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Music on the March: The Joy of Sousa
By West Music Company
7/14/2017 10:35:00 AM

Music on the March: The Joy of Sousa

John Philip Sousa
As the fireworks subside and summer gives way to marching band camps, we pause to pay homage to the classic march. Fireworks may bring forth all the "oohs" and "ahs", but Fourth of July celebrations wouldn’t be the same without the heart-pounding rhythms of marching bands and the soul-stirring renditions of "Stars and Stripes Forever" echoing over the hills at pops concerts all across the country. Centuries after it was first brought to Europe by the armies of the Ottoman Empire, marching bands remain one of the surest ways to bring any crowd to its feet! America is fortunate to claim one of the greatest march composers in history, John Philip Sousa, as a native son.

History: From Calls to Battle to Peacetime Crowd Pleasers

fife and drumOttoman Empire battalions used marching music with bright melodies and thundering percussion to coordinate troop movements and intimidate their foes. Upon encountering this powerful, heart-stopping music, Europeans of the West were impressed. Many countries soon developed their own forms of drum-driven music that roused troops to battle. With typical American efficiency, North American colonists created a stripped-down version of this marching music, to be played on a fife (a relative of the piccolo) and drums. The style and instrumentation, which required as few as two or three players, were ideal for the small, loosely organized militias that made up the American Continental Army. Fife-and-drum marches became the music of the American Revolution, later immortalized in such popular songs as "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Composers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean came to recognize that marching music, with its dramatic drum and cymbal flourishes and exciting crescendos, had potential far beyond the battlefield. In the United States, John Philip Sousa came to be known as "The King of Marches" for his innovations that brought military marching music to concert halls and town festivals across the country.

John Philip Sousa: America’s Kind of Marches

Early military marches were kept simple so that a small ensemble could play them on the move. Sousa, who served multiple stints in the U.S. Marines, eventually conducting the U.S. Marine Band, understood this tradition well. However, he also saw the rich musical potential of marching music, and composed marches with an eye toward both military and peacetime performances. Drawing on the wide range of sounds offered by a full concert band, Sousa wrote marches with intricate counterpoint and harmonies. He contributed greatly to the standardization of the march form, with its multiple sections (often called "strains"), especially the memorable "trio" passage, during which the band’s percussion section often goes dramatically quiet. The unforgettable melody that most people associate with Sousa’s immortal "Stars and Stripes Forever" makes its first appearance in the trio strain of the piece.

Thunderous Power Meets Joyful Whimsy

sousaphones in marching bandSousa went even further in cementing marches as a centerpiece of American life by giving the world an instrument as functional as it is whimsical: the sousaphone. A coiled, gigantic brass instrument that looks almost like a cartoon cobra, the sousaphone was Sousa’s marching band replacement for the concert tuba, which is notoriously awkward to carry while playing. Today, the sousaphone is the very symbol of the uplifting energy of a marching band. Possibly the most delightful tidbit of Sousa history, however, is that one of his marches, simply titled "The Liberty Bell"—the very symbol of American independence from England—came to be used as the theme song for the zany British sketch comedy show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Evidently, even irony cannot stop the bouncing, irrepressible momentum of a great march!

Helping the Young Musicians in Your Home to Join the Celebration

If you recently attended a parade or pops performance with your family, odds are that your children just could not keep still when the band struck up a march. The exuberance of marches, especially Sousa’s masterpieces, remains to this day one of the greatest sources of inspiration for children considering entering the world of music! West Music’s wide selection of instruments and instruction will help them begin a journey that may one day culminate in a triumphant Independence Day march down Main Street.

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