John Sousa was immensely proud of his country, America.
In serving it in the forces he captured its power in his stirring military
music. By the age of 26 he had become conductor of the US Marine Band.
The Band provided the facility to tour widely with a presence at military
academies. After a five-year period of finding his feet he started composing
for the Band. Within 12 years he had become known as "The March
King" as the heavy-beat formula of his march music conquered American
Sousa marches are uncomplicated pieces which, due to
their rhythm and regular use of cymbals and bass drum, are distinctly
Sousa; but it would be unfair to suggest that he was incapable of composing
in other genres. Occasionally we come across a piece of music which
is not so mechanically inspired and freer in composition: there are
examples of such pieces on this disc.
The CD contains a number of his marches, which interestingly
do not seem to vary in style from a well-trodden formula used over a
twenty-year period. There are seven tracks which reveal a different
side to this American composer. His Songs of Grace and Songs of Glory,
an early piece, is an example of something quite different. Composed
as a 'religious medley', it is a soft and languid piece played by woodwind
with distant brass fanfare chords. Its texture is unusual for a wind
band. Inspiration comes from a number of hymn tunes.
The Willow Blossoms Serenade has a syncopated
ragtime style modelled on Scott Joplin's music of over a decade earlier.
It was written to suggest the swaying of willows in Willow Grove Park,
Philadelphia to which the piece is dedicated.
At the Movies was written in the heyday of the
silent cinema and was intended to convey mood music for the screen.
This is another piece which shows a difference from the accustomed Sousa
style. It is subtitled Scenarios of Cinematographers but the
notes do not state for which films the music was intended. We are told
that the first movement depicts 'co-eds being serenaded at a university'.
The second movement reveals 'a pretty maid pleading for safety whilst
being pursued by a clever villain'. The third movement is a Joplin style
rag (perhaps more like Coates than Joplin) depicting 'a ragtime hoe-down
dance on the village green'.
The Rose, Shamrock and Thistle is a medley of
British tunes and shows that Sousa had well-developed skills to weave
together different themes with appropriate orchestration and dynamics.
King Cotton is one of Sousa's lasting melodies;
a simple tune set against a prominent beat. It was composed for the
Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta and marked a first major appearance
of the Sousa Military Band in the region.
The notes provided are somewhat sketchy and it would
have interested readers to be given details of Sousa's childhood, background
and musical training. Useful and adequate background material on each
piece (in English, French and German) is included. The Royal Artillery
Band clearly enjoy themselves under the leadership of Keith Brion.