I am not a lover of national hymns, military music or marches. They might hearten the troops but they seldom encourage the creation of attractive covers. At least one exception is this winsome image for John Philip Sousa’s The Washington Post. It inspires gallant courteousness and good manners, not blaring heroism. And indeed Sousa’s fierce marching music suitably accompanied the stylish ballroom two-step. At one point the two-step was so much identified with Sousa’s melody that it was often called The Washington Post. Nevertheless we find distinct entries for the two dances in a tiny ‘dance class’ notebook of that time.
The two-step dance had been introduced in about 1890: a quick-quick-slow slide instead of the half-jump Polka step or an ein-zwei martial stride. The civilised dance definitely called for a more sophisticated music. Don’t take my word for it — listen to the delicate rendition of The Washington Post by the United States Army Field Band.
The creator of the dancing couple on the cover above is Johann Bahr (1859–1910), a German painter and caricaturist for the satirical magazine Lustige Blätter. We found one of his drawings for that magazine (a mocking self-portrait?) and also a merry carnivalesque aquarelle.
Bahr was not a prolific sheet music illustrator, still we count seven of his creations in our collection. One of them is again for a Sousa composition, the Kadetten-Marsch.
Now John Philip Sousa, he was famous! Born in Washington, D.C. in 1854 he would forever be esteemed as the American ‘March King’. His father was a Spanish trombonist with Portuguese roots, his mother was German. Sousa started as an apprentice musician at the Marine Corps. He would become a member and later the youngest conductor of the United States Marine Band. At the end of that career, in 1892 he founded his own Sousa Band. With it he conquered the US and the world, touring multiple times.
Sousa made his mark on music history. Being a perfectionist —and also having a perfect pitch— he attracted the finest musicians in his band. He educated audiences by playing classics to perfection, and proved that America had quality music.
Apart from his noble musical career Sousa helped the development of the sousaphone, strongly defended the rights of musical authors, and was in his spare time an expert trap shooter.
Sousa was not only a wildly popular director, a meticulous conductor, or an ingenious composer. He was also a shrewd entertainer, cleverly adapting his program to the sensitivity of the local audiences. European critics were surprised to hear him launch encores before the end of the concert, often in the middle of the enthusiastic applause that followed a piece. Sousa also introduced jazz sections, ragtime, cakewalks and coon songs in his gigs as early as 1900 at the Paris Exposition, giving some ideas to Claude Debussy.
Sousa’s demeanour was always disciplined and his uniforms were meticulous (a valet accompanied him everywhere on tour). There were rumours that to direct he never wore his white gloves twice…
In 1876, as a young lad of 22, Sousa toured as the orchestra leader for the Living Pictures. For that show he also composed short descriptive pieces as accompaniment to scenes with barely-covered girls. The Living Pictures was a series of tableaux vivants that enlivened scenes of classical art and literature. Beautiful women in gauze scarves and flesh-coloured tights took artful poses in painted decors. In the shows announcement, the public was reassured: “The management begs to state that the entertainment will be strictly first-class in every respect, and nothing will be said or done that will offend the most fastidious.”
‘Cleopatra before Caesar’, ‘The First Sin’, ‘Diana and her Nymphs Surprised’… Say no more!
The show was an entertaining enterprise of Matt Morgan. He was a British caricaturist, scene painter and theatre personality who defied the authorities and moral standards. It is said that his cartoons ‘… attacked the impropriety —actual or rumoured— of the Prince of Wales; and most shockingly, of Queen Victoria herself.‘
The risqué Living Pictures spectacle might have been classy in Washington, it definitely was less welcome in Pittsburgh: Sousa and other staff members were called to court on charges of obscenity.
We close this small tribute to Sousa with an impromptu duel between the sousaphone and the Dodge.
Readings on Matt Morgan: