Semper Fidelis - Music of Sousa / "President's Own" Marine Band

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SOUSA Semper Fidelis. Manhattan Beach. Comrades of the Legion. Sabre and Spurs. The Gallant Seventh. King Cotton. The Gridiron Club. Who’s Who in Navy Blue....
SOUSA Semper Fidelis. Manhattan Beach. Comrades of the Legion. Sabre and Spurs. The Gallant Seventh. King Cotton. The Gridiron Club. Who’s Who in Navy Blue. The Invincible Eagle. The Royal Welch Fusiliers. La Reine de la Mer Waltz. Processional Polonaise. Suite: Looking Upward. The Bride Elect: Selections . Easter Morning on the White House Lawn John Bourgeois, cond; U.S. Marine Band ALTISSIMO 9722 (70:40)

The March King had a lifelong distrust of recordings. Of the 1,166 shellacs that the Sousa Band made for the Victor Talking Machine Co., he conducted only six. These are pored over by dedicated Sousa scholars, including a former director of the Yale Band. Their holy grail is Sousa’s “authentic” performance style. Yes, HIPness has reached the parade ground.

What makes such historical sleuthing important is that the outdoor versions of Sousa’s beloved marches are only a rough template for what he did in concert. Every piece had a “secret” arrangement, cued by hand and passed along by word of mouth, that doesn’t appear in any published edition. I served my time marching at football halftime alongside my fellow high-school clarinetists, and we did what rank-and-file players still do: We played all the time, with few rests; we maintained a slow walking pace; we were loud. But Sousa considered the march to be among the most difficult genres to perform correctly.

One reason is that he was a violinist, although he learned from boyhood onward to play every band instrument (his father enlisted him in the Marine Band at age 13 to keep his son from running away to join a circus band). He worshipped Johan Strauss II, Arthur S. Sullivan, and Jacques Offenbach. In other words, Sousa had a refined ideal in his mind of nuance and elegance, not the blaring patriotic display his marches are mostly used for. In concert, as opposed to the marching field, he preferred thinner orchestration, subtle phrasing, and varied accents. But these “secrets” can only be gleaned by interviewing surviving band members who played under him until his death in 1932, picking up the style by ear from original Sousa Band recordings, and laboriously comparing manuscripts and meager handwritten notations on the parts the band used.

Wrap up all this research with a bow, and you get the present CD from the U.S. Marine Band, which Sousa conducted for a relatively brief stint between 1880 and 1892. The extensive program notes make for fascinating reading, even if your knees can no longer contemplate marching two miles in the Easter Parade. Your ears will immediately notice how enjoyably civilized these performances are. Band director Col. John Bourgeois sets the tempo at a relaxed 118–120 beats a minute, which Sousa favored—he sped up the pace for encores, to get the audience more excited. The instrumentation is lean until the “grandioso” finish, when it’s all hands on deck.

The album’s title, Semper Fidelis , refers to the only popular march on the disc. Rather than a collection of greatest hits, the program highlights Sousa’s diversity, since he wrote songs, suites, waltzes, and operettas, none as successful as his marches. My favorite rarity here was the 18-minute suite Looking Upward , Sousa’s precursor to Holst’s The Planets , with movements titled “By the Light of the Polar Star” and “Mars and Venus.” One hears the best of Sousa’s exotic touches, actual chords for the horns and trumpets, and something forbidden in a field march, an accelerando.

The Marine Band, which produced and engineered the CD, shows off its considerable musicianship as a concert ensemble; the recorded sound is full but a bit too distant to capture much inner detail. To be candid, Sousa’s best tunes are in his two dozen or so most famous marches, but even in their absence these are eye-opening works. All his life he secretly wanted to be America’s Johan Strauss, Jr., and for once a recording comes close to fulfilling his wishes.

FANFARE: Huntley Dent

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 01, 2009

  • UPC: 754422609722

  • Catalog Number: ALT09722

  • Label: Altissimo

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: John Philip Sousa

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: [""President's Own" United States Marine Band"]