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Sousa-palooza: America’s favorite composer is a constant companion for the Fourth

NDSU Associate Professor of Music and Director of Bands Warren Olfert with sheet music for John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Olfert says that historians have been updating the sheet music in recent years to be closer to what Sousa’s own band would have performed back in the late 19th century. Kris Kerzman / The Arts Partnership1 / 2
The marches of John Philip Sousa have remained popular during our Independence Day celebrations, despite the dramatic changes in taste since his death in 1932. Special to The Forum 2 / 2

MOORHEAD - Piccolo players don’t usually get much of a time to shine –not until the Fourth of July when the band turns to John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

Flutist and piccolo player Deb Harris, a professor of flute at Concordia College, has felt the rush of that march’s dramatic melodies and rhythm. Over the years, she’s played the coveted piccolo solo professionally countless times, the “most famous piccolo solo ever,” she says.

Harris isn’t the only one who connects to that tune, or its composer, in such a way. The marches of John Philip Sousa are a constant companion during our Independence Day celebrations, despite the dramatic changes in taste since his death in 1932.

Harris credits that connection to the fact that most musicians in the U.S., from junior high bands on up, typically have at least that one Sousa tune in their repertoire.

“It’s interesting how one tune or one piece can get so ingrained in us and the amount it gets played,” Harris says. “The spirit of it is so upbeat and it really brings you in, which is not true with every march. It’s such a wonderful composition.”

And then, of course, there is Sousa’s close connection to our national identity.

“It’s kind of the musical version of chanting ‘USA, USA!’ ” she adds.

Sousa’s career

Born in 1854 in Washington, D.C., Sousa pursued music from an early age and came along at a perfect time to make the impact he did with his music, says Warren Olfert, associate professor of music and director of bands at North Dakota State University.

Sousa received instruction from some of the world’s best teachers and joined the U.S. Marine Band as an apprentice at the age of 13. He did so at the behest of his father, who didn’t want him to join a circus band.

He left the Marine Band 1892 to form his own traveling group. The Sousa Band toured extensively throughout an expanding country and the world, including five stops here in Fargo between 1896 and 1924.

It was during this time that Sousa really made his mark, Olfert says, reaching scores of people – many in places still new to the Union – who had little access to live music of that caliber.

“The Sousa Band played at such a high level and was so extraordinary, it was something everyone had to see,” Olfert says. “Without all the traveling, there wouldn’t have been music in many of these towns. Bismarck and Fargo in 1900 would have been rather out-of-the-way places, but he performed there.”

A wildly prolific composer (his donated library of music at the University of Illinois is still being catalogued some 80 years after his death), Sousa gave preference to his own compositions. But Olfert says Sousa also traveled with an opera singer and performed music by the German composer Richard Wagner, which at the time, was contemporary music. People came out in droves.

“The attendance and the number of people who came to these concerts probably exceeded what we would today call ‘rock star’ standards,” Olfert adds, comparing Sousa’s draw to the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Rolling Stones.

The spirit of Sousa

Sousa enjoyed enormous commercial success and became a millionaire thanks to his work ethic and the high-caliber musicians he employed, says Sousa scholar and Hawley (Minn.) High School band director Keith Wander.

But, he was also giving people a new, exciting style of music to match the burgeoning growth of a new country.

Wander says Sousa was “intensely patriotic,” and it seems only natural his music would become ingrained into the fabric of the United States and still be prominent all these years later.

“It’s distinctly American music. There were a lot of marches at the time, but they were mostly European. Sousa had a different flavor and used different forms. It was his own style,” Wander says.