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Archive for January 27th, 2014

John Phillip Sousa is widely known in the world of music as the “March King.”  Yet, his prolific compositional career included operettas, songs, and suites in addition to the more famous 135 individual marches: Stars and Stripes Forever, The Washington Post, Semper Fidelis, The Liberty Bell, Minnesota March, et al.

Sousa was more than an iconic American composer, though.  As a child he studied at the Esputa Conservatory of Music learning violin, piano, voice, and a variety of brass instruments.  When he was just thirteen years old, Sousa began an apprenticeship in the U.S. Marine Band, where he would work for the next seven years.  Besides that, he simultaneously played professional violin in theater orchestras.  He was a child prodigy, it seemed, and it took several years in the music scene for Sousa to give composition a try.

For a number of years, John Phillip Sousa traveled in Vaudeville shows, composed in a variety of genres, conducted, and again played professional violin.  In 1880 he was appointed conductor of the Marine Band, which flourished under his direction.  After that he led a civilian band bearing his name, all the while continuing to compose.  The “Sousa Band” toured the United States until the Great Depression, with a hiatus during World War I when Sousa worked for the Navy, also organizing bands.

Yes, John Phillip Sousa was a truly remarkable fellow, but what does he have to do with the Archives and Special Collections department? 

Recently, while shelving books in the Mahoney Music Collection, a small, green book caught my attention in the “PS” – American literature – section.  On the spine, under the title, gold letters read “John Phillip Sousa.”  I had to investigate.

In fact, Sousa wrote seven books and quite a lot of articles for magazines and journals. Who knew?

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The particular volume I came across is entitled The Fifth String.  Our copy is of the first 1902 publication by the Bowen-Merrill Company.  It retains its original forest-green binding and excellent, period cover art.  Interestingly, the illustrations are by famed American artist Howard Chandler Christy (apparently, in financial difficulties he found illustrating more profitable than painting). 

His story is enticing –renowned Italian violinist Angelo Diotti finds himself in love with a cold New York society girl who is not impressed with his virtuosity in the least.  Frustrated by his inadequacy, Diotti smashes his Stradavari violin in a rage and immediately is visited by the devil himself, who offers a replacement – a special violin with five strings.  Each string is “tuned” to a specific emotion – love, joy, pity, hope.  The fifth string is the string of death.  According to the Prince of Darkness, “he who plays upon it dies at once.”  Inconveniently, the string of death is situated in the middle of the other four.   

John Phillip Sousa paints a wonderful tale: it really took a masterful musician to write in such detail.  To a musician reader, the specific writing makes for much more realism in the otherwise fable-like plot.   It is also a portal to the music culture of turn-of-the-century America.  We modern music students don’t learn much about that era.  John Phillip Sousa, though, was very much in the midst of it all, and he allows us a short glimpse in with The Fifth String.

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