[8 January 2008]
John Philip Sousa wrote 11 suites, 15 operettas, 70 songs, and numerous other works, but he is remembered primarily for one thing: his tuneful military marches, of which there are a whopping 136. Born in Washington, D.C. to immigrant parents in 1854, Sousa seemed destined to be the “March King” of the United States. In an attempt to thwart his son from running away to join the circus, Sousa’s father enlisted him in the United States Marine Corps as an apprentice when the boy was only 13-years-old.
In his 18th year, Sousa published his first composition, “Moonlight on the Potomac Waltzes”. In 1875, he left the Marines to pursue conducting for theater orchestras and performing on the violin. However, in 1880 he returned to Washington to take charge of the Marine Band.
Over the next 12 years, Sousa performed in the service of five different presidents and quickly became the most popular composer of marches in the US and Europe. The sheet music for these short compositions sold widely for amateur performance by small ensembles and in piano arrangement. The promoter David Blakely soon convinced Sousa to form a civilian band in order to capitalize upon his fame. His many tours bolstered his reputation and made his compositional approach nearly synonymous with the idea of writing a march.
Most likely, even if the name John Philip Sousa means nothing to you, his compositions will be instantly familiar. This holds true almost regardless of nationality. In Japan, the national tournament for high school baseball players (a huge annual event) employs Sousa’s “The Washington Post” for the processional as the teams enter the field. In the United States, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” serves as the national march and is performed every Fourth of July. I have also heard it during several parades marking other special events (Thanksgiving, the Rose Bowl, and so on). In Britain, the celebrated comedy team, Monty Python, used Sousa’s “The Liberty Bell” as the theme music for their television show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Now, Kultur Video offers you another point of access to these ubiquitous marches with the release of Hands Across the Sea: The Band of the Grenadier Guards, a DVD of performances of 26 Sousa marches (running to 84 minutes of music) by Britain’s Grenadier Guards. After the first three or four marches, I have to admit that they all begin to sound roughly the same to me. I suppose that makes me something of a military march philistine, if there is such a thing. However, the video does offer us an opportunity to consider just why these trifles are so resoundingly popular. What is it about these little works that seems continually to grab the ears of a public that would most likely have very little patience with Sousa’s forays into other compositional forms?
The key to Sousa’s achievement, it seems to me (and judging from the visual element of Hands Across the Sea, its producers seem to agree), is the unlikely combination of the brisk rhythms of the traditional military march with the almost cloyingly sweet mellifluousness of a piano character piece designed for performance in a 19th century parlor. The typical Sousa march (and even the most die-hard fans of the genre must admit that there is a formula, here) begins with the brash, thudding rhythms of the march (complete with the ostentatious drum patterns and dotted rhythms that connote the heady masculinity of turn-of-the-century militaristic ideals), moves into a jaunty melody that sets the march in motion, and then subsides to reveal a tune redolent of a winsome nostalgia that, while not totally removed from the martial foundation of the march, seems to speak of another aspect of the military life—that which is left behind when soldiers march off to do their duty.
As counterintuitive as it might at first appear, I am convinced that the secret of Sousa’s success lies in his uncanny ability to temper the field of honor with the drawing room. At the heart of most Sousa marches resides an almost reluctant feminine space that serves to mollify the seeming belligerence of the musical proceedings. Amidst the rigid hierarchy of the instrumentation, the plodding march rhythms themselves, and the visions that the music conjures of the battlefield and military precision emerges a decorous melodiousness that borders on the unmanly (at least with respect to turn-of-the-century notions of gender). And yet it is precisely this nearly paradoxical combination that makes Sousa’s marches so insistently engaging. The visions of military strife are but the images woven into the tapestry that hangs upon the parlor wall.
The DVD emphasizes, wittingly or no, this strange amalgam of the bellicose and the ornate with the images it employs to accompany its selection of marches. First of all, the performers themselves are nearly custom-made for such a mixture of flamboyance and pugnacity. The Grenadier Guards sport their deep red coats with the white belts and shiny buttons (the leader has a series of gold stripes running down each arm) along with their white gloves and, most striking and ridiculous of all, their tall hats made of bear fur with the ludicrously thick gold-plated chain that serves as a chinstrap.
Some shots reveal the care with which they dote upon these clothes as various people polish sabers and brush the hats. The men look like toy soldiers straight from a production of the Nutcracker until another shot reveals them carrying machine guns replete with rather vicious looking bayonets. We later see them firing these weapons, training in an obstacle course, and undergoing inspection.
The setting of the DVD echoes the ambivalence of its militaristic images. The guards march around the gorgeous Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. At times, the band performs while marching around the palace’s courtyard and gardens while at other times they play seated in one of its many capacious rooms. But even the shots of the interior reinforce the dichotomy of the Sousa march. The camera pans around the room taking in images of antique furniture and sculpture but then gradually moves toward a set of tapestries on the wall depicting hand-to-hand combat. We are continually brought back to images of war but they are, of course, mere images; they are idealized, beautified. This applies even to the images of soldiers training on the obstacle course. We are meant to admire their dexterity, the technical brilliance of their subordination to order; such regularity is in itself a form of ornament and triviality, a beautiful and symmetrical form of display—not unlike a Sousa march.
But lurking beneath the decorous exterior, wholly bound up in the beguiling accessibility of Sousa’s melodies lay the bitter reality of what the music and the displays of order really represent. They represent, ultimately, man’s utter incapability of peaceful resolution to conflict. They represent the glorification of an institution designed to perfect the eradication of other members of our species. They represent the pride we take in our capacity for killing each other. Perhaps, in the final analysis, this is why all Sousa marches begin to sound alike to me. It is the same old story over and over and I am sick of hearing it.