Born November 6, 1854, in Washington, DC; died of heart failure, March 6, 1932, in Reading, PA; son of John Antonio (a trombonist with the U.S. Marine Band) and Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus Sousa; married Jane van Middlesworth Bellis (an amateur vocalist), 1879; children: John Philip, Jane Priscilla, Helen Sousa Abert. Education: Attended music conservatory run by John Esputa, Jr., for four years; studied music with George Felix. Enlisted in U.S. Marine Corps as apprentice to Marine Band, 1868; toured with musical companies and vaudeville show, worked in Philadelphia theaters, taught music, composed, and corrected proofs for a publisher, 1875-1879; led amateur musical theater company that became professional under his tutelage, c. 1879; led Marine Band, 1880-1892; formed Sousa Band, 1892; toured U.S. and abroad with Sousa Band, 1900-1911; wrote autobiography, Marching Along, 1928.

Among America's greatest treasures is the legacy of John Philip Sousa, "The March King." The music of this beloved bandleader and composer, whose most prolific period straddled the turn of the 20th century, continues to fill hearts with a wave of national pride and patriotism. Sousa's "The Stars and Stripes Forever" is, in fact, the national march, and his creative medium, the marching band, has become an American institution.

John Philip Sousa was the child of European parents. His mother, Maria Elisabeth Trinkhaus, was born in Bavaria, and his father, John Antonio Sousa, was a Spanish immigrant of Portuguese parents. Sousa's parents were married in Brooklyn, New York, in 1848; six years later they moved to Washington, D.C., where Mr. Sousa became a trombonist with the U.S. Marine Band. The Sousa's third child, John Philip, was born on November 6, 1854.

Sousa's relationship to music was virtually inevitable; in John Philip Sousa, American Phenomenon, Paul E. Bierley related, "Sousa's natural talent, coupled with the stimulating environment in which he was raised, has caused historians to remark that his development as the prime example of a musical patriot was a natural one and that he was obviously born at the right time and place in history." The stimulating environment was a musician's home just a stone's throw from the Marine barracks; the right time was the Civil War.

At about age six, Sousa attended a music conservatory. For four years he studied a number of instruments, including the trombone and alto horn, and displayed extraordinary talent. When he was ten, Sousa began attending his father's Marine Band rehearsals. It was also at this time that he became a witness to his country's torment. The Civil War years, 1861-1865, turned Washington into an armed camp. The proximity of the battles and the family's visits to the hospital to see the wounded were part of Sousa's childhood experience. Washington was buzzing with the chaotic sounds of war and among these were military bands. In his autobiography, Marching Along, Sousa recounted, "There were bands galore ... I loved all of them, good and bad alike."

Sousa's first professional opportunity came in 1868. While studying harmony, composition, and violin, the 13-year-old was offered the position of bandleader with a visiting circus. Sousa reflected, "The more I thought of it the more wonderful it seemed to follow the life of the circus, make money, and become the leader of a circus band myself. What a career that would be!" His father didn't see it that way, though; the senior Sousa quickly took his son to the Marine Corps headquarters and had him signed up as an apprentice violinist. In Jon Newsom's book Perspectives on John Philip Sousa, John Philip Sousa III reasoned, "For a child with my grandfather's obviously abundant imagination, the Marine Band must have been an acceptable substitute for the circus."

When he was 20, Sousa received a special discharge from the Marines and embarked on a career as a professional musician. He toured with two companies and a vaudeville show, worked at two Philadelphia theaters, taught music, composed operettas, and even corrected proofs at a publishing company. In 1879, Sousa conducted Gilbert and Sullivan's immensely popular H.M.S. Pinafore. Under his masterful orchestration, the amateur company at his command was able to turn professional. Its success led to a season on Broadway where famous composers took in Sousa's production.

News of the young music director's accomplishments did not escape the attention of his former employer; in 1880, 25-year-old Sousa was named the 14th leader of the U.S. Marine Band. He was the first American-born conductor and the one who would elevate the band to celebrity status. Sousa stepped into the position with the know-how and energy of an experienced civilian conductor. He shook the dust off the stale institution by replacing most of the music with his own, changing the instrumentation, and improving the quality of the musicians. In the 12 years of Sousa's leadership, the Marine Band's reputation spread throughout the United States and even to Europe. It became a highly polished ensemble with a colorful virtuoso at the helm.

Though completely committed to his profession, Sousa was able to pursue a variety of interests. He was a devoted family man and nature lover. He also enjoyed reading, horseback riding, trapshooting, and boxing. Sousa was a gentle, disciplined man distinguished by his wit, strict code of ethics, and bottomless vigor. In his embroidered uniform hung with medals, behind his pince-nez glasses and his trademark mustache, wearing his white kid gloves and stirring emotion into the air with his gold-tipped baton, he cut quite a formidable figure.

Sousa led the Marine Band until 1892. He composed many exceptional pieces during this period, including "The Washington Post," for the celebrated newspaper of the same name. That march shot him into prominence and earned him the title of "March King." The Marine Band recorded with the fledgling Columbia Phonograph Co., and tours of the U.S. and Europe followed. In Europe, "The Washington Post" even spawned a popular dance called the two-step. When Sousa resigned from the military, he formed the Sousa Band, which enjoyed unprecedented success. Impressive engagements and world tours were the norm until life was once again interrupted by war.

In 1917, Sousa--then 62--reenlisted, this time joining the U.S. Naval Reserve Force as America entered World War I. Lieutenant Sousa formed a huge musical battalion of over three hundred members and marched across the country in tremendous parades that raised millions of dollars for the war effort.

While the world changed around him--marked by the dawn of radio and the first talking picture, Amelia Earhart's solo flight, Adolf Hitler's rise to power--Sousa had already earned his place in history. He had become a highly honored and cherished figure. The composer of 136 marches and hundreds of other arrangements, author of several books and novels, and inventor of the sousaphone never stopped working. On March 6, 1932, he died of a heart attack. So ended a rousing era of American history. Nonetheless, Sousa was one of the most decorated men of American music and was honored by many nations. A number of public places, structures, and even a warship have been named after him. Annual ceremonies are held in his memory.


John Philip Sousa's Career

John Philip Sousa's Awards

Gold-tipped baton from U.S. Marine Band, 1892; appeared on postage stamp honoring famous Americans, 1940; centennial medallion struck by Austrian Mint, 1954; inducted into Hall of Fame for Great Americans by New York University.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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