Year
1854

John Philip Sousa is born

John Philip Sousa did not invent the musical genre he came to personify, but even if no other composer had ever written a single piece in the same style, the standard repertoire of the American marching band would be little changed. The instantly recognizable sound of Sousa’s timeless pieces—”The Washington Post” (1889), “The Liberty Bell” (1893), and “Stars And Stripes Forever” (1896)—is permanently etched in many Americans’ memory banks. One of the most popular, prolific and important American composers of all time, John Philip Sousa—”the March King”—was born in Washington, D.C., on this day in 1854

The son of a United States Marine Band trombonist, John Philip Sousa began his musical education at the age of six, but his musical and political sensibilities were shaped as much by external events as by his formal training. Raised in the nation’s capital during the Civil War, Sousa was exposed to military music on a regular basis, and at a time when the role of military bands was not merely to provide entertainment and stoke patriotic fervor among civilians, but sometimes to accompany actual marches onto the field of combat. Following the war, Sousa served a seven-year apprenticeship in the Marine Band and then returned as the group’s Director in 1880. It was in the late 1880s that he began to make his name not just as the conductor of America’s oldest professional musical organization, but as a composer in the patriotic style of music he’d been immersed in since childhood

Sousa would compose upwards of 300 diverse musical works in his long and prosperous career, but it is his 136 marches for which he is best known. After leaving the Marine Band, he became the leader of his own group, the Sousa Band, which he would lead from 1892 until shortly before his death in 1932. Ironically, although it was a major international concert draw traveling the world and playing its conductor’s famous marches, the Sousa Band rarely ever marched. It did, however, make John Philip Sousa a very wealthy and famous individual, as well as making his very name synonymous with some of the most quintessentially American music ever written

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