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John Philip Sousa

[soo-zuh, -suh]
John Philip Sousa (November 6, 1854March 6, 1932) was an American composer and conductor of the late Romantic era known particularly for American military and patriotic marches. Because of his mastery of march composition and resultant prominence, he is known as "The March King". In public he was typically referenced by his full name.


Sousa sas born in Washington, D.C.,on Nov. 6, 1854 to John António de Sousa and Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus. His parents were of Portuguese, Spanish and Bavarian (German) descent; his grandparents were Portuguese refugees. Sousa started his music education, playing the violin, as a pupil of John Esputa and G. F. Benkert for harmony and musical composition at the age of six. He was found to have absolute pitch. When Sousa reached the age of 13, his father, a trombonist in the Marine Band, enlisted his son in the United States Marine Corps as an apprentice. Sousa served his apprenticeship for seven years, until 1875, and apparently learned to play all the wind instruments while honing his mettle with the violin.

On December 30, 1879, he married Jane van Middlesworth Bellis. They had three children: John Philip Sousa, Jr (1 April 1881 - 18 May 1937), Jane Priscilla (7 Aug 1882 - 28 Oct 1958), and Helen (21 Jan 1887 - 14 Oct 1975). All three are buried in the John Philip Sousa plot in the Congressional cemetery. Jane joined the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1907.

Several years later, Sousa left his apprenticeship to join a theatrical (pit) orchestra where he learned to conduct. He returned to the U.S. Marine Band as its head in 1880, and remained as its conductor until 1892.

Sousa organized his own band the year he left the Marine Band. The Sousa Band toured 1892-1931, performing 15,623 concerts. In 1900, his band represented the United States at the Paris Exposition before touring Europe. In Paris, the Sousa Band marched through the streets including the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe – one of only eight parades the band marched in over its forty years.

Sousa repeatedly refused to conduct on the radio, fearing a lack of personal contact with the audience. He was finally persuaded to do so in 1929 and became a smash hit.

Sousa lived in Sands Point, New York. There is a school (John Philip Sousa Elementary), a band shell and a memorial tree planted in nearby Port Washington. Wild Bank, his seaside house on Hicks Lane, has been designated a National Historic Landmark, although it remains a private home and is not open to the public.

Sousa died on March 6, 1932, in his room at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Military Service

Sousa served in the U.S. Marine Corps, first from 1868 to 1875 as an apprentice musician, and then as the head of the Marine Band from 1880 to 1892; he was a Sergeant Major for most of his second period of Marine service and was a Warrant Officer at the time he resigned.

He volunteered to serve as a bandmaster in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War but was unable to serve due to illness.

During World War I, he was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve and led the Navy Band at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago, Illinois. Being independently wealthy, he donated his entire naval salary minus one dollar a year to the Sailors' and Marines' Relief Fund. After returning to his own band at the end of the war, he continued to wear his naval uniform for most of his concerts and other public appearances.



Sousa wrote 136 marches; some of his most popular and notable are:

Sousa wrote marches for several American Universities, including Kansas State University, University of Nebraska, Marquette University, and University of Minnesota.

The marching brass bass, or sousaphone, is named after him.


  • The Queen of Hearts (1885), also known as Royalty and Roguery
  • The Smugglers (1882)
  • Désirée (1883)
  • El Capitan (1896)
  • The Bride Elect (1897), libretto by Sousa.
  • The Charlatan (1898), also known as The Mystical Miss, lyrics by Sousa
  • Chris and the Wonderful Lamp (1899)
  • The Free Lance (1905)
  • The American Maid (1909), also known as The Glass Blowers.

These operetta which Gervase Hughes calls "notable" (1) also show a variety of French, Viennese and British influences. (In his younger days, Sousa made an orchestration of HMS Pinafore and played the first violin on the American tour of Jacques Offenbach.) The music of these operettas is light and cheerful. The Glass Blowers and Desirée have had revivals, the latter having been released on CD like El Capitan, the best known of them. El Capitan has been in production somewhere in the world ever since it was written and makes fun of false heroes. Still more outspoken against militarism is The Free Lance, the story of two kingdoms becoming united, which found its way to Germany (as "Der Feldhauptmann") by the time the Berlin Wall came down.

Marches and waltzes have been derived from many of these stage-works. Sousa also composed the music for six operettas that were either unfinished or not produced: The Devils' Deputy, Florine, The Irish Dragoon, Katherine, The Victory, and The Wolf.

In addition, Sousa wrote a march based on themes from Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Mikado, the elegant overture Our Flirtations, a number of musical suites, etc. He also frequently added Sullivan opera overtures or other Sullivan pieces to his concerts.

Sousa the Freemason

One year after the 1882 Transit of Venus, Sousa was commissioned to compose a processional for the unveiling of a bronze statue of American physicist Joseph Henry, who had died in 1878. Henry, who had developed the first electric motor, was also the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

A Freemason, Sousa was fascinated by what the group considered mystical qualities in otherwise natural phenomena. According to Sten Odenwald of the NASA IMAGE Science Center, this played a significant role in the selection of the time and date of the performance, April 19, 1883, at 4:00 P.M. Dr. Odenwald points out that Venus and Mars, invisible to the participants, were setting in the west. At the same time, the moon, Uranus, and Virgo were rising in the east, Saturn had crossed the meridian, and Jupiter was directly overhead. According to Masonic lore, Venus was associated with the element copper, and Joseph Henry had used large quantities of copper to build his electric motors.

The " Transit of Venus March" never caught on during Sousa's lifetime. It went unplayed for more than 100 years, after Sousa's copies of the music were destroyed in a flood. As reported in The Washington Post, Library of Congress employee Loras Schissel recently found copies of the old sheet music for Venus "languishing in the library's files". The piece was resurrected recently, in time for the 2004 Transit.

Sousa also composed a march, "Nobles of the Mystic Shrine", dedicated to the high degree freemasonry Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.

Other writing, skills, and interests

Sousa exhibited many talents aside from music. He wrote five novels and a full-length autobiography, Marching Along, as well as a great number of articles and letters-to-the-editor on a variety of subjects. His skill as a horseman met championship criteria. He was also a connoisseur of cheese.

As a trapshooter, he ranks as one of the all-time greats, and he is enshrined in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame. He even organized the first national trapshooting organization, a forerunner to today's Amateur Trapshooting Association. Sousa remained active in the fledgling ATA for some time after its formation. Some credit Sousa as the father of organized trapshooting in America. Sousa also wrote numerous articles about trapshooting.

Perhaps a quote from his Trapshooting Hall of Fame biography says it best: "Let me say that just about the sweetest music to me is when I call, ‘pull,’ the old gun barks, and the referee in perfect key announces, ‘dead’."

In his 1902 novel The Fifth String a young violinist makes a deal with the Devil for a magic violin with five strings. The strings can excite the emotions of Pity, Hope, Love and Joy - the fifth string is Death and can be played only once before causing the player's own death. He has a brilliant career, but cannot win the love of the woman he desires. At a final concert, he plays upon the death string.

In 1905, Sousa published the book Pipetown Sandy, which included a satirical poem titled "The Feast of the Monkeys". The poem describes a lavish party attended by a variety of animals, but overshadowed by the King of Beasts, the lion…who allows the muttering guests the privilege of watching him eat the entire feast. At the end of his gluttony, the lion explains, "Come all rejoice, You’ve seen your monarch dine." Sousa was said to explain the poem as nonsense verse, but there was definitely an egalitarian tone to it..

In 1920, he wrote another work called The Transit of Venus, a 40,000-word story. It is about a group of misogynists called the Alimony Club who, as a way of temporarily escaping the society of women, embark on a sea voyage to observe the transit of Venus. The captain's niece, however, has stowed away on board and soon wins over the men.

Sousa held a very low opinion of the emerging and upstart recording industry. In a submission to a congressional hearing in 1906, he argued:

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.

Law professor Lawrence Lessig cited this passage to argue that in creating a system of copyrights in which control of music is in the hands of record labels, Sousa was essentially correct. Sousa also was credited with referring to records as "canned music."

Sousa's antipathy to recording was such that he refused to conduct his band if it was being recorded. Nevertheless, Sousa's band made numerous recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor), usually conducted by Arthur Pryor. A handful of the Victor recordings were actually conducted by Sousa, who also appeared with his band in newsreels and on radio broadcasts (beginning with a 1929 nationwide broadcast on NBC). In 1999, Legacy Records released some of Sousa's historic recordings on CD.

In 1925, he was initiated as an honorary member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music, by the fraternity's Alpha Xi chapter at the University of Illinois.

In 1952, Twentieth Century Fox honored Sousa in their Technicolor feature film Stars and Stripes Forever with Clifton Webb portraying the composer. Fox music director Alfred Newman arranged the music and conducted the studio orchestra for the soundtrack. It was loosely based on Sousa's memoirs, Marching Along.




  • Congressional hearing: in Copyright's Communication Policy by Professor Tim Woo, University of Virginia, May 2004 - Caution, 560k PDF.
  • 75 years after death here, Sousa sells out the Abe - Reading Eagle Newspaper at
  • John Philip Sousa was raised as a freemason at the Hiram-Takoma Lodge #10 in the District of Washington. The website is:
  • Berger, Kenneth. The March King and His Band: The Story of John Philip Sousa. New York: Exposition Press, 1957.
  • Bierley, Paul E. “The Incredible Band of John Philip Sousa”. University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  • Bierley, Paul E. John Philip Sousa, American Phenomenon. Rev. ed. Miami: Warner Brothers Publications, 2001.
  • Bierley, Paul E. “The Works of John Philip Sousa” Integrity Press, 1984.
  • Delaphine, Edward S. John Philip Sousa and the National Anthem. Frederick, MD: Great Southern Press, 1983.
  • Lingg, Ann M. John Philip Sousa. New York: Henry Holt, 1954.
  • Newsom, John, ed. Perspectives on John Philip Sousa. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1983.

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