When I taught elementary general music, one of the objectives for Grade 1 was to be able to recognize march music. So, of course, we practiced conducting in cut time, and marched to the music of John Philip Sousa. He was quite a character, and my students enjoyed hearing about his life.
Sousa was born on November 6, 1854, in Washington D.C., near the Marine barracks where his father played trombone in the U.S. Marine Band. He was the third of ten children in the family. He grew up surrounded by military band music, and when he was six years old began music lessons, studying voice, violin, piano, flute, cornet, baritone, trombone, and alto horn.
John Philip loved adventure, and when he was 13, tried to run away and join the circus as a musician. His father intercepted him, and instead enlisted him in the Marine Band as an apprentice so he could keep an eye on him. (Can you believe he was allowed to do that? I doubt that would be allowed today. He must have had connections. John Philip’s rank during this time was “boy.”) He remained in the Marine Band until he was 21 (except for a hiatus of 6 months). In addition to his band training, he studied music theory and composition. During his enlistment, he wrote his first piece, Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes.
After his discharge from the Marines in 1875, Sousa began performing on violin, touring, and eventually conducting theater orchestras, including Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore on Broadway.
On December 30, 1879, Sousa married Jane Bellis. While on tour in St. Louis, Sousa received a telegram from the Marine Corps offering him the conductorship of the Marine Band; so the couple moved back to Washington D.C. in 1880. For the next 12 years, Sousa conducted the band known as The President’s Own, serving under Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Cleveland, Arthur, and Harrison. He raised performance expectations for the Band, threw away most of their music, transcribed orchestral pieces for them, and composed new marches.
Sousa resigned from the Marine Band in 1892 to organize his own civilian concert band. He continued to conduct, compose, and tour for the rest of his life, right up until his death on March 6, 1932.
John Philip Sousa wrote 136 military marches and is rightfully celebrated as the March King.