Patrick Warfield is an associate professor of music at the University of Maryland and the editor of John Philip Sousa: Six Marches. He recently answered our questions about his new book Making the March King: John Philip Sousa’s Washington Years, 1854-1893.
Q: Sousa’s music is such a part of Americana we almost take it for granted. Taking a step back from that, how would you describe Sousa’s music and what about it was so appealing to audiences?
Patrick Warfield: Your question nails it with the word “Americana.” We tend to imagine that word with a sense of nostalgia, a looking backward to childhood picnics, firework displays, and holiday parades. In short, we associate Sousa with an imaginary American past. In many ways that was true even at the height of Sousa’s fame. By the 1890s, and certainly the 1910s, America was changing fast: new economic systems were developing, new immigration patterns were emerging, and the country could see itself changing. This was true in music as well. For decades around the turn of the century, concerts were becoming more formalized, music more “serious.” In many ways, Sousa’s appeal to his early twentieth-century audience was also rooted in a sense of nostalgia. For them, he continued to present concerts that mimicked those of the nineteenth century, with a mixture of cultured and vernacular music. In a world where audiences were being separated from their artists by ever more formal concert experiences, Sousa invited them to call for encores and repetitions, and played for them their favorite numbers, which might range from “Annie Laurie” to Richard Wagner. In doing this, Sousa was not creating a new concert experience, but rather harkening back to the less formalized concert of the nineteenth century. This, along with Sousa’s own marches, made him the very embodiment of a deeply masculine, optimistic, and patriotic American past.
Q: Before the Marine Band, what other experiences in performance and music composition did Sousa have?
Warfield: Sousa’s image is today fully intertwined with bands and marches, and so it is easy to forget that Sousa saw himself primarily as a musician of the theater. Before becoming leader of the United States Marine Band in 1880, Sousa had served for several years as an arranger and conductor for a Philadelphia-based amateur operetta company that specialized in the works of Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert (pieces like H.M.S. Pinafore). Prior to that (in 1875 and 1876), he wrote incidental music and conducted the orchestra for two touring theater companies. As a young man in Washington, D.C., Sousa had even served as a violinist and conductor in the pits of Ford’s Opera House and Kernan’s Theatre Comique. In fact, when Sousa took over as Marine Band leader on October 1, 1880, the Washington Post ran a profile that said nothing about his experiences with bands; instead it listed his credentials as an arranger and composer of theater music! What this means is that our modern fixation on Sousa the composer of marches, almost completely misses his early training. By the time Sousa became leader of the Marine Band, he had already arranged operettas and written parlor songs, waltzes, galops, and a schottische. He was also an experienced violinist, and had worked in several publishing houses.
Q: How do you think Sousa’s tenure as the leader of the Marine Band prepared him to create his March King persona?
Warfield: The decade that Sousa served as leader of the Marine Band (1880–1892) was a whirlwind of activity. It was during this period that he wrote the first of his really famous marches (including The Washington Post, 1889). But Sousa also continued his career as a theater musician by writing several original operettas (the most important of which was Désirée, 1884). It was also during this period that Sousa published his first important book (National, Patriotic and Typical Airs of All Lands, 1890), and made his first recordings. In short, the Marine Band years were Sousa’s workshop period, when he had a world-class ensemble at his disposal (much like Haydn at Esterháza or Ellington at the Cotton Club). This constant activity allowed Sousa to refine his skills as a conductor, composer, and arranger. By the time Sousa left the Marine Band to form his own commercial, touring ensemble in 1892, he had developed a reputation as a sort of national musician; an entertainer of presidents. He used this very much to his advantage. In fact, during its first tour, the Sousa Band was called the New Marine Band, drawing on Sousa’s earlier reputation.
Q: Do you think there was a large disparity between Sousa’s public persona, the “March King,” and his private one?
Warfield: Sadly, we’ll never really know. Sousa left behind relatively few personal papers, and his published materials were clearly meant for public consumption (and thus reveal only one side of the March King). That said, Sousa was, by all accounts, a generous, kind, and gentle musician. The picture I paint of Sousa in this book is not one of a charlatan tricking his audience, but rather one of a public figure who selectively highlights elements of his very real history and authentic personality to appeal to a public. In other words, I expect Sousa and the March King were the same man, but there was probably much more to Sousa than was ever revealed by the March King.
Q: In the Prelude, you mention that this is not only a biography of Sousa but of Washington D.C. as well. What about the city’s nineteenth century musical life made his experiences there so crucial to his success as a performer?
Warfield: In reading histories of the national capital, one often finds descriptions of it as “a sleepy southern town.” It’s true that the National Symphony wasn’t founded until 1931, and the National Opera didn’t appear until 1956, but these late dates do not mean that nineteenth-century Washington lacked a vigorous musical life. The city usually had seven or eight active theaters, many of which presented musical events and touring performers. A perusal of nineteenth-century newspapers reveals an endless string of amateur orchestras and opera companies, many of which included Washington’s temporary, political residents, often led by a permanently established musician. And of course, most of Washington’s resident musicians were members of the city’s most illustrious ensemble, the Marine Band.
This national band acted as a kind of clearinghouse for musical employment all across the city. As it happens, Sousa’s father Antonio was a member of the Marine Band, and in 1868 he enlisted his thirteen-year old son John Philip in that organization’s apprentice program. Sousa thus found himself at the center of Washington’s musical world. Through his contacts as an apprentice in the Marine Band he was able to gain experience as a theater musician, which led to his first tours, and establishment as a professional violinist and composer. In short, it was from Washington’s Marine Band that Sousa launched his career, and in Washington’s theaters that he refined it.
Q: What would you describe as the pivotal moment in Sousa’s career that made him so successful?
Warfield: Biographies are rarely made up of pivotal moments, but rather consist of long streams and trends of experiences. For Sousa the important biographical streams were the nurturing musical world of nineteenth-century Washington, and the long workshop period he enjoyed as leader of the Marine Band. Even so, there were two events that seem to have been instrumental in allowing Sousa to enter the public consciousness. During the 1880s, the Marine Band was a local ensemble. It rarely left Washington, and so few people beyond the city had ever hear it or ever heard of its director, John Philip Sousa. In 1889, however, the Columbia Phonograph Company decided to experiment with musical recordings. Looking for a cheap and local ensemble, they set up their equipment at a Marine Band rehearsal, and the “President’s Own” became the first large ensemble to make musical recordings. These cylinders, of course, received a great deal of press, and are likely what attracted the attention of the musical manager David Blakely. It was Blakely who arranged for the Marine Band’s very first tours in 1891 and 1892, and it was through these tours that Sousa discovered the financial and artistic rewards of a life on the road. If Sousa had never met Blakely, he might well have spent his career as a respected, but only locally known, musician. But because he took a chance on an untested technology and risked his stable military employment for a less secure life on the road, Sousa was propelled into American culture as the March King.