John Philip Sousa (1854–1932) was dubbed the March King. In the days when every town had its brass band and parades were major social occasions, marches were much more a part of American culture, and Sousa's music was wildly popular. He penned many instantly recognizable marches: "The Stars and Stripes Forever," "The Liberty Bell," "The Thunderer," "Semper Fidelis," "The Washington Post," "El Capitan," and "U.S. Field Artillery" are just a few of the 136 he composed. Far from being merely utilitarian or primitive, his marches are often small masterpieces, with indelible tunes, adept harmonies, and nicely contrasted trios. There is never any superfluous musical material in them -- Sousa wrote in his autobiography that a march "must be as free from padding as a marble statue."
Sousa's father was a trombonist in the U.S. Marine Band, and enlisted his son as an apprentice at age 13. Discharged at 21 in 1875, young JPS found work in the theater as a violinist and conductor (he played for Jacques Offenbach in the orchestra at Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition and conducted Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta H.M.S. Pinafore on Broadway). In 1880, he rejoined the Marine Band as its conductor. Not a marching band per se, its main duty as "The President's Own" was to perform at the White House for parties and other events (including the wedding of President Arthur), and it played much more than marches. During Sousa's tenure as its conductor, he raised the Marine Band's standards and broadened its repertoire, including many arrangements of classical music.
In 1890 the Marine Band made its first recordings, using the cylinder format, for the Columbia Phonograph Company. Their sound is quite primitive -- this was still new technology at that point, as the first commercial prerecorded cylinders had only been released the previous year. Sousa was not fond of these recordings, as the equipment's limitations required changing the instrumentation and diminishing the number of players. With short disc playing times a factor, some pieces even had to be abbreviated. It is not actually known whether or not he conducted the 1890-92 Marine Band recordings, but it seems to be generally believed that he did not.
After two national tours proved popular, in 1892 Sousa's manager persuaded him to resign from the Marine Band to form a civilian band bearing his own name which toured the world and was a guaranteed "draw" across the United States. Though he'd disliked the recording process, he saw that it helped in spreading his music's popularity, and by the mid-1920s the technology had improved sufficiently that he no longer objected to the process. Whether under him (Sousa led four recordings in 1917-18 after the U.S. entered World War I, and led three more in the '20s) or other conductors (several of whom had played in the group), the Sousa Band made 65 recordings.
Sousa Marches Played by the Sousa Band: The Complete Commercial Recordings 1897-1930 (Crystal) is a three-CD compilation of this material. Though the sound quality on the earliest material may scare away casual listeners, there's a treasure trove of material here for enthusiasts. All the aforementioned marches are included here along with a nice additional selection.
This set contains multiple recordings of the most popular marches, and it's easy to hear how the documented music changed sound and character as recording techniques became more sophisticated and able to capture a wider sonic and dynamic range. There are also the varying conducting styles of Sousa, Arthur Pryor, Walter B. Rogers, Nathaniel Shilkret, Herbert L. Clarke, Rosario Bourdon, and others. Sousa takes the most relaxed tempos, though keeping strictly to one speed in each march, while Pryor tends to be fastest.
"The Stars and Stripes Forever," probably his most popular march and the one Sousa was most proud of, is heard in versions recorded in 1929 by Sousa (for his 75th birthday, and including a short introductory speech by him) and in 1901, 1903, and yet again in 1926 by Pryor. Lesser-known marches, such as Sousa's 1918 "Solid Men to the Front" -- written near the end of World War I -- are no less interesting.
The extensive liner notes include a paragraph about each march in the set, explaining which organizations they were written for and when, along with recording information for each track. The sound quality varies wildly, of course, with material from the mid-'20s on (when electrical recording took over) coming across most clearly. This is a fascinating and valuable collection.
Of course, most listeners will prefer the improved sound quality of modern recordings, though obviously we lose the direct connection to the interpretations of the composer and his chosen conductors. In the late 1990s Altissimo issued, with no documentation of recording dates, several discs of the United States Marine Band in Sousa repertoire, not only marches but also, for instance, selections from Sousa's operetta The Bride Elect. The four in the Sousa Original series each feature a late 1890s (from after Sousa's tenure) cylinder recording as a bonus, the one on volume 1 being the 1890 "Washington Post March." Vol. 3 credits s conductor Col. Albert Schoepper, the ensemble's leader from 1955 to '72; vol. 4's conductor is Col. Timothy W. Foley, director from 1996 to 2004. Another Altissimo CD credited to Schoepper is Sousa's Greatest Hits & Some That Should Have Been, an 18-track collection. Playing and sound on the three I have are, aside from the cylinder recordings, uniformly excellent.
Completists will enjoy Naxos's extensive documentation of Sousa's output in its American Classics series, including a 14-CD series of the complete wind ensemble music that uses a variety of groups all led by Sousa expert Keith Brion; be warned that not all the bands are of high quality.
Collectors of hi-fi vinyl will remember the Eastman Wind Ensemble, conducted by Frederick Fennell (who had performed under the direction of the elderly Sousa at Interlochen; there is a very interesting and detailed article about Sousa by him), on their '60s Sousa LPs for Mercury's Living Presence series: Sound Off: Marches by John Philip Sousa (1960) and Sousa on Review (1961), eventually combined on a single CD. The sonic warmth, fat bass, and realistic soundstage on these three-microphone (omnidirectional Schoeps M201s) stereo recordings make them classics of the type and much-coveted by audiophiles, whether they prefer CDs or vinyl.
Finally, in the category of purely digital Sousa recordings, pretty much everybody agrees that the Dallas Wind Symphony's Strictly Sousa, on the estimable audiophile label Reference Recordings, is tops. Myself, I'd like a little less snare drum, but other than that it's pretty much perfect in terms of both sonics (crystalline) and performances (flawless intonation, which in wind ensembles is saying something). That is, until they get to the hilarious outtake of the "Liberty Bell March" where they used a replica casting of the actual Liberty Bell. Nice that they had a sense of humor about sharing the excruciating result! -Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who recently composed and recorded the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.