Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

John Philip Sousa, Band Master

Kipling essayed to write verses at thirteen, and John Philip Sousa entered his apprenticeship in a military band at the age of twelve. The circumstances, which he related to me during a recent conversation, make it clear, however, that it was not exactly the realization of any youthful ambition. "When I was a youngster of twelve," said the bandmaster, "I could play the violin fairly well. It was in this memorable year that a circus came to Washington, D. C, where I then lived, and remained for two days. During the morning of the first day, one of the showmen passed the house and heard me playing. He rang the bell, and when I answered it, asked if I would not like to join the show. I was at the age when it is the height of every boy's ambition to join a circus, and was so delighted that I readily agreed to his instructions that I was to take my violin, and, without telling anyone, go quietly to the show grounds late the next evening.

"I couldn't, however, keep this stroke of good fortune entirely to myself, so I confided it to my chum, who lived next door. The effect was entirely unanticipated. He straightway became so jealous at the thought that I would have an opportunity to witness the circus performance free that he told his mother, and that good woman promptly laid the whole matter before my father."


"At the time I was, of course, ignorant of this turn of affairs; but early the next morning my father, without a word of explanation, told me to put on my best clothes, and, without ceremony, bundled me down to the office of the Marine Band, where he entered me as an apprentice. The age limit at which admission could be gained to the band corps was fourteen years, and I have always retained the two years which my father unceremoniously added to my age at that time."

Sousa is of Spanish descent, his father having emigrated from Spain to Portugal by reason of political entanglements. Thence came the strange fact that, during the recent war, American troops marched forward to attack Spaniards to the music of marches written by this descendant of their race. The director's remark that his family was one of the oldest in Spain was supplementary to an amused denial of that pretty story which has been so widely circulated to the effect that the bandmaster's name was originally John Philipso, and that when, after entering the Marine Band, he signed it with the "U. S. A." appended, some intelligent clerk divided it into John Philip Sousa.


In discussing his opera, "El Capitan," which, when produced by De Wolf Hopper several seasons ago, achieved such instantaneous success, the composer remarked that it was the sixth opera he had written, the others never reaching the dignity of a production.

As Sousa is preeminently a man of action, so his career and characteristics are best outUned by incidents. One in connection with his operatic composition strikingly illustrates his pluck and determination. Before he attained any great degree of prominence in the musical world, Sousa submitted an opera to Francis Wilson, oflfering to sell it outright for one thousand five hundred dollars. Wilson liked the opera, but the composer was not fortified by a great name, so he declined to pay more than one thousand dollars for the piece. The composer replied that he had spent the best part of a year on the work, and felt that he could not take less than his original demand. Wilson was obdurate, and Sousa ruefully put the manuscript back into his portfolio.

Some time afterward a march which the bandmaster sent to a well-known publishing house caught the public favor. The publishers demanded another at once. The composer had none at hand, but suddenly thought of the march in his discarded opera, and forwarded it without waiting to select a name.

While he was pondering thoughtfully on the subject of a title, Sousa and a friend one evening went to the Auditorium in Chicago, where "America" was then being presented. When the mammoth drop curtain, with the painted representation of the Liberty Bell was lowered, the bandmaster's companion said, with the suddenness of an inspiration: "There is a name for your new march," That night it was sent on to the publishers.

Up to date, this one selection from the opera for which Francis Wilson refused to pay fifteen hundred dollars has netted its composer thirty-five thousand dollars.


Sousa has practically no vacations. Throughout the greater part of the autumn, winter and spring, his band is en tour through this country and Canada, giving, as a rule, two concerts each day, usually in dififerent towns. During the summer, his time is occupied with daily concerts at Manhattan Beach, near New York. Despite all this, he finds time to write several marches or other musical selections each year, and for several years past has averaged each year an operatic production. Any person who is at all conversant with the subject knows that the composition of the opera itself is only the beginning of the composer's labor, and Sousa has invariably directed the rehearsals with all the thoroughness and attention to detail that might be expected from a less busy man.

The bandmastel' is a late riser, and in that, as in other details, the routine of his daily life is the embodiment of regularity and punctuality. In reply to my question as to what produces his never-failing good health, he said: "Absolute regularity of life, plenty of sleep, and good, plain, substantial food."

His idea of the most valuable aids, if not essentials to success, may be imagined. They are "persistence and hard work." The "March King" believes that it is only worry, and not hard work, that kills people, and he also has confidence that if there be no literal truth in the assertion that genius is simply another name for hard work, there is at least much of wisdom in the saying.

Many persons who have seen Sousa direct his organization make the assertion that the orders conveyed by his baton are non-essential, —that the band would be equally well-off without Sousa. This never received a fuller refutation than during a recent concert in an eastern city. Two small boys in seats near the front of the hall were tittering, but so quietly that it would hardly seem possible that it could be noticed on the stage, especially by the bandmaster, whose back was, of course, toward the audience. Suddenly, in the middle of a bar, his baton fell. Instantly, every sound ceased, not a note having been sounded after the signal, which could not have been anticipated, was given. Wheeling quickly, the leader ordered the troublesome youngsters to leave the hall, and almost before the audience had realized what had happened, the great organization had resumed the rendition of the selection, without the loss of a chord.


In answer to my inquiry as to his methods of work, the director of America's foremost band said: —

"I think that any musical composer must essentially find his periods of work governed largely by inspiration. A march or a waltz depends perhaps upon some strain that has sufficient melody to carry the entire composition, and it is the waiting to catch this embryo note that is sometimes long.

"Take my experience with 'The Stars and Stripes Forever.' I worked for weeks on the strain that I think will impress most persons as the prettiest in the march. I carried it in my mind all that time, but I could not get the idea transferred to paper just as I wanted. When I did accomplish it, there was comparatively little delay with the remainder."

When I asked him about his future work, Mr. Sousa said: —

"I of course have commissions to write several operas, and I am at work on a musical composition which I hope to make the best thing that I have ever attempted."

His temperament is well illustrated by an incident on a western railroad. The Sousa organization, which had been playing in one of the larger cities, desired to reach a small town in time for a matinee performance, but, owing to the narrow policy of the railway officials, the bandmaster was obliged to engage a special train, at a cost of $175. In the railway yard stood the private coach of the president of the system, and just before the Sousa train pulled out, the discovery was made that the regular train, to which it had been intended to attach the president's car, was three hours late. A request was made of the bandmaster that he allow the car to be attached to his train; but Sousa, with that twinkle in his eye which every person who has seen him must have noticed, simply smiled, and, with the most extravagant politeness,replied: "I am sorry, gentlemen, but, having chartered this train for my especial use, I am afraid I shall have to limit its use to that purpose."

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