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John Philip Sousa at the GLNS

John Philip Sousa in 1900 (

John Philip Sousa was born in 1854 in Washington DC,  not far from the  barracks where his father was a musician in the marine band. He was born to Antonio Sousa from Portugal and maria Trinkhaus of Bavaria, from which his father musician in the marine band on base. He went on to become a brilliant musician and composer  in a time where technology, art and music was changing, this led to him creating a sousaphone (similar to a tuba) and in later life expressing a hatred for recorded music.

Sousa has been credited with over 136 marches, 15 operetta, 5 overtures and a few books and stories. He was by all accounts hailed as america’s conductor for music and marches where he represented america as its musical ambassador. He lived for 77 years and witnessed america go through the civil war as a child, the Spanish american as an independent conductor traveling america and europe with his civilian band. And then finally witnessing the great war or world war one as the bandmaster of the great lakes. All of these events affected him and his music throughout the decades until he died in 1932. Even after his death his creations were still used in a great deal of organizations like the marine corp and multiple accreditations are to him such as the his marine band hall having his name and his march being an integral part of the celebration of american life.  Due to the former amount of marches he was know as the “march king” or the “american march king” due to another composer in Europe sharing the moniker. Some notable marches include “Semper Fidelis” official march of the marines, and “Stars and Stripes forever”, the official march of the united states.

Born in Washington DC., John Philip Sousa was raised and was given a grammar school education through it. He then enrolled in the private conservatory of music operated by John Esputa, Jr a respected teacher and studied music with George Felix. From this school he found that he was a gifted violinist and also studied the piano.  At the age of 13 he almost joined a circus band but his father intervened and enlisted him in the marine band. From this he was apart of United States Marine Band where he studied music theory and composition. He stayed in this band for six years but then moved on to began writing his own music and working with other bands across the country. During this time he also continued to study under George Felix an orchestra leader and he also wrote his first composition, “Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes”.


After his discharge from the military in 1875 he moved to Philadelphia and worked as a composer, and proofreader for publishing houses. He also began performing on the violin and eventually started conducting theater orchestras, including the “H.M.S Pinafore” on Broadway. He then toured with a company producing the musical “our flirtation” where he wrote music and a march and he continued to do this until receiving a telegram in 1879 saying that he had been offered leadership of the marine band in Washington. After a spending 15 years in the marine band he resigned in 1892 and organized a civilian concert band named the “Sousa New Marine Band” however criticism from Washington made him drop the New Marine portion of the name.

This newly created civilian band quickly gained popularity and he soon toured all over the united states and europe. He also wrote the “Washington post” which was associated with the two-step dance and quickly became one of the most popular songs in america and europe. This was only one of the multiple features he wrote, and he even played a part in the creation of the sousaphone which is akin to a tuba. He also began recording his music and by 1897 he had 400 different titles available for sale on the phonograph and making his works one of the first and most popular pieces ever recorded. In the years 1900-1910 he toured all over the world and this strengthened their growing reputation as the most gifted american band in its time. After world war one he toured with his band and he pushed the cause of musical education for all children and received several honorary degrees and fought for the rights of musicians. He spent the last 39 years of his life in this position as a composer and conductor of his band.

Military Career

He began his military life when his father enlisted him in the Marine band and during this time he gained knowledge and experience around all of the band’s instruments and also began learning how to create marches and operettas. He remained in the marine band until he was 20 years old and then set off to continue his life in Philadelphia. But he later in 1879 got a telegram from Washington offering him the command of the marine band. When he became leader of the band he saw to changing up the library of music, changing the instrumentation and finally shaping up the acts of musicians to make the Marine band one of the premier band in the world. He however received notoriety in the military with his marches written in the 1880’s. The marine band also made its first recordings on the phonograph which was relatively new and the Columbia Phonograph approached them to record around 60 cylinders that were released in 1980; This made the marine band one of the world’s first recording stars. He also toured the United States and these concerts did very well but they were limited. This led to the Marine band creating a tradition that it carries to this day of annually touring the United States. During the 15 years he spent as the leader of the marine band he served under 5 presidents and this led him to gain huge amounts of experience to benefit him in later life. Later World War One broke out and later america was drawn into it, this led Sousa at the old age of 62 to reenlist as a lieutenant in the navy at the request of Rear Admiral William A. Moffett. Now as Bandmaster of the Great lakes naval base he lead 1,500 musicians which led liberty bond funding and raised troop morale. During this time in the navy he donated all but one dollar of his salary to the Sailors and Marine Relief fund since he was independently wealthy at this point. Near the end of the war he the Spanish influenza pandemic came across the world and this caused his station to have more than 50,000 sailors sick but this did not stop them from touring the United States. After the war he was raised to the position of lieutenant commander and he remained in the navy reserves for most of the rest of his life.

Musical Accomplishments

From his first composition the “Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes” to his last the “The Northern Pines” in 1931, he produced over 150 musical scripts and works. These works all began from his father teaching him about music and him enlisting in the marine band. These influences caused him to write more military musical numbers like marches, he also was affected by the music of the time due to him also being a violinist in a few concert bands and operas. Then later in the 1880’s he wrote most of his most popular work such as “The Gladiator” which gained him the respect as a composer, “Semper Fidelis” which he dedicated to the men of the marine corp and later became their Official March. He also Created the “ The Washington Post” a two-step dance which quickly became the most popular song in america and the world. These works soon made him known as the “March King”. He also performed at the white house for all of the presidents during his time and was able to play a variety of music, and on one occasion played for president cleveland’s wedding in which the “Wedding March” was perfectly timed for it to end right when the couple reached the clergyman. Finally he also wrote “The Stars and Stripes Forever” after learning his friend and promoter David Blakely died, which became his most famous composition. He later in his life was at a reunion for his marine band which he was the distinguished guest, and he took over for one of the conductors there and led the orchestra.

During the time he was not creating music he had time to become one of the greater trap shooters of all time, with more than 35,000 targets and is quoted to say that “the sweetest music is when he yells pull, the gun goes off and the referee yells dead”. This also led to him becoming one of the forerunners for the ATA (Amateur Trapshooting Association). He also was writer of novels and ended up writing a three before his death, including some notable ones like the “The Five Strings”, “Pipetown Sandy” and “The Transit of Venus”. However he also disliked the recording industry and thought that it would have a negative effect on the music industry.


He finally passed away in Pennsylvania after giving a rehearsal of the Stars and Stripes with his band. After his death his marine hall was rededicated to him and the U.S John Philip Sousa (A world war 2 liberty ship)  was dedicated to him. The most significant tribute to Sousa effect on american culture was the “the Stars and Stripes” becoming the national march of the United States over 55 years after his death.


Primary Sources

  1. Mayer, Francis N. “John Philip Sousa: His Instrumentation and Scoring.” Music Educators Journal, vol. 46, no. 3, 1960, pp. 51–59. [1]
  2. “Music Educators Journal.” Music Educators Journal, vol. 44, no. 4, 1958, pp. 93–93. [2]
  3. Danner, Phyllis. “John Philip Sousa: The Illinois Collection.” Notes, vol. 55, no. 1, 1998, pp. 9–25. > [3]
  4. “”The President’s Own”” John Philip Sousa. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2016 [4]

Secondary Sources

  1. “History.” History. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
  2. “A Capitol Fourth.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
  3. “John Philip Sousa.” A&E Networks Television, 2015. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
  4. “John Philip Sousa Is Born.” A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2016