Three individuals from the 19th century stand out in their contributions to American popular music. Stephen Foster, the “Father of American Popular Music,” saved popular song from sentimentalism and gave it a new standard of melodic and lyrical quality. Scott Joplin, “Father of Ragtime,” took the raw syncopation of black bar and brothel music and gave it refinement and structure.
The third individual, John Philip Sousa, certainly provided unique contributions to the musical literature of America, but perhaps more importantly, his role in the early years of the recording industry and his part in the revision of copyright law in America changed the landscape of music going into the 20th century.
Each of these individuals made their contribution as consolidators of a musical style. Foster and Joplin took parlor and ragtime songs, respectively, and elevated them from being sappy and unrefined to being elegant and sophisticated. Sousa’s role as “march king” was not as the inventor of a new musical form, but as the composer of the greatest marches in music history.
The march is a musical form which evolved from the music of military bands in the early 19th century. As far back as the revolutionary war, fife and drum bands had been providing musical entertainment and esprit de corps for the soldiers both on and off the battle field. In times of peace, military bands (comprised of winds, brass, and percussion) provided music for visiting dignitaries and official ceremonial events. Music for outdoor community concerts and indoor dances were also part of the function of a regional military band.
Following the Civil War, many of the soldiers who played in military bands and those who had an interest in playing a wind, brass or percussion instrument were able to purchase them from military surplus. When finally arriving at home from their various units, these musicians and hopefuls formed community based bands patterned after those they heard while in service. Beginning in the 1870s and 1880s hundreds of community brass and wind bands began to be active throughout the United States. Their concert music consisted of dance tunes, rudimentary marches, popular songs, arrangements of classical orchestral works and even some vocal songs. It wasn’t until the arrival of Sousa, though, that the established structure of both the concert band and the march song form was finalized.
John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was a classically trained violinist (he played under the French composer and conductor Jacques Offenbach in Philadelphia in 1876) and later conductor of traveling musical shows. In 1880 he was hired to become band director for the U.S. Marine Band in Washington, D.C. He reorganized the band, increasing the number of wind players to provide better balance with the brass and percussion, and instituted a new level of quality and excellence that quickly established the ensemble as the finest concert band in the world. In addition to playing for presidential inaugurations and state ceremonies, Sousa secured permission to take the Marine Band on tour throughout the United States, providing thousands of Americans with the experience of hearing America’s best instrumental ensemble in concert.
Dissatisfied with the hodge-podge collection of music which had been the band’s literature prior to 1880, Sousa began incorporating his own compositions into the performances. His earliest version of the march form dates back to 1877, while he was still conducting the traveling musical show, but from that point until his death in 1932, Sousa wrote 136 marches, including “The Washington Post March,” “The Liberty Bell March,” “Semper Fidelis” (named in honor of the Marine motto) and the official United States march, “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Sousa’s marches, like Joplin’s rags, were built on a series of strains, or 16 measure musical ideas. Like the rag, the march began with a short introduction, then presented the first idea and then repeated it, usually verbatim, then moved on to the next in the series. The formal structure for both march and rag was: Intro-AABBCC… Occasionally, both march and rag incorporated a rhythmic break, where the music temporarily broke the strain mold with a dramatic, highly energetic, often percussive musical idea before resuming the strain patterns.
In addition, the march often treated the third series of strains, the CC, as a quieter, more lyrical idea. This quieter third set was called the trio of the march. Although a trio would technically mean three instruments, in the case of Sousa’s marches it simply means fewer instruments playing to create a quieter and more intimate sound. Following the trio section, like Joplin’s rags, the march frequently recapped the opening musical theme before coming to a rousing ending.
Sousa’s marches have a distinct ONE-TWO, ONE-TWO rhythmic pattern, designed to match the brisk steps of a unit of soldiers as it marches in ceremony or the pace of a marching band as it moves down the street in a parade. Most bands performing Sousa marches will conform to a tempo around 120 bpm (beats per minute, see section Understanding Music Study Unit for more on “tempo”) which is a brisk pace for marching and a perfect tempo for tapping toes. Some studies have been done on the physiological response to music, including Sousa marches, and the slight increase in heart rate and increased endorphins that are generated from listening to this music.
In stark contrast with the flowing melodies of Foster’s parlor songs, Sousa march melodies were crisp and energetic. They were not designed for sensuous romanticism, but martial vigor.
The marches composed by Sousa exist today as the finest examples of the genre in history. No other composer has matched the master march composer in qualitative output. As Sousa’s bands toured throughout the world, other military, community and concert bands were quick to order copies of the pieces for their own use.