John Philip Sousa: More than Marches January 15 2014, 0 Comments

John Philip Sousa will forever be known as the "March King," and for good reason. According to Wikipedia, Sousa wrote 136 marches during his lifetime, and most of them are still fairly popular and performed regularly by bands across the globe. He is easily the first name in marches worldwide.

But did you know he did other things? Of course, it is common knowledge that along with being a march composer, Sousa was an accomplished conductor, both of the United States Marine Band and his own Sousa Band. He also wrote a few books, and was an expert trapshooter. Focusing on his compositions, however, Sousa wrote many other pieces of music, in several different styles, outside of the march idiom. For example: El Capitan. [embed height="80" width="560"][/embed] El Capitan was one of several operettas composed by John Philip Sousa. It was premiered in 1896 in Boston, and would later move to New York City  that same year. Before the turn of the century, El Capitan would tour across the U.S. and Canada, as well undergo a lengthy production in London. Of the nine complete operettas, and several unfinished ones, El Capitan was the most popular in its own time, and continues to be produced today, on occasion. Themes from the operetta were taken by Sousa to produce El Capitan the march, which is the more popular version of this music today. Another non-march work by Sousa is his three-movement work titled The Last Days of Pompeii.

The Last Days of Pompeii was written in 1893, the same year as his famed march The Liberty Bell. It's a three movement suite that contains some march-elements and styles, but ventures far away from the standard forms. The first two movements are very similar, featuring a typical march theme. The third movement is where it gets interesting. Titled Destruction, it is meant to reflect the Roman town of Pompeii as it is destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius. It starts off peaceful, with a lovely melody in the woodwinds, only to change to a drastically different darker motive. The suite ends with another calm melody, almost to represent the stillness of a demolished city.

What I find most interesting about Sousa's extensive list of works, aside from the fact that he wrote a lot of music, is how he has such a distinctive style. Many people will argue that all Sousa marches sound the same, and in a way they are not wrong; Sousa's march form is very strict across his composition portfolio. But, I feel looking at some of his more obscure works grants the listener better insight into the real compositional skill Sousa had. If I did not know Sousa wrote The Last Days of Pompeii, I would probably think it was some strange lost work of Richard Strauss or some other late romantic composer. And yet, knowing that it is Sousa's work, one can hear certain harmonic and melodic elements that are unmistakably Sousa.

You can hear much more of Sousa's non-march music, and most if not all of his marches, on Altissimo!'s The Heritage of John Philip Sousa Box Set. It consists of nine volumes, totaling about twelve hours of Sousa's music, all performed by the United States Marine Band. You can order the physical set at, or download it on iTunes.

Brian Denu