Artists do not create in a vacuum. They reflect their times or at the very least are affected by the lives they lead which are also influenced by the public sphere. The term for this reflection is “Zeitgeist.” It literally means “spirit of the times.” John Philip Sousa and his works can be classified under this term of “Zeitgeist.” Most of Sousa’s music was composed during a period known as the gilded age. This period is known for its gross materialism and blatant political corruption in the United States. However, Sousa’s music does not seem to reflect this corruption, but rather it reflects a way to deal with the corruption and mishaps of the times.
John Philip Sousa, also known as the “March King,” was born on November 6,1854, in Washington D.C., near the marine barracks where his father, Antonio, was a musician in the marine band . He received his grammar school education in Washington and for several of his school years enrolled in a private conservatory of music operated by John Esputa, Jr. . There he studied piano and most of the orchestral instruments, but his main passion was the violin. He became very good at the violin, and at age 13 he was almost persuaded to join a circus band .
As a young boy, the martial music of army bands in the streets of Washington during and immediately following the Civil War had a profound effect on him. When he was not yet fourteen he enlisted in the Marine Corps and succeeded in becoming a member of the marine band . This is where he picked up a liking for marches.
After being discharged from the Marine Corps, Sousa toured with several traveling theater orchestras and in 1876 moved to Philadelphia. There he worked as an arranger, composer, and proofreader for publishing houses . While on tour with an opera company in St. Louis, he received a telegram offering him leadership of the Marine Band in Washington. He accepted and reported for duty on October 1, 1880, becoming the band’s 17th leader .
The marine band was Sousa’s first experience conducting a military band, and he approached it unlike most of his predecessors. Rehearsals became exceptionally strict, and he shaped his musicians into the country’s premiere band .
The military was important to Sousa’s music style. His main musical compositions were marches, which were the most widely used form of music in the military. His first two marches that he wrote as leader of the band, “The Gladiator” and “Semper Fidelis,” were received with great acclaim in military band circles and from that time on he received ever-increasing attention and respect as a composer . Both of these marches were high-spirited and uplifting, just the thing to raise moral among the troops as well as promote nationalism within the states.
In 1889, Sousa wrote a march called “The Washington Post” march, which was soon adapted and identified with the new dance called the two-step. Right after this march was written, a British band journalist remarked that since Johann Strauss, Jr. was called “The Waltz King,” that American bandmaster Sousa should be called the ”March King.” With this Sousa’s regal title was coined and has remained ever since .
Sousa lived most of his life during a time known as the gilded age, named after the famous book by Mark Twain. The gilded age was a time of gross material interest among the American people and blatant corruption among the politicians . Within congress the Senate generally overshadowed the House of Representatives. Some critics even called the Senate a “rich man’s club.” The House was one of the most disorderly and inefficient legislative bodies in the world. As a result of the civil war, the division between the Democrats and the Republicans was even more sectional than ever .
In this case it is very hard to find the “Zeitgeist” in Sousa’s compositions of this time. In fact they even seem to contradict the spirit of that era. All of the marches that Sousa wrote during the gilded age were extremely upbeat and energetic, while the time was corrupt and backhanded. This is because Sousa was responding to the negative messages being sent out by the political society by helping Americans realize how great their nation is. All of his musical pieces expressed a certain proud nationalism that helped the people cope with the harsh times.
Sousa’s most famous march, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” was written, in 1896, by Sousa on a boat ride from Europe to the United States. The manager of the Sousa band had just died and Sousa knew that he had to go back to manage the band. On the whole ride back he kept hearing a tune over and over in his head. When he got to land he set the tune down on paper. Eventually he even set words to it . In the march Sousa proclaims that other nations may think that their flag is the best, “but the flag of the North and South and West is the flag of flags, the flag of Freedom’s nation .” This song became so popular with the American people that Sousa’s band played it at almost every concert until his death .
On December 10, 1987, 55 years after Sousa’s death, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” was designated as the national march of the United States. A White House memorandum states that the march has become “an integral part of the celebration of American life .” The march is still identified today with the ideas of freedom and nationalism.
In conclusion, John Philip Sousa was a great American composer who helped America forget their troubles during a time of disunion and confusion. He reflected the “Zeitgeist” by reacting to the corruption of the day through music. With his help our nation regained its true sense of pride.