


    The first strain remains loud. Notes are quick and detached/separated, and include cymbal crashes. Notice the sudden softness and cre- scendos (gradually gets louder).

    01:19 The first strain then repeats itself. Second Strain


    Starts piano (soft volume) the first time, mel- ody has longer notes. Woodwind melody is heard. Euphonium compliments piccolo and woodwinds on the melody.



    The second strain repeats itself. Volume brought up to f (loud) on the repeat. Brass and percussion are prominent.



    With key change/pitch center to Ab. P (Piano) soft volume with flowing and connected (legato style) melody in the clarinets and saxophones being heard. The bells compliment woodwind on the melody.



    The Dog Fight Strain depicts two opposing forcing battling one another musically. In this case, separated articulated accents descending between upper and lower voices in battle with one another. The fight goes back and forth between upper and lower voice. Percussion adds gun/cannon fire sounds to contribute to the battle scene. Then entire band descends to the potential final strain.



    Final Strain of the Trio
    Begins softy (p) with the famous and easily recognized piccolo solo above the previously introduced woodwind trio melody. This section features the woodwind section. But instead of ending, the woodwinds set up a repeat back to the dogfight strain.

    03:33 Repeated Dog Fight Strain Final Strain of the trio and march


    Final Strain of the trio and march-with the
    full compliment of the brass. The brass compliment and the piccolo solo to the end. Band plays fff (very very loud-fortississimo). Trumpets on the melody with trombones and euphoniums on the counter melody (polyphonic).



    Stinger—The march ends with the traditional musical exclamation point called the march stinger.


    We conclude this chapter with a consideration of two nationalist composers who made enduring contributions to the opera form. Some critics consider the opera form quintessential to the nineteenth century music world.

    This page titled 6.14: Music of John Philip Sousa is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.