Classics on Sunday: The Stars and Stripes Forever


THIS is the first in a series in which I hope to showcase my favourite classical music. I am not sure if a march counts as classical, but after this dispiriting week I thought we could all do with a lift.

The Stars and Stripes Forever was composed by John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), known as the American March King with at least 100 marches to his name.

Sousa believed that to write music that would ‘make goose pimples chase each other up and down your spine’, he had to be inspired. Some of his inspiration came from a ‘higher power’ and some from his imagination.

The inspiration for The Stars and Stripes Forever came after Sousa, enjoying a European vacation with his wife in 1896, received a cablegram with news of the death of his band manager, David Blakely. Sousa said later: ‘I was in Italy and I wished to get home as soon as possible. I rushed to Genoa, then to Paris and to England and sailed for America. On board the steamer as I walked miles up and down the deck, back and forth, a mental band was playing Stars and Stripes Forever. Day after day as I walked it persisted in crashing into my very soul. I wrote it on Christmas Day, 1896.’

He said the piece was about the feeling of coming home to America and how ‘in a foreign country the sight of the Stars and Stripes seems the most glorious in the world’.

Surprisingly, Sousa’s publisher had little faith in it and suggested that ‘Forever’ be deleted from the title. Sousa resisted and The Stars and Stripes Forever was first performed in Philadelphia on May 14, 1897. The normally restrained Public Ledger reported: ‘It is stirring enough to rouse the American eagle from his crag, and set him to shriek exultantly while he hurls his arrows at the aurora borealis.’

It was an immediate success, and, from the time of its publication until his death 35 years later, Sousa and his band performed it at most of their concerts, often as an encore.

It is still sometimes known as the ‘Disaster March’ because it used to be played in theatres and circuses only if there was a life-threatening emergency as a signal to staff to organise an orderly exit without the audience panicking. This happened during the Hartford, Connecticut, circus fire of July 6, 1944, when most of the audience of 7,000 were saved, though at least 168 were killed.

Here is a lovely performance by a high school band – the hours of rehearsal this must have entailed!

Here it is taken at a tremendous pace by Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. I have an idea this was a performance at the Proms, but I can’t pin it down.

The piece was transcribed for piano in 1944 by the great Russian-born player Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989) to celebrate his gaining American citizenship. This is the score with him playing it.

And just in case it sounds easy, this is what it looks like in performance. I wonder if those are 17-year-old George Li’s parents on the end of the front row?

George Li has gone on to become a successful professional pianist.

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