When Sousa came to Galesburg
All over the country, this July 4th, bands will be playing the music of John Philip Sousa, and especially his “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the “National March” of the United States and what some would say is the best march ever written. Sousa wrote that march in 1897, and citizens of Galesburg were among the first to hear it, with the composer conducting, when Sousa and his band performed in Galesburg on a winter evening in 1898.
Sousa, an America-born son of Portuguese and Bavarian emigrant parents, studied music from an early age, including violin and music theory. Also from an early age, he began to perform and compose music of a sort we would now call “light classical.” He also grew into a proficient conductor – of theatrical orchestras, of the U.S. Marine Band starting in 1880, and then of his own group, Sousa’s Band, starting in 1892.
From the beginning, with his own band, Sousa hired the best musicians available, many of them European and many with experience playing in professional orchestras. Before long the group’s reputation was such that it was the aspiration of many a young American musician to play in it. Sousa himself eventually became a celebrity, known for his dramatic conducting. (Otis Skinner said that Sousa was “away ahead of all of us” as a performer, though the great actor noted that Sousa’s skilled musicians had something to do with his success.)
At the time he performed in Galesburg in 1898, Sousa had reached a high point in his career. His band had become an immense success, and it would soon start a series of European tours. Sousa was, for a time, “The world’s most widely known musician,” according to the “New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.” When they came to Galesburg, Sousa’s band was on a tour that had already taken them through New England, part of Canada and now the Midwest.
The Evening Mail advertisement for the Galesburg performance, billing Sousa as “The March King” (an appellation still used today) notes that the band would perform at the Auditorium on North Broad Street in Galesburg on the evening of February 10th, 1898. The advertisement also includes a picture of the conductor and says that tickets for the performance, part of the band’s “Twelfth Semi-Annual Tour,” are $1 for the Lower Floor, 75 cents for the Balcony and 50 cents for the Gallery.
The glowing account of the concert in the next day’s Evening Mail notes that the band played to “a packed house,” “won enthusiastic applause” and played twelve encores, “an unusual concession for any professional Company.” The encores, though, were part of Sousa’s usual, crowd-pleasing practice. His printed program often listed only about 10 pieces, but the band’s custom was to perform encores after almost every scheduled selection.
That evening’s program was described as mostly “popular” music, though it included band arrangements of music by Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, and performances by a “violiniste,” Jennie Hoyle, and soprano Maude Reese Davis. There was also a trombone solo by Arthur Pryor, Sousa’s assistant conductor who was to go on in later years to lead a popular band of his own.That was a time of patriotism, a time in which love of country was not an obscenity. It was a time in which our musicians promoted the idea of nation, of country. Instead of looking at the past in terms of "Ugly American", they saw the promise that this nation gives.
No doubt the concert included many examples of Sousa’s specialty, military marches. Only a few are mentioned in the newspaper account, including “El Capitan” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” (That title was later to be used for a movie based on Sousa’s life).
The Evening Mail account ends with praise for Sousa the conductor and his “rare exhibition of skill. The great band plays as one piece, in perfect time and harmony.” Sousa’s music and the skill of his band in performing it made him immensely popular. Perhaps it captured the nationalistic spirit that was building in the country at this time.
Only five days after the Sousa Band’s appearance in Galesburg, the battleship Maine was sunk in Havana harbor, beginning the Spanish-American war. In the months ahead, the band would play patriotic concerts for wildly enthusiastic crowds in many cities. In May, in Cleveland, they accompanied the Ohio National Guard unit to the depot as the troops left for the war, one of the few times Sousa’s ensemble functioned as an actual marching band.
Sousa went on for many years as America’s most popular bandleader and patriotic music composer, though his best marches, such as “Semper Fidelis,” “Washington Post,” and “Liberty Bell” were all composed in the late nineteenth century. They are still familiar to millions of amateur musicians who play in high school or municipal bands.
While in Galesburg, the Sousa Band apparently stayed at the Union Hotel, across the street from the Auditorium. The desk clerk at the hotel, James Otway, kept an autograph book, now in the Galesburg Public Library’s Special Collections Room, in which Sousa left a memento of his visit. There is the signature of “the March King” and above it the musical notation for a few measures of his newly composed and now immortal “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Our so-called celebrities could learn a lesson from John Philip Sousa. Instead of damning America, they should get down on their knees and thank G-d that there is an United States of America. Especially on July 4th. And every day.