Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Reading, Berks County
American ?March King? John Philip Sousa died while on tour in Reading.
Awards: Hollywood Walk of Fame
On November 6, 1854, John Philip Sousa was born in Washington, D.C. He began to play the violin at the age of six. Five years later, Sousa became an apprentice for the Marine Band, and he later became the conductor. John Philip Sousa was known as the “March King” because of his fabulous marches. His most popular march is The Stars and Stripes Forever. John Philip Sousa died on March 6, 1932, in Reading, Pennsylvania, from a heart attack.
John Philip Sousa was born on November 6, 1854, in Washington, D.C. His father, John Antonio Sousa, was a Spaniard of Portuguese ancestry who played the trombone for a living. In spite of his musical talents, John Antonia Sousa’s real love was literature. Some of John Philip Sousa’s childhood memories included his father reading. His mother, Maria Elizabeth Trinkhaus, was of German descent. Antonio Sousa and Elizabeth Trinkhaus met in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of five, John Philip Sousa could not attend school because he nearly died after a food-related prank. He wanted to make his mother feel sorry for not allowing him to eat one more doughnut, so he slept outside in the pouring rain. When Elizabeth Sousa found him, he was “a soaked and shivering bundle, half-unconscious from exposure and fear” according to Ann M. Lingg. Young Sousa ended up catching pneumonia, which caused other complications for nearly two years. These complications resulted in Sousa needing to be home-schooled. John Philip Sousa’s sister, Tinnie, and his father taught him reading, writing, and arithmetic. Signor and Signora Esputa, friends of the family, were the first people who taught Sousa music. Two years later, Sousa attended the neighborhood conservatory, and he excelled. At the age of 11, John Philip Sousa made his debut on the violin without any hint of stage fright. During the same year, he became the leader of a band comprised of older men. Sousa’s leadership was short-lived. The men in the band demanded a raise; however, the company could not afford it. Sousa’s first band folded due to limited finances of the company. In June 1868, Sousa was playing the violin in the front parlor of his house. A stranger knocked on the door to find out who was playing such splendid music. This stranger was the bandleader of a circus. He wanted Sousa to come play in the circus band. Sousa was forced to decline the offer since his father would not allow him to join the circus band. Surprisingly, Sousa’s father secured an apprenticeship for John Philip Sousa in the Marine Band the following day. John Philip Sousa was 13 ½-years-old when he joined The Marine Band. He remained in the Marine Band until the age of 20. John Philip Sousa knew then that he wanted to be a violinist and a composer. He studied with Felix Benkert, one of the greatest musicians of his day. During Sousa’s twenties, his musical training was completed. Moonlight on the Potomac was the first composition for which Sousa was paid. He played the violin professionally in several orchestras, which included performances at Ford’s Theatre and the Washington Theatre, Comique. Sousa received a special discharge from the Marine Corps to work at the Ford’s Theater. He later moved to Chicago and Philadelphia, but did not stay long in either city. Sousa returned to Washington, where he completed his first operetta, Katherine; his first published operetta was The Smugglers. John Philip Sousa met his future wife, Jane van Middlesworth Bellis, during a rehearsal of HMS Pinafore in February 1879. They courted and married on December 30, 1879. At the time of their wedding, Bellis was 16-years-old and Sousa was 25-years-old. They later had two daughters: Jane and Helen. In September 1880, Sousa became the leader of the U.S. Marine Band. By taking this job, Sousa actually received a lower salary; however, he was rewarded with a successful reputation. During his leadership, Sousa instituted numerous changes in the U.S. Marine Band. Rehearsals became strict, causing 25 percent of the players to drop out. Sousa also changed the library of music by adding some of his own transcriptions. The debut of Sousa’s new band was successful, which increased the popularity of the U.S. Marine Band, thus becoming America’s premier military band. The Columbian Phonograph Company wanted to record a military band with the newest technology of the time, the phonograph. They sought out the best band and chose the U.S. Marine Band. In 1890, 60 cylinders were released. In the next two years, Sousa’s marches became the most popular pieces recorded. Under Sousa’s leadership, the U.S. Marine Band went on tour twice. After 12 years as the leader of the U.S. Marine Band, Sousa left to start his own band. A farewell concert was held on the White House lawn on July 30, 1892. The new band auditions were held in Philadelphia and New York, attracting the finest musicians around. Sousa took over a month to select his band. On September 26, 1892, the Sousa Band performed for the first time at Stillman Music Hall in Plainfield, New Jersey. The name of the new band was “Sousa’s New Marine Band,” but Sousa did not like it. The band performed at the World’s Fair, so they temporarily became known as “World’s Fair Band.” The band later went on a successful tour from Chicago to the New England states. John Philip Sousa was known as the “March King,” a title given by a British journalist. Sousa composed his marches during a time when Americans were full of optimism. According to Paul E. Bierley, “In the military camp, in the crowded streets of the city when the troops march to the front in the ballroom, in the concert hall, at the seaside and in the mountains, go where you may, you hear Sousa, always Sousa.” This demonstrates the popularity of Sousa’s marches. His most famous work, The Stars and Stripes Forever, was written after the death of Sousa’s good friend and band manager, David Blakely. It is quite fitting that John Phillip Sousa composed a march to remember his friend. Sousa was unique; he was the only composer who toured with his own musical organization. He was the most successful bandmaster in musical history and played a march at almost every concert. John Phillip Sousa was well-known for his marches, hence his title of March King.” Sousa also wrote books in addition to music, including the best-seller Fifth String and Marching Along: Recollection of Men, Women, and Music, his autobiography. In December 1901, Sousa won the Medal of the Victorian Order from King Edward VII of England. He received this award following a surprise birthday concert for King Edward VII’s wife, Queen Alexandra. Additionally, the sousaphone is named after John Phillip Sousa. The sousaphone is a tuba that wraps around the body, making it easier for marching band instrumentalists. The low notes of a sousaphone are needed in the marches composed by Sousa. There is an award named after Sousa, the John Philip Sousa Award. This award is given to a student who has an outstanding achievement in music. Many high school music departments honor John Philip Sousa by recognizing musical talent and by playing his timeless marches. In 1932, John Philip Sousa died in Reading, Pennsylvania. Sousa was in town to conduct an anniversary concert of the Ringgold Band. He died at approximately 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 6, on the fourteenth floor of the Abraham Lincoln Hotel due to a heart attack. Sousa’s funeral was held in the Marine Band Auditorium and was aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System. After his death, Sousa was honored in several noteworthy events. On December 9, 1939, the newly constructed Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge was dedicated to John Philip Sousa. Sousa is commemorated with a star at 1500 Vine Street on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1976, Sousa was included in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, which was made public during a ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. In 1998, John Phillip Sousa was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in Cincinnati, Ohio. Additionally, the Marine Band rededicated its band hall as “John Philip Sousa Band Hall.” John Phillip Sousa’s most prestigious award occurred in 1987 when Congress named The Stars and Stripes Forever as the National March of the United States.
President Garfield’s Inauguration March, 1881.
Semper Fidelis, 1888.
The Washington Post, 1889.
King Cotton, 1895.
El Capitan, 1896.
The Stars and Stripes Forever, 1896.
Moonlight on the Potomac, 1872.
Fifth String, Indianapolis: Bowen Merrill, 1902.
Marching Along: Recollections of Men, Women, and Music, Boston: Hale, Cushman, and Flint, 1928. Rev. ed. by Paul E. Bierley. Westerville, OH: Integrity Press, 1994.
The Smugglers, 1882.
Bierley, Paul E. John Philip Sousa American Pheomenon. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1973.
Heslip, Malcolm. Nostalgic Happenings in the Three Bands of John Philip Sousa. Laguna Hills, CA: Malcolm Heslip, 1982.
John Philip Sousa. “March King: John Philip Sousa Conducts His Own Marches.” 1999.
“John Philip Sousa (1854-1932).” United States Marine Band: Hall of Composers. 28 Nov. 2006. 28 Nov. 2006.
Linng, Ann M. John Philip Sousa. NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1954.
Newsom, Jon. Perspectives on John Philip Sousa. Washington: Library of Congress, 1983.