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ClassicsOnline Home » SOUSA: On Wings of Lightning
By James M. Keller
By David Vernier
John Philip Sousa
Volume 3: On Wings of Lightning
This recording celebrates Sousa's important
early associations with dance and the music theatre. Picture a young John
Philip Sousa, a tiny young man aged eleven, confidently standing in front of a
group of much older musicians, playing his violin in the style of the famous
Strauss and leading his own popular dance orchestra as Washington's society
swirls and dances in front of him. It is impossible to overestimate the effect
this interaction of the young man, his orchestra and the dancers was to have on
the later Sousa -the composer to be. He was once quoted as saying, "I want
my marches to make a man with a wooden leg stand up and dance." The dance
never left him. Dancing rhythms for ever permeated his compositions, marches
and dances alike. A young Dance Prince begat the March King.
Soon also, his musical activities brought
him to the theatre, where he began to experience the close and often raucous
give and take of audience and performer that constituted the popular side of
nineteenth century American theatre and early vaudeville. By the age of 21 he
was the leader, arranger and concert master of the orchestra at Ford's Theatre
in Washington. Later he led the Chestnut Street Theatre Orchestra in Philadelphia.
Once again the magical chemistry of music and rhythm, as it reaches for
audiences, became central to the composer's thinking.
While many of the dances found here stem
from this early period of Sousa's life, these initial encounters with the
infectiousness of music and how it infuses dancers and listeners never left
him. Throughout his long and sparkling career he continued to write music for
each new craze: waltzes, galops, two-steps, gavottes, tangos, cakewalks, rags,
polkas, marches of course, and sometimes even a foxtrot or two.
Special thanks to Loras Schissel, Music Division, Library of
Congress, and to Sousa's biographer, Paul E. Bierley, author of John Philip Sousa,
an American Phenomenon.
Programme notes on the individual selections are freely
drawn from The Works of John Philip Sousa by
Paul E Bierley, Integrity Press, Westerville, OH, USA.
March: The Gladiator (1886)
Nothing among Sousa's memoirs reveals the
identity of the "gladiator", but the first printing of the sheet
music carried a dedication to Charles F. Towle of Boston. Towle was a
journalist who was editor of the Boston
Traveller at the time this march was written, but the nature of his
association with Sousa is not known. Sousa's daughter, Helen, conjectured that
her father might have been inspired by a literary account of some particular
gladiator; it is unlikely that he would have dedicated a march to gladiators in
general because of their ferocity and deeds of inhumanity, but perhaps one
noble gladiator who had been a victim of circumstances might have been his
inspiration. There has also been speculation that the march had some Masonic
significance, inasmuch as it was written at the time he was
"knighted" in Columbia Commandery No.2, Knights Templar, but this
For Sousa, The
Gladiator brought back both happy and unhappy memories. In 1885 he
had written the dirge The Honored Dead for
Stopper and Fisk, a music publisher in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. They were so
pleased that they asked him to write a quickstep march. He responded with The Gladiator, but they rejected it. Their
shortsightedness cost them dearly; Sousa then sold it to Harry Coleman of
Philadelphia and it eventually sold over a million copies.
Tango: The Gliding Girl (1912)
According to a story circulated among former
Sousa Band members, Sousa's daughter Priscilla gave him the idea for The Gliding Girl. She had just returned
from Europe, reporting that the tango was all the rage there. She gave him a
demonstration by gliding around the room and he captured her graceful motions
March: The Federal (1910)
Just before embarking on his world tour of
1910-11, Sousa composed The Federal March in
honour of the people of Australia and New Zealand, including both in his
dedication, "to the Australasians". The title was to have been The Land of the Golden Fleece, but The Federal was suggested to Sousa by Sir
George Reid, the High Commissioner for Australia, who heard it in London at the
beginning of the tour. The original title was not wasted; Sousa used In the Land of the Golden Fleece later for
a second movement of his suite, Tales of a
The Presidential Polonaise (1886)
Towards the end of his term, President
Arthur engaged Sousa in conversation concerning the suitability of the
presidential salutation "Hail to the Chief". When Sousa revealed that
it was actually an old Scottish boating song, Arthur instructed him to replace
it with a more suitable composition.
Sousa's replacement consisted of two pieces,
Presidential Polonaise and the
march Semper Fidelis (1888). Presidential Polonaise was used for state
affairs at the White House. Curiously, Sousa's band score is entitled In Echelon Polonaise.
Circus Galop from The Irish Dragoon (1915)
Two nearly complete versions of the operetta
The Irish Dragoon were discovered
in the basement of Sousa's Sands Point estate in 1965. One version is written
in the hand of another composer, not identified on the manuscripts. The other
is in Sousa's hand. His daughter Helen revealed that he had purchased the
libretto from Joseph Herbert and that the first composer's work was part of the
package received. Sousa evidently set this aside and composed his own music.
Among the songs that were given titles are The
Blarney Stone, The Showman’s Song,
Their Life and Joy and Whish!
Hiroo! The only other selections with titles are the overture and
apiece called Circus Galop.
Sandalphon Waltzes (1886)
Rose Cleveland, daughter of President Grover
Cleveland, was the young lady to whom the forgotten Sandalphon Waltzes were dedicated. Sousa once remarked that
if there ever lived a kinder or sweeter-mannered woman than Miss Cleveland, it
had not been his lot to meet her. He did not make known the origin of the
March: The Belle of Chicago (1892)
Sousa was criticized for the march The Belle of Chicago which he composed as
a salute to the ladies of Chicago. Among the protests made by Chicago newsmen
were that "Mr Sousa evidently regards the Chicago belle as a powerful
creature, with the swinging stride of a giant, a voice like a foghorn and feet
like sugar-cured hams."
Silver Spray Schottische (1878)
American songs with "Silver Spray"
or "Silver Fountain" in their titles were common in the late 1870s
and early 1880s. Some of them were doubtless inspired by the award-winning
fountain designed by Frederic Bartholdi for the Philadelphia Centennial
Exposition of 1876. Sousa's schottische was
dedicated to a Washington acquaintance, Charles F. Eaton.
Foxtrot: Peaches and Cream (1924)
The foxtrot Peaches
and Cream was introduced as an encore on the 1924 Sousa Band tour.
According to one newspaper review, Sousa composed it "after seeing his
young granddaughter dance".
Myrrha Gavotte (1876)
The piano sheet music of Sousa's Myrrha Gavotte bears the dedication
"To Hon. William Hunter, Department of State, Washington, D.C." Sousa
was showing his appreciation for Hunter's earlier generosity. It was Hunter who
gave Sousa and three others regular employment as a string quartet in
Washington and who tried to persuade him to seek a musical education in Europe.
This period when Sousa played in Hunter's house every week is clearly reflected
in the classical strains of the Gavotte.
March: The Fairest of the Fair (1908)
Fairest of the Fair is
generally regarded as one of Sousa's finest and most melodic marches. It was an
immediate success and has remained one of his most popular compositions. It was
composed to honour the sponsors of the 1908 Boston Food Fair, an annual
exposition and music jubilee held by the Boston Retail Grocers' Association,
for which the Sousa band was for several years the main musical attraction. In
fairs before 1908, Sousa had been impressed by the beauty and charm of one
particular young lady who was the centre of attention of the displays in which
she was employed. When the invitation came for the Sousa Band to playa
twenty-day engagement in 1908, he wrote this march. Remembering the comely
girl, he entitled the new march The Fairest
of the Fair.
Because of an oversight, the march almost
missed its premiere. Nearly three months before the fair, Sousa had completed a
sketch of the march for the publisher. He also wrote out a full conductor's
score from which the individual band parts were to have been extracted. The
band had just finished an engagement the night before the fair's opening and
had boarded a sleeper train for Boston. Louis Morris, the band's copyist, was
helping the librarian sort music for the first concert, and he discovered that
the most important piece on the programme -
The Fairest of the Fair - had not been prepared. Considerable
advance publicity had been given to the new march, and the fair patrons would
be expecting to hear it. In addition, the piano sheet music had already been
published, and copies were to be distributed free to the first five hundred
ladies entering the gates of the fair. Morris worked the entire night, and the
parts were nearly finished when dawn broke. When Sousa, who had arisen to take
his usual early morning walk, asked about the frenzied activity, there was no choice
but to tell him exactly what had happened. Sousa did not mention the subject
again, but Morris found an extra fifty dollars in his next pay envelope - the
equivalent of two weeks' salary.
Caprice: The Coquette (1887)
In 1901 the short dance The Coquette was one of three pieces
integrated into a suite called Maidens
Three. A verse found in Sousa Band programmes described the maiden
called "the coquette" as follows:
Galop: On Wings of Lightning (1876)
The inscription on the sheet music of the
lively On Wings of Lightning reads:
"As played by Hassler's orchestra at
the Chestnut Street Theatre, Phila."
Three Quotations (1895)
The quotations on which Three Quotations was founded were more
familiar when it was written than they are today. The first two can be traced
to sixteenth century writings, and the third was a conversational phrase. No
doubt they are to be found somewhere in the rare books of Sousa's personal
March: Venus (1883)
It is not known whether or not Sousa
witnessed either of the two transits of Venus that occurred in his lifetime,
but the phenomenon was the basis for the title of his Venus march and one of his three novels.
March: Hail to the Spirit of Liberty (1900)
It was with great pride that Sousa and his
band represented the United States at the Paris Exposition of 1900, This was
the first overseas tour of the band, and it was received throughout Europe with
enthusiasm. The band displayed the finest American musicianship Europe had ever
seen and helped dispel the notion that the United States was an artistic void.
A statue of George Washington was unveiled
on 2nd July, but the highlight of the Paris engagement was the unveiling of the
Lafayette Monument on 4th July. At the unveiling the Sousa Band gave the first
performance of the march composed specifically for that moment, Hail to the Spirit of Liberty. Immediately
after the ceremony, the band made one of its rare appearances in a parade as it
marched through the main streets of Paris.
Certain sections of the march evidently were
taken from an unidentified earlier operetta, because in 1965 fragments which
were probably meant to be discarded were found in a stack of manuscripts at the
Sands Point estate. The march was so successful that it is difficult to
reconcile a story often told by Sousa's daughter Priscilla: she said that her
father had entered the march in a contest shortly before it was published, and
that the contest had been won by an "unknown" composer whose march
was promptly forgotten.
Razumovsky Symphony Orchestra
The Razumovsky Symphony Orchestra was
established in 1995 and consists of the best players of the Slovak
Philharmonic, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava), Slovak Chamber
Orchestra and Opera Theatre Orchestra. The ensemble records exclusively for the
Naxos and Marco Polo labels.
Conductor Keith Brion has frequently led his
Sousa revival concerts with orchestras throughout America. He has also appeared
as a symphony conductor in Europe, Canada and New Zealand. He tours regularly
with his own New Sousa Band. His Sousa concerts, like the Strauss evenings
which inspired Sousa, consist of familiar light classics and virtuoso vocal and
instrumental solos. These programmes are interspersed with Sousa's own marches
and orchestral compositions.
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SOUSA: On Wings of Lightning