Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Sousa's day

Louis Armstrong liked to claim he was born on the Fourth of July. He wasn’t, but didn’t need that distinction anyway. The American musician to whom this day really belongs is John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), whose marches will figure prominently in most every orchestra and band (and, for all we know, bluegrass) concert staged today.

The marche du jour, of course, is Sousa’s "The Stars and Stripes Forever," introduced in 1896. (Congress declared it the official march of the United States in 1987.)

The 1890s were the decade in which American music really began to get a sense of itself and convey a sense of the country. It was the decade of Antonin Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, Charles Ives’ Second Symphony, Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," Katherine Lee Bates' "America the Beautiful," Henry Dacre's "Bicycle Built for Two." Blues, jazz and gospel music were germinating into recognizeable styles. Roving scholars were collecting Anglo-Celtic ballads from Appalachia. Vaudeville and the modern American musical were taking shape, and with them modern popular song.

Sousa was keenly attuned to that blossoming musical culture. Although he was best-known as the bandmaster of the U.S. Marine Corps and composer of march tunes, he also wrote concert and theater music. March-time or otherwise, Sousa’s music is consistently extroverted and it consistently swings. That’s why it has kept its immediacy and relevance.

Many of Sousa’s marches were occasional pieces. One of those was "Powhatan’s Daughter," written in 1907 for the 300th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement. Rarely heard, it will be revived in the July 11 opening concert of the Wintergreen Music Festival. (Details in the July calendar.)

Choice recording: Keith Brion, who has made a career of researching Sousa and impersonating him in concerts, leads modern performances, alongside Sousa's early electrical recordings from the late 1920s, on a set that hits the greatest hits and ventures beyond (Delos 3102).