Sousa and American Attitude

In a comment to my last post on musical Americanisms, reader Bodie asked after another “forgotten giant” of American music, John Philip Sousa. (Taruskin does in fact mention Sousa, though only briefly and as a secondary point to his discussion of Charles Ives in Vol. IV.) So I thought I might let Sousa speak for himself on the topic of America’s musical place vis-à-vis Europe. And from Sousa’s point of view, it was not as a meek supplicant content with playing second-piccolo to the big-boys.

In his memoir of 1928, Marching Along: Recollections of Men, Women, and Music,* Sousa recalls his band’s first tour to Europe in 1900. When in Paris, Sousa published an article criticizing the French bands for being too beholden to, he surmised, “the domination of publishing houses, or some narrow control that made them play only French music….” His main argument in the article, which he reprinted in part in his memoirs, was that “subsidy is the death of Art.”

His article was in turn criticized in print by an anonymous American, signed “Musician”—whom Sousa suspected to be a Frenchman in disguise—who was flabbergasted by Sousa’s hubris. The thought of an American prescribing musical curricula for the French, an ancient musical powerhouse, was offensive to “Musician,” and purportedly to many others.

Sousa did not back down. He defended his argument in a lengthy, point-by-point rejoinder that smacked of press not pall. What right did Americans have to remark or improve on long-standing European traditions? Sousa made clear his view:

In passing, it is not inápropos to remark that Europe gave us the tallow candle, but like grateful children we sent in return the electric light; Europe gave us the primitive hand-power printing press of Gutenberg, and in our simple-hearted way we showed her the Goss perfecting press; Europe placed the goose-quill in our hands and we have added the typewriter to her resources; Europe put the bare needle in our fingers and we reciprocate with the modern sewing-machine. But why enumerate? (Sousa, 194)

The implication is that Americans, like they had done in the area of technics, could advance the art of music into the modern era, electrify it, even. Sousa was not naive, as a musician, author, or businessman. He did not have scorn for the “old masters,” as is plainly seen by his programming choices, which frequently included arrangements of Wagner, Verdi, and other “classics.” But Sousa was confident. At the dawn of the 20th century America was flush with innovative spirit, and as Sousa exemplifies, musicians were not immune to it.

Sousa’s band was indeed a great success on that European tour. How did an American, one of the “grateful children” of Western art music, win this small conquest of his elders?

He believed he could do it in the first place.

*John Philip Sousa, Marching Along: Recollections of Men, Women, and Music (Boston: Hale, Cushman & Flint, 1941 [1928]).

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this piece on Sousa. “Subsidy is the death of Art,” is an interesting thing for the leader of a government-funded band of musicians to say. Sousa also had a very low opinion of the emerging recording industry, and has been cited by Lawrence Lessig in his arguments for copyright reform.

  2. Good point about subsidy, Bodie. But of course he only led the USMC Band until 1892. After that, he toured with his own band, which had been self-sustaining for eight years before he wrote these words.

  3. Incidentally, I received the new issue of JAMS a few days after writing this, and the lead article was on none other than the March King himself. “The March as Musical Drama and the Spectacle of John Philip Sousa,” by Patrick Warfield. JAMS 64, 2 (Summer 2011), 289-318).

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