In Search of Tradition: John Philip Sousa October 14 2010, 4 Comments

by Captain Frank Byrne
Contributed by Jack Kopstein

Captain Frank Byrne (retired) wrote the following article while a member of the United States Marine Band, THE PRESIDENTS OWN . He is a noted writer, musician, and symphony executive. His efforts in researching the work of John Philip Sousa are outstanding. During his tenure with the US Marine Band he was chief librarian and also edited a number of Sousa’s works (See below) as well as performing on the tuba. He is presently the Executive Director for the Kansas City Symphony. *** is pleased to announce that with our fall catalog we released the first 4 volumes of The Heritage of the March John Philip Sousa collection. Check our website for these wonderful albums, available on CD and digital download***

The authentic performance movement in music, is a fascinating world where old is new and "tradition" can be a euphemism for musical heresy. Authentic performance advocates discovered that numerous performance traditions have evolved, which depart from the composers' original intentions. These discoveries led scholars to restudy original manuscripts and fuelled many "authentic" performances, recordings, and no small amount of controversy. To borrow a phrase from the late music critic Olin Downes, "much ink has been shed over it:' Some changes attempted to fit master-works of the 18th and 19th century into the framework of the modern ensemble. Some may have resulted when autocratic conductors sought to "improve" on the original. Other changes were benign decisions in an era where the musical score was viewed as a guidepost rather than as holy writ. Still other discrepancies occurred in the incorrect transmission of musical thought via faulty musical editions.

Adding to this advancement in musical instrument design and manufacture, which produced instruments capable of greater intensity, and you have a result which, to some listeners, almost turns Mozart into Mantovani. There will always be audiences for both. But many listeners discover new insights when standard repertoire is presented in authentic performances which attempt to recreate music as the composers intended. The most pure method blends the use of period instruments (or modern reproductions), ensembles which reflect the style of the period in both size and musical approach, and critically-prepared musical editions created from original manuscripts and other definitive sources. Some conductors apply the same scholarship to performances using modern instruments, believing that composers would welcome the improvements.

Sousa has been a treasured part of the Marine Band's musical repertoire since his time as director from 1881-1892. In preparation for these Sousa recordings, we considered the various option and examined our own Sousa performance traditions in the light of modern scholarship. The Marine Band's history of recording Sousa's music dates to 1890, and early cylinders made by the Columbia Phonograph Company of Washington, DC. Sousa was then director of the Marine Band, and although he was unconvinced of the value of this new invention, he allowed his hand to record for Columbia. Under succeeding directors, Sousa's music appeared on Edison and Victor recordings, and on the band's promotional recordings. During 1974~1976, Lieutenant Colonel Jack Kline (Director, 1974-1979) conducted the Marine Band in The Heritage of John Philip Sousa (now available from Altissimo HERE). This series, the brainchild of band aficionado Robert Hoe, yielded 18 long-playing albums of Sousa’s, marches, songs, overtures, tone poems, operetta selections, concert suites, and miscellaneous pieces.

Music never accessible to Sousa enthusiasts was committed to records which were distributed to public libraries, music schools, and educators. The "total immersion" into Sousa yielded new interest in many of his infrequently performed works, new respect for the difficulty of recording Sousa, and a commitment that this project should he revisited when the repertoire could be considered in more manageable portions. In the intervening years, The Heritage of John Philip Sousa recordings have come to be regarded as the most authoritative set of Sousa recordings on LP. And with the advent of digital recording, opportunistic commercial recording companies recognized that Sousa is still in demand and both new and reissued Sousa recordings by other musical organizations have been released on compact discs. As a result, there has been a renewed interest in performing Sousa by bands and orchestras all over the world.

Aside from the marches that are played almost continuously, Sousa's other marches and many concert works began appearing on concert programs and in publishers' catalogs. The Marine Band has continued its Sousa performances and research to learn about its former director. This research has involved an intense study of the Marine Band's Sousa collections, literature searches for writings by and about Sousa, study of recordings of the Sousa Band, and an ongoing dialogue with Sousa scholars such as Paul Bierley and Keith Brion. This study has brought forth an incredible amount of information about how Sousa performed his music. It has also generated considerable thought and, occasionally, debate regarding the interpretation of some facts. Even the most exhaustive research may not resolve every question.

In an essay published in The Journal of Musicological Research, musicologist Stanley Howell wrote, "Because of this inescapable element of uncertainty, some music historians have begun to wonder if the entire historical performance movement is misdirected. But our inability to achieve absolute authenticity should not prevent us from trying to understand as much as we can. Historically-oriented performances can afford real insights into period musical style as long as we remember that all such efforts are experimental and subject to criticism and eventually revision." 

This has been our approach to this recording. Considerable effort has been expended to capture performances which closely approximate those that Sousa conducted. The modern equipment and instrumentation of today's Marine Band were used, believing that those yielded the best musical results and, therefore, best served the music. (It should be noted that the current Marine Band instrumentation is similar to that of the Sousa Band). In areas where there have been the "inescapable elements of uncertainty," we adopted a conservative approach. When performance techniques could not be distilled to a single formula, we explored several options.

Whenever original Sousa manuscript scores were available, they were studied and compared with first published editions. This proved particularly valuable in the Looking Upward Suite. We compared the manuscript full score from the Library of Congress and manuscript parts from the University of Illinois with the two published editions and discovered numerous differences. We performed Looking Upward from the manuscript edition, undoubtedly the first recording of this version.

The scoring of each march was thoroughly checked to insure that only those parts which Sousa performed were used for recording. Many editions published after his death contain extensive changes, including additional parts not written by Sousa. For example, the 1951 John Church edition of 'The Stars and Stripes Forever" contains 10 instrumental parts that are neither in Sousa's original manuscript score nor the first published edition. Former members of the Sousa Band were aware of this problem. During the 1952 meeting of the Sousa Band Fraternal Society, William Gens (President of the Society) commented on remarks delivered by Edwin Franko Goldman (conductor of the Goldman Band) at that meeting. Gens wrote: "Dr. Goldman asked us to do everything in our power to stop publishers from murdering Sousa marches. It Is a crime what they are doing to make a sale. We should all refuse to buy, play, or handle anything but those from the original publishers."

The performance parts used for these recordings were extensively edited to reflect corrections from the original scores, to standardize articulations and dynamics, and to incorporate authentic Sousa performance techniques. As Keith Brion has documented in his essay "Sousa's Marches-As He Conducted Them," Sousa incorporated many distinctive performance techniques which were his trademarks. Sousa said to his musicians, 'Any band can play the printed arrangements but we shall play them differently' August Helmecke, bass drum virtuoso of the Sousa Band for 22 years, wrote, "People have no idea how Sousa wanted his marches played because the tricks and effects that brought them to such vivid life under the big boss' own direction never got marked into the scores. The notes alone give but the barest skeleton of what a Sousa march can be!" Helmecke continued, "In some of the marches, not a single bar of rest is written for comets and clarinets (this was done so marches could be played by small bands) but when Sousa led his own hand in these works, he'd simply wave the unwanted brasses into silence." Frank Simon, Sousa Band solo cornetist and assistant conductor 1914-1921, once said, "There are so many things he did to make it colourful, not just a march where you go through and play it. He 'doctored them up' to make them interesting to the public. That's why he became so famous. Not only for the marches but for HOW he played the marches" Fellow composer and conductor Karl King noted Sousa's performance style in a 1946 letter to a colleague. King wrote, "Even in his marches, Sousa pulled some strains down to a whisper which always made the last strain sound that much better by contrast. Also, Sousa had a few little tricks on pianissimos that I observed and I always wondered why other leaders who heard him didn't get 'hep' to how he did it but apparently they didn't." In his autobiography Marching Along. Sousa wrote, "The chief aim of the composer is to produce color, dynamics, nuances, and to emphasize the storytelling quality The combination and composition which gives that result is most to be desired" Sousa achieved this through his unique interpretations. Those who suggest that Sousa made performance changes out of boredom with his music are incorrect. His preparation and attention to detail were impeccable.

About the rehearsal and performance of marches, Sousa Band clarinetist Sam Harris wrote, "It was Sousa's belief that a march is one of the most difficult of all compositions to play correctly. He stressed the importance of being alert for all details tempo, accents, dynamics, nuances, breathing, articulation, and proper balance:' Colonel Howard Bronson, another Sousa Band member, made the following comments in an address to the College Band Directors National Association: "Why did Sousa's compositions take on different character when played by his band? He knew exactly how he wanted the band to sound and he developed a playing character that expressed it. Each player knew exactly how Sousa wanted certain passages to be played--just the right shading and perfect coordination. His own compositions were played with meticulous attention to dynamics, shading, and tone coloring. The printed scores do not carry the dynamic markings as actually played by the band:'

To document these performance changes, we consulted three main sources: 1) The writings of Sousa solo cornetist Frank Simon. In 1966, Frank Simon participated in a series of interviews in which he discussed 35 Sousa marches in detail, documenting the performance changes as he remembered Sousa had made them. These interviews were transcribed and published in two booklets with accompanying recordings under the auspices of the American School Band Directors Association. 2) The Sousa Band encore books The Sousa Band encore books are another valuable source of information about Sousa's performance practices. These encore books, now in the Marine Band's Sousa collection were used at every performance. They include the performance parts used by his musicians. Although most of Sousa's information to his players was not written down, some markings were made in these encore books which give insight into how Sousa played his marches. These marking support information given by Frank Simon. 3) Recordings of the Sousa Band Of the six Sousa march recordings actually conducted by the composer two stand out: "Solid Men to the Front" and "Sabre and Spurs.” Both marches were recorded on September 6, 1918, and are perhaps the best picture of the Sousa Band in a concert performance of a march during this period. Among the interesting features of these two recordings are the tempos.

Sousa Band members reported that he conducted his marches from 120 to 132 beats per minute. In his later years, the tempos became faster and at times may have approached 138 beats per minute (according to Sousa biographer Paul Bierley) as if the band had to rush to catch a train to the next city.  Both of these 1918 march recordings are considerably slower: "Solid Men to the Front" is performed at approximately 118 and "Sabre and Spurs" at approximately 116-118. Other Victor recordings with Sousa conducting range from 122-128 beats per minute. A radio broadcast transcription of Sousa conducting "The Stars and Stripes Forever" is at approximately 120. While it is doubtful that Sousa would have chosen the identical tempo for every march, the slower tempos are particularly striking. Since most of Sousa's marches were performed as encores, to the printed selections on the program perhaps he endorsed a faster tempo for this purpose. This theory is supported by Sousa's remarks in a Sydney [Australia] Evening News article on July 24, 1911, entitled "Sousa Says Good-Bye." Under the heading "Quick March" a statement is printed, 'The opinion has been expressed that your march time is too quick" Sousa responded: "If you play my marches for troops to march to in  the streets, they must, of necessity, be played slower than I play them on the stage. But anyone who attends my concerts must, unless there is sawdust in his veins, see that the whole idea is of terrific musical force. Contemplation must be after the battle, not during it. The whole idea is that the musical atmosphere must be brought up to a great tension, as it were. My marches, with the exception of one, are used entirely as I play them at a rather quick step rather than keep them down to a slow patter.  Of course, no one would march to the tempo that I play them on stage. But I try to quicken up the blood, and exhilarate people.  I have heard people say that they would like me to play my marches slower. Well, if I had to play in front of a regiment, I would do so; but never on stage."

We know that Sousa's march encores were very effective. He played them within 10 seconds upon the completion of the previous work. Nothing interfered with the momentum of the performance. Sousa apparently preferred to perform his marches briskly when used as encores, but the true marching tempos were an important factor in their structure and creation. An article in a Wilmington, Delaware, newspaper dated June 10, 1924, quoted Sousa as saying, "I do not think that I ever received the inspiration for a march except while I was marching... with my life at stake I do not think I could sit in a chair and write a march." In an August 1950 article in The Elude entitled "How Sousa Played His Marches," Sousa's bass drummer August Helmecke wrote, "Sousa never played his marches as fast as they're generally taken today He kept to a good, firm, marching tempo. A march, remember, isn't a gallop. when people march, they don't run.

Although Sousa marches can be performed faster; we have adopted tempos around 110-120 beats per minute to simulate actual marching cadences. Sousa's own recordings of "Solid Men to the Front" and "Sabre and Spurs" demonstrate that, outside of the context of his concert encores, the marches could be quite effective at these tempos. Another distinctive factor in Sousa’s march performance is the addition of unique percussion accents. Helmecke wrote, "I've saved the accents for last because, in Sousa, they're by far the most important. Sousa's marches gained most of their stirring effectiveness from the crisp, wonderful accents he put into them. As I said, these never got marked into the music and never were published. In giving his material to the copyist, Sousa wrote the drums in the simplest manner-barely indicating where they were to be. But when it came to play those marches, he put the accents in! Sousa didn't print his accents, and he never explained them-he just made them known through his conducting.' Helmecke once asked Sousa why the accents were not written in but Sousa would not commit himself to an answer. Helmecke decided that Sousa didn't want other bands to play the marches the way his band did. In the era of competition between professional bands, such "trade secrets" were very highly valued.

Dr. Leonard B. Smith, conductor of the Detroit Concert Band, knew many Sousa Band members and also performed with Helmecke in the Goldman Band. Regarding the use of accents in the marches, Dr. Smith commented: "The Sousa accents were placed logically, not whimsically. The interpretation is found within the music itself and has nothing to do with sentiment or caprice. Sousa's accents were so effective because he conceived them. People fantasize that Gus (Helmecke) created them but it is not true. Sousa originated the accents in all his marches." Without written documentation, recreating Sousa’s accents is difficult. Some accents reinforce the melodic contour or bring out what is written. Others provide variety by adding rhythmic contrast to the melodic line. Accents in these recordings are a combination of traditional Marine Band accents and new accents which, in the opinion of conductor and percussionists, fit the criteria mentioned above. Another Sousa percussion technique was to either reduce or completely eliminate the percussion during soft sections of a march. In these recordings, percussion (except for bells) has been eliminated in the trio of "Invincible Eagle." Interestingly, the published percussion part for "Grid-iron Club" has minimal percussion at the trio and is performed here as written.

In addition to the Sousa accents, many of the marches have unique effects. These include regimental trumpet and drum parts, horse hoofs, the use of orchestra bells, ship's bell, harp, bosun's pipe, whistles, sirens, pistol shots, and more. In performing regimental trumpet and drum parts ("Sabre and Spurs" and "Gallant Seventh"), four trumpet players and two percussionists were positioned to one side of the band. The deeper pitched field drums were used on regimental drum parts to provide contrast to the sound of the concert snare used throughout. Sousa wrote the "bugle strain" in "The Royal Welch Fusiliers" to be performed by the entire cornet and trumpet section. Several marches contain published harp parts (Sousa added a harpist to his hand during the later years). There is a harp folder in the set of Sousa’s encore books which contain mostly piano editions of the marches. Since the published harp parts do not match the piano editions, we may assume that the harpist improvised from the piano edition when no published part was available. We have chosen to use harp only when a separate part was published, as on "Comrades of the Legion" and "Who's Who in Navy Blue." Orchestra bells were added at the trio to double the melody on those marches which had a manuscript bell part in the Sousa encore books. "Sabre and Spurs" as recorded here duplicates the techniques demonstrated in Sousa's 1918 recording. This includes a xylophone solo for the first time through the last strain. The use of the xylophone on this part is substantiated by a manuscript part in the Sousa encore books which, unlike the other manuscript bell parts that accompany it, is clearly marked "xylophone" for "Sabre and Spurs." Former Sousa drummer John I. Heney noted Sousa's use of the xylophone in this fashion in his percussion text The Correct Way to Drum. "Manhattan Beach" follows the instructions as noted in the Sousa encore books and also documented by Frank Simon. Among the effects are a soft introduction, contrasting use of the brass in the second strain which is on the repeat, extra emphasis on the clarinet arpeggios at the trio (which simulate waves), and a very dramatic crescendo-decrescendo on the final strain which gives the effect one might hear while passing the handstand during a stroll at Manhattan Beach. Taken individually, these techniques and performance practices seem a complex collection of formulae: an octave here, an accent there, and an odd xylophone or pistol shot thrown in for good measure. Taken collectively, they represent a particular genius in which Sousa looked beyond convention and saw within his own music the potential for an extraordinary musical experience. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "There is properly no history, only biography" In searching for Sousa, we hope to have discovered not only the essence of the music but of the man himself.

The “Pathfinder” referred to by John Philip Sousa in the title of "The Pathfinder Of Panama" March is actually the Panama Canal. Composed in 1915, the march is dedicated to the Panama Canal and the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco where the Sousa Band played a nine week engagement. The edition by Captain Frank Byrne of the United States Marine Band is the result of extensive research into the specific performance practices of Sousa and his band. Though many of the performance alterations made to Sousa’s marches were never published, interviews and writings of former Sousa Band members provided valuable insight into the creation of this edition. * * *