John Philip Sousa	 1854-1932
John Philip Sousa
John Philip Sousa
Washington Post March

American Composer and bandmaster John Philip Sousa, known as the “March King,” was the most important figure in the history of band music. With his 135 marches that have dominated the field, he was the march equivalent of the “Waltz King,” Johann Strauss Jr.

Born in Washington, DC, Sousa organized his first musical ensemble, an adult quadrille, at age 11. He was about to run off with a circus band at 13 when his father had him enlisted as an apprentice musician in the US Marine Band. During the early Marine Band years Sousa performed professionally as a civilian violinist with several Washington theatre orchestras, meanwhile trying his hand at composition.

His first successful march was The Gladiator in 1886. By 1892 he had organized his own band, known as Sousa’s Band, which toured North America yearly, made four tours to Europe and one (1910-1911) around the world. During World War I Sousa volunteered to serve in the US Navy, organizing fleet bands at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. After the war, he continued touring with his band until the Great Depression. The last concert was presented at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier in September 1931.

Sousa was a phenomenon of the entertainment world and an American institution. In its 40-year history, the band presented over 15,000 concerts, usually to huge audiences. In addition to his many marches, Sousa also composed fifteen operettas, of which The Smugglers (1882) and El Capitan (1895) were the most successful.

Sousa composed the Washington Post March in 1889, referring to the Marine contingent posted in the capital at that time, although the newspaper The Washington Post claimed that it was composed at its owner’s request for the paper’s essay contest awards ceremony. It was used around the world to dance the two-step, a popular dance of the time. Example 1
Stephen Foster 1826-1864
Stephen Foster
Stephen Foster
Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)

An American songwriter of Scottish-Irish descent, Stephen Foster was one of the most popular American song writers of all times. Yet there is little documentary evidence about his life. Forster’s brother Morrison, the keeper of the family archives, destroyed embarrassing documents and letters and described the composer as a naďve genius, a dreamer and hopelessly inept in business. The picture stuck, although it only partially is supported by facts.

Foster was attracted to parlor ballads and the songs and dances of the black minstrel shows, publishing his first original “imitation” at age 18 and following it with a string of immensely popular sentimental ballads – including such perennial favorites as Lou’siana Belle and Oh! Susanna – and minstrel songs such as De Camptown Races, Massa's in de Cold, Cold Ground and My Old Kentucky Home. For all the reasons listed above, they enriched publishers but left him perpetually broke.

Foster composed Old Folks at Home in 1851. Example 1 It has long been condemned for romanticizing slavery, and over the years the text has gradually evolved to become more politically correct. It became very popular and Antonín Dvorák saw it as an example of American folk music, and made various arrangements for voice and orchestra.

The “Swanee” of the song is actually the Suwannee River of the Georgia-Florida border. Foster changed the name to fit the melody.
Henry Burleigh 1866-1949
Henry Burleigh
Henry Burleigh
Didn't it Rain

Henry Burleigh was an African-American composer, singer and arranger, who became a student of Antonín Dvořák when the latter became Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Burleigh, in turn, exposed his teacher to African-American spirituals.

Burleigh was a great promoter of the gospel songs, many of them in his own arrangements. Didn’t it Rain is an old gospel song, which Burleigh arranged in 1919 as an art song with piano accompaniment.
William Mercer (Marion) Cook 1869-1944
William Mercer (Marion) Cook
William Mercer (Marion) Cook
Swing Along

The son of the dean of the Law School of Howard University, composer and violinist Will Marion Cook grew up in Chattanooga, where he first experienced what he called “Real Negro melodies.” He majored in violin at Oberlin College in Ohio and may have studied for a while with famed violinist Joseph Joachim in Berlin. During 1894-95 he studied composition in New York with Antonín Dvořák, who advocated for an authentic American, multi-cultural national music style. Cook’s life work was to promote African-American music; he became a respected conductor, impresario and coach for some of America’s finest musicians.

Cook was known for his irascible temper and rigidity. According to Eubie Blake “he was trying to ape Richard Wagner.” But Duke Ellington called Cook “the master of all masters of our people.”

While Cook composed some music for the theater, he is best known for his songs, many of which first appeared in his musicals – combinations of comedy and reviews that emphasized and promoted black themes and culture for a mixed audience. At the time Broadway was all white, and Cook used his musicals to break the color barrier on and off stage. After overcoming many hurdles, Clorindy or The Origin of the Cakewalk, written in conjunction with poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, opened on Broadway on July 5, 1898 with a cast of twenty-six African-Americans. In some of the numbers, the performers sang and danced simultaneously, the first time such a feat had been performed on the stage. It was a smashing success.

Swing Along, first published in 1912, was Cook’s signature song, a paean to black pride. Example 1 It rejected the stereotype in the minstrel shows where whites in blackface depicted bumbling, clownish blacks. No “Massa, dear” here!
Antonin Dvořák 1841-1904
Antonin Dvořák
Antonin Dvořák
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World

Antonín Dvořák’s sojourn in the United States from 1892 to 1895 came about through the efforts of Mrs. Jeanette B. Thurber. A dedicated and idealistic proponent of an American national musical style, she underwrote and administered the first American music conservatory, the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Because of Dvořák’s popularity throughout Europe, he was Thurber’s first choice for a director. He, in turn, was probably lured to the big city so far from home by both a large salary and convictions regarding musical nationalism that paralleled Mrs. Thurber’s own.

Thirty years before his arrival in New York Dvořák had read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha in a Czech translation and was eager to learn more about the Native American and African American music, which he believed should be the basis of the American style of composition. He also shared with Mrs. Thurber the conviction that the National Conservatory should admit Negro students.

While his knowledge of authentic Native American music is questionable – his exposure came through samples transcribed for him by American friends and through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show – he became familiar with Negro spirituals through one of his students, as well as indirectly via the songs of Stephen Foster. He incorporated both of these styles into the Symphony No. 9, composed while he was in New York.

Just as Dvořák never quoted Bohemian folk music directly in his own nationalistic music, he did not use American themes in their entirety. Rather, he incorporated characteristic motives into his own unsurpassed gift for melody. Nevertheless, any listener with half an ear can discern fragments of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in the second theme of the first movement, Example 1 as well as “Massa Dear” (also known as “Goin’ Home”) in the famous English horn solo in the second movement. Example 2 We can deduce the importance of these musical motives from the fact that they appear as reminiscences in more than one movement, especially in the finale. Example 3 The symphony, however, is hardly an American pastiche; the second motive in the largo movement is a phrase of wrenching musical longing that many listeners interpret as the composer’s nostalgia for his native Bohemia. Example 4 Other melodies, such as the principal theme of the first movement, seem to have no particular origin beyond the composer's inspiration. Example 5

It is curious that Dvořák seemed to make no distinction between the folk music of American slaves and American Indians. While the second movement uses a theme from African America spirituals, the composer also claimed that it had been inspired by Longfellow’s epic, perhaps by Minnehaha’s forest funeral. The third movement as well, in its rhythmic thumping, its use of the pentatonic scale and the orchestration dominated by winds and percussion is meant to portray an Indian ceremonial dance described in Longfellow’s poem. Example 6 Incidentally, Dvořák had also intended to compose an opera on Hiawatha, which never even approached completion. But his symphonic use of what he believed to be an authentic Native American musical idiom may have represented his initial ideas for the opera.

One of the most important features of the Symphony is its thematic coherence. Whatever the origin of the melodies, they all have a modular characteristic in that they can be mixed and matched in many different ways. In the finale Dvořák brings nearly all of the Symphony's themes together, sometimes as one long combined melody, Example 7 sometimes in contrapuntal relationship to each other. Example 8
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2015