The American military march composer John Philip Sousa is also known as the “March King” and has left behind an amazing collection of music which is used to this day. His influence in the Romantic era as composer and conductor is unrivalled in American music history.
Let’s have a look at 12 interesting facts about “the man behind the marches,” John Philip Sousa!
John Philip Sousa Facts
1. John Philip Sousa almost joined the circus
As a teenager, Sousa trained in playing the piano and other instruments, and he showed great skill with the violin. His love of music led to him almost joining the circus band at the age of 13, which would have seen him travelling around to play music for the acts. But, luckily, his father stepped in and prevented what would have been a waste of his talents. He enrolled John Philip as an apprentice musician in the Marine Band, which led to seven years of work until he turned 20.
2. Sousa had a connection to music and marching from the start
John Philip Sousa’s father, Antonio Sousa, was a member of the US Marine Band himself, playing the trombone. This is what led to his action of enrolling his son in the band, an interesting fact about John Philip Sousa. Moreover, young Sousa was born and lived close to the Marine Barracks in Washington. It was all his childhood environment.
3. He worked for travelling theatre orchestras
Even though he never ran away with the circus, Sousa did conduct and tour with multiple theatre orchestras. He started to conduct and play violin in Washington at the end of his service with the Marine Band, and then started travelling with theatre orchestras too. In 1876 he moved to Philadelphia and became a proofreader for various publishing houses as well as an arranger alongside his work as a composer.
4. John Sousa wrote a musical
Given his involvement with theatre orchestras and talent for composing, it’s no wonder that John Philip Sousa wrote a musical. He composed the incidental music and the march for “Our Flirtation” and he toured with the production.
5. He headed the Marine Band for the first phonograph recording
The Columbia Phonograph Company picked the Marine Band to record using the new technology, while Sousa was directing it. The first recordings came out in 1890, and by the end of the 19th century, over 400 works written by Sousa could be purchased for the phonograph. This led to his work being incredibly popular and the Marine Band became one of the first international recording stars, an interesting John Philip Sousa fact.
6. Sousa originated an important annual tradition
The Marine Band didn’t tour before Sousa headed it. He got President Benjamin Harrison to sign off on the first performance circuit ever done by the Marine Band in 1891, and this started the annual tour tradition.
The tour has been held every year since, except in war time.
7. His marches are iconic
John Philip Sousa is the composer behind “The Stars and Stripes Forever”, the National March of the United States, as well as “Semper Fidelis”, the official march of the US Marine Corps. A few others are famous marches he has written: “The Liberty Bell”, “The Thunderer” and “The Washington Post”.
8. His nickname was given by a Brit
The march “The Washington Post”, written in 1889, became extremely popular. It was originally written for the Washington Post newspaper, to promote an essay contest. However, it was so popular it even got adapted into a dance, the two-step.
As a result, it was a British journalist who called Sousa “The March King”, inspired by the name given to Johann Strauss, Jr – the Waltz King.
9. John Philip Sousa was too old to fight in World War I but still contributed
In 1917, when the US had declared war on Germany, Sousa was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve, as he was already 62 and at the mandatory retirement age for navy officers. However, an interesting fact about John Sousa is that he was actively involved in the war effort by leading the Navy Band at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago, and he even went so far as to donate all his salary from the Navy, except for $1, every month, to the Sailors’ and Marines’ Relief Fund. His active duty went to November 1918, when he was discharged and went to lead his own band.
10. He was proud of being in the Navy
Although Sousa had been discharged from active duty, he continued to wear his Navy uniform as he led his own band in concerts. He would also put it on for public appearances.
He never returned to active duty, but he was promoted to lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve.
He also received the World War I Victory Medal for his war-time service and he was appointed Veteran Companion of the Military Order of Foreign Wars. He was a member of the American Legion.
11. John Sousa led until his death
The day before he died, John Philip Sousa conducted a rehearsal of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” as a guest conductor for the Ringgold Band. He then died of heart failure in his hotel room in Reading, Pennsylvania, where he was found the next day.
12. Sousa received many honors and accolades
For his work and popularity, Sousa was very well recognized during his lifetime and afterwards. An interesting John Philip Sousa fact is that his international recognition gained him the palms of the Order of Public Instruction of Portugal and the Royal Victorian Medal – the latter given to him by King Edward VII of the United Kingdom for conducting a private birthday concert for Queen Alexandra.
The World War II Liberty Ship SS John Philip Sousa was named after him and he was added to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans posthumously in 1976.
Sousa’s musical creations made a significant impact in his lifetime and therefore, he remains one of the most popular composers in the United States. His marches are used to this day.
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