John Sousa Essay

Artists do not create in a vacuum. They reflect their times or at the very least
are affected by the lives they lead which are also influenced by the public
sphere. The term for this reflection is “Zeitgeist.” It literally means”spirit of the times.” John Philip Sousa and his works can be classified
under this term of “Zeitgeist.” Most of Sousa’s music was composed during
a period known as the gilded age. This period is known for its gross materialism
and blatant political corruption in the United States. However, Sousa’s music
does not seem to reflect this corruption, but rather it reflects a way to deal
with the corruption and mishaps of the times. John Philip Sousa, also known as
the “March King,” was born on November 6,1854, in Washington D.C., near the
marine barracks where his father, Antonio, was a musician in the marine band.


He received his grammar school education in Washington and for several of his
school years enrolled in a private conservatory of music operated by John Esputa,
Jr. . There he studied piano and most of the orchestral instruments, but his
main passion was the violin. He became very good at the violin, and at age 13 he
was almost persuaded to join a circus band . As a young boy, the martial music
of army bands in the streets of Washington during and immediately following the
Civil War had a profound effect on him. When he was not yet fourteen he enlisted
in the Marine Corps and succeeded in becoming a member of the marine band . This
is where he picked up a liking for marches. After being discharged from the
Marine Corps, Sousa toured with several traveling theater orchestras and in 1876
moved to Philadelphia. There he worked as an arranger, composer, and proofreader
for publishing houses . While on tour with an opera company in St. Louis, he
received a telegram offering him leadership of the Marine Band in Washington. He
accepted and reported for duty on October 1, 1880, becoming the band’s 17th
leader . The marine band was Sousa’s first experience conducting a military
band, and he approached it unlike most of his predecessors. Rehearsals became
exceptionally strict, and he shaped his musicians into the country’s premiere
band . The military was important to Sousa’s music style. His main musical
compositions were marches, which were the most widely used form of music in the
military. His first two marches that he wrote as leader of the band, “The
Gladiator” and “Semper Fidelis,” were received with great acclaim in
military band circles and from that time on he received ever-increasing
attention and respect as a composer . Both of these marches were high-spirited
and uplifting, just the thing to raise moral among the troops as well as promote
nationalism within the states. In 1889, Sousa wrote a march called “The
Washington Post” march, which was soon adapted and identified with the new
dance called the two-step. Right after this march was written, a British band
journalist remarked that since Johann Strauss, Jr. was called “The Waltz
King,” that American bandmaster Sousa should be called the “March King.”
With this Sousa’s regal title was coined and has remained ever since . Sousa
lived most of his life during a time known as the gilded age, named after the
famous book by Mark Twain. The gilded age was a time of gross material interest
among the American people and blatant corruption among the politicians . Within
congress the Senate generally overshadowed the House of Representatives. Some
critics even called the Senate a “rich man’s club.” The House was one of
the most disorderly and inefficient legislative bodies in the world. As a result
of the civil war, the division between the Democrats and the Republicans was
even more sectional than ever . In this case it is very hard to find the
“Zeitgeist” in Sousa’s compositions of this time. In fact they even seem
to contradict the spirit of that era. All of the marches that Sousa wrote during
the gilded age were extremely upbeat and energetic, while the time was corrupt
and backhanded. This is because Sousa was responding to the negative messages
being sent out by the political society by helping Americans realize how great
their nation is. All of his musical pieces expressed a certain proud nationalism
that helped the people cope with the harsh times. Sousa’s most famous march,
“The Stars and Stripes Forever,” was written, in 1896, by Sousa on a boat
ride from Europe to the United States. The manager of the Sousa band had just
died and Sousa knew that he had to go back to manage the band. On the whole ride
back he kept hearing a tune over and over in his head. When he got to land he
set the tune down on paper. Eventually he even set words to it . In the march
Sousa proclaims that other nations may think that their flag is the best, “but
the flag of the North and South and West is the flag of flags, the flag of
Freedom’s nation .” This song became so popular with the American people
that Sousa’s band played it at almost every concert until his death . On
December 10, 1987, 55 years after Sousa’s death, “The Stars and Stripes
Forever,” was designated as the national march of the United States. A White
House memorandum states that the march has become “an integral part of the
celebration of American life .” The march is still identified today with the
ideas of freedom and nationalism. In conclusion, John Philip Sousa was a great
American composer who helped America forget their troubles during a time of
disunion and confusion. He reflected the “Zeitgeist” by reacting to the
corruption of the day through music. With his help our nation regained its true
sense of pride.

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