Washington, D.C. native and legendary bandmaster John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) wrote a dozen operettas, six full-length operas, and over 100 marches, earning the title “March King”. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at an early age and went on to become the conductor of the President’s Own Marine Band at age 26. In 1892 he formed “Sousa and his Band”, which toured the United States and the world under his directorship for the next forty years to great acclaim. Not only was Sousa’s band hugely popular, but it also exposed audiences all over the world to the latest, cutting-edge music, bringing excerpts of Wagner’s Parsifal to New York a decade before the Metropolitan Opera staged it, and introducing ragtime to Europe, helping to spark many a composer’s interest in American music.
Here are some well-researched program notes on Stars & stripes from the Band Music PDF Library.
Stars and Stripes Forever (march) is considered the finest march ever written, and the same time one of the most patriotic ever conceived. As reported in the Philedelphia Public Ledger (May 15, 1897) “… It is stirring enough to rouse the American eagle from his crag, and set him to shriek exultantly while he hurls his arrows at the aurora borealis.” (referring to the concert the Sousa Band gave the previous day at the Academy of Music). (Research done by Elizabeth Hartman, head of the music department, Free Library of Philadelphia. [Quote] taken from John Philip Sousa, Descriptive Catalog of his Works (Paul E. Bierley, University of Illinois Press, 1973, page 71)).
The march was not quite so well received though and actually got an over average rating for a new Sousa march. Yet, its popularity grew as Mr. Sousa used it during the Spanish-American War as a concert closer. Coupled with his Trooping of the Colors, the march quickly gained a vigorous response from audiences and critics alike. In fact, audiences rose from their chairs when the march was played. Mr. Sousa added to the entertainment value of the march by having the piccolo(s) line up in front of the band for the final trio, and then added the trumpets and trombones [to] join them on the final repeat of the strain.
The march was performed on almost all of Mr. Sousa’s concerts and always drew tears to the eyes of the audience. The author has noted the same emotional response of audiences to the march today. The march has been named as the national march of the United States.
There are two commentaries of how the march was inspired. The first came as the result of an interview on Mr. Sousa’s patriotism. According to Mr. Sousa, the march was written with the inspiration of God.
“I was in Europe and I got a cablegram that my manager was dead. I was in Italy and I wished to get home as soon as possible. I rushed to Genoa, then to Paris and to England and sailed for America. On board the steamer as I walked miles up and down the deck, back and forth, a mental band was playing ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’ Day after day as i walked it persisted in crashing into my very soul. I wrote in on Christmas Day, 1896.” (Taken from program notes for the week beginning August 19th, 1923. Bierley, John Philip Sousa, page 71.)
Researched by Marcus L. Neiman, Medina, Ohio
The wikipedia article on Stars & Stripes is bit thin on references, but it does allow you to listen to a vintage recording of Sousa himself conducting the march, from 1909. The Stars & Stripes page at the Dallas Wind Symphony has other old recordings and Sousa’s original lyrics for the march.
Read more about the Sousa Band and its history at naxosdirect.com. Click the link that says “Read more about this recording.”
Stars & Stripes is one of many Sousa marches (and other pieces by turn of the 19th-20th century composers) available at the Band Music PDF Library for free. I encourage any enterprising band directors to take a look.
Check out this legit performance of Stars & Stripes, courtesy of the President’s Own United States Marine Band. If you don’t like the conductor’s very informative monologue, skip to the performance at around 1:00.
Now, the Muppets’ take on Stars & Stripes:
Finally, an inspiring trombone choir version: