Classic Cat

Biography of

John Philip Sousa

6 nov 1854 (Washington D.C.) - 6 mar 1932 (Reading, PA)
Buy sheetmusic from Sousa at SheetMusicPlus
John Philip Sousa
November 6, 1854(1854-11-06) – March 6, 1932 (aged 77)
Sousa in 1900; photo by Elmer Chickering
Nickname The March King
Place of birth Washington, D.C., United
Place of death Reading, Pennsylvania
Place of burial Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch United States Marine Corps
United States Navy
Years of service Marines: 1868-1875, 1880-1892; Navy: 1917-1918
Rank Warrant Officer (Marines), Lieutenant Commander (Navy)
Commands held U.S. Marine Band, U.S. Navy Great Lakes Naval Station Band
~ John Philip Sousa~
Issue of 1940

John Philip Sousa (pronounced /ˈsuːsə/[1]; November 6, 1854 – March 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, he is known as "The March King."



John Philip Sousa was born in Washington, D.C., on November 6, 1854, to John Antonio Sousa and Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus. His parents were of Portuguese and Bavarian (German) descent.[2] Sousa started his music education by 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 to keep him from joining a circus band. 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.[citation needed]

On December 30, 1879, Sousa married Jane van Middlesworth Bellis (1862–1944). They had three children together: John Philip, Jr. (April 1, 1881 – May 18, 1937), Jane Priscilla (August 7, 1882 – October 28, 1958), and Helen (January 21, 1887 – October 14, 1975). All are buried in the John Philip Sousa plot in the Congressional Cemetery. Jane joined the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1907.[citation needed]

Several years after serving his apprenticeship, Sousa joined 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 led "The President's Own" band under five presidents from Rutherford B. Hayes to Benjamin Harrison. Sousa's band played at two Inaugural Balls, those of James Garfield in 1881, and Benjamin Harrison in 1889.[3][4]

Sousa organized his own band the year he left the Marine Band. The Sousa Band toured from 1892–1931, performing at 15,623 concerts.[5] 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.[citation needed] In 1911 they went to Australia and performed in Sydney and Melbourne (then the national capital).

Sousa's birthplace, still standing on G St., S.E., in Washington, D.C.

The marching brass bass, or sousaphone, was created by J. W. Pepper - a Philadelphia instrument maker who created the instrument in 1893 at Mr. Sousa's request using several of his suggestions in its design. He wanted a tuba that could sound upward and over the band whether its player was seated or marching. The sousaphone was re-created in 1898 by C. G. Conn and this was the model that Sousa preferred to use.

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.[citation needed]

Sousa lived in Sands Point, New York. A school (John Philip Sousa Elementary) and a band shell are named after him and there is also 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.[6]

Sousa died of heart failure at the age of 77 at approximately 1:30 in the morning on March 6, 1932, in his room on the fourteenth floor of the Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Reading, Pennsylvania. He had conducted a rehearsal of "Stars and Stripes Forever" the previous day with the Ringgold Band. He is buried in Washington, D.C.'s Congressional Cemetery.[7]

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 and the Marine Corps Band, 1893


Sousa wrote 136 marches, published by the Sam Fox Publishing Company beginning in 1917 and continuing until his death.[8] Some of his most popular and notable are:

Sousa wrote marches for several American universities, including University of Illinois, University of Nebraska, Kansas State University, Marquette University, and University of Minnesota.[citation needed]


  • 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[11]
  • Chris and the Wonderful Lamp (1899)
  • The Free Lance (1905)
  • The American Maid (1909), also known as The Glass Blowers.

These operettas 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 H.M.S. 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.[12] He also frequently added Sullivan opera overtures or other Sullivan pieces to his concerts.[5]

Sousa the Freemason

Although Freemasonry is an organization influenced by religious beliefs, John Philip Sousa himself was not. He was an Episcopalian, and while tolerant of religious beliefs in general, he personally regarded music as providing more Divine inspiration for people than Sunday sermons.[13] He is also widely quoted saying, "My religion lies in my composition."[14]

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.[citation needed]

As a Freemason, Sousa was fascinated by what the group considered mystical qualities in natural phenomena. According to Sten Odenwald of the NASA IMAGE Science Center,[15] 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.[citation needed]

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.[16]

Sousa also composed a march, "Nobles of the Mystic Shrine", dedicated to the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, also known as the Shriners.[17]

Other writing, skills, and interests

Sousa exhibited many talents aside from music. He wrote three novels -- "The Fifth String," "Pipetown Sandy," and "The Transit of Venus" -- as well as a full-length autobiography, Marching Along and a great number of articles and letters-to-the-editor on a variety of subjects. His skill as a horseman met championship criteria.[citation needed] He was also a connoisseur of cheese.[citation needed]

As a trapshooter, he ranks as one of the all-time greats, and he is enshrined in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame.[18] 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.

Sousa circa 1880s
Sousa's grave at Congressional Cemetery

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’."[18]

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."

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.[19]

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[20] 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," referring to the fact that cylinder records were sold in cans.

Sousa's antipathy to recording was such that he often refused to conduct his band if it was being recorded. Nevertheless, Sousa's band made numerous recordings, the earliest being issued on cylinders by several companies, followed by many recordings on discs by the Berliner Gramophone Company and its successor, the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor). The Berliner recordings were conducted by Henry Higgins (one of Sousa's cornet soloists) and Arthur Pryor (Sousa's trombone soloist and assistant conductor), with Sousa quoted as saying,[21] "I have never been in the gramophone company's office in my life." A handful of the Victor recordings were actually conducted by Sousa, but most were conducted by Pryor, Herbert L. Clarke, Edwin H. Clarke, or by four of Victor's most prolific house musicians: Walter B. Rogers (who had also been a cornet soloist with Sousa), Rosario Bourdon, Josef Pasternack, and Nathaniel Shilkret.[21] Details of the Victor recordings are available in the external link below to the EDVR.

Sousa 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.[22]

In 1922, he accepted the invitation of the national chapter to become an honorary member of Kappa Kappa Psi, the national honorary band fraternity. Later, 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, 20th 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.

Sousa also wrote " A manual for trumpet and drum" an excellent booklet, published by the Ludwig drum company, with fine advice for the playing of the drum and trumpet. An early version of the trumpet solo to "Semper Fidelis" is included in this volume.


Stars and Stripes Forever
A 1909 Edison Records recording of Sousa's Band performing Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever.
Semper Fidelis March
John Philip Sousa's Semper Fidelis March, the official march of the U.S. Marine Corps. Performed by the U.S. Marine Band in June 1909.
Comrades of the Legion
John Philip Sousa's march "Comrades of the Legion" (1920), from "The President's Own" United States Marine Band's album "Semper Fidelis": Music of John Philip Sousa


  1. ^ Merriam-Webster Also commonly /ˈsuːzə/.
  2. ^ "The Library of Congress Biography: John Philip Sousa". Retrieved 2008-01-10. 
  3. ^ James A. Garfield (1989). "Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States". 
  4. ^ Benjamin Harrison (1989). "Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States". 
  5. ^ a b Bierley, Paul Edmund, “The Incredible Band of John Philip Sousa”. University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  6. ^ Richard Greenwood (May 30, 1975), National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: John Philip Sousa HomePDF (351 KB), National Park Service  and Accompanying photos, exterior, from 1975PDF (1.09 MB)
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Sam Fox, 89, Dies; Music Publisher", New York Times, December 1, 1971
  9. ^ "US Code: Title 36, 304". Cornell Law School. 2006-10-30. Retrieved 2006-11-02. 
  10. ^ Army Regulation 220-90, Army Bands, 27 November 2000, para 2-5f, g
  11. ^ Vocal score of The Charlatan
  12. ^ Hughes, Gervase. Composers of Operetta, New York, 1962
  13. ^ Bierley, Paul E. John Philip Sousa: American Phenomenon, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973p. 102
  14. ^
  15. ^ TransitFAQs at
  16. ^ John Philip Sousa & The Transit of Venus at
  17. ^ Hodapp, Christopher. Solomon's Builders: Freemasons, Founding Fathers and the Secrets of Washington, D. C. Ulysses Press, 2007. p. 268
  18. ^ a b "John Philip Sousa". National Trapshooting Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 2008-05-05. Retrieved 2008-02-25. 
  19. ^ Willow Grove Park
  20. ^ Lawrence Lessig, 2008, Remix: making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy, London: Bloomsbury Academic. Chapter 1.
  21. ^ a b Smart, James R., The Sousa Band: A Discography, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 1970
  22. ^ "March King: John Philip Sousa Conducts His Own Marches". Retrieved 2008-02-25. 


External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "John Philip Sousa. Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.
Buy sheetmusic from Sousa at SheetMusicPlus

Our dream: to make the world's treasury of classical music accessible for everyone. See the about page on how we see the future.
Help us with donations or by making music available!

Contact     Privacy policy    Looking for classical mp3 downloads? We index the free-to-download classical mp3s on the internet.
©2023 Classic Cat - the classical music directory
Sheet Music Plus Featured Sale