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The Stars and Stripes Forever!

Updated on September 14, 2018
Reginald Thomas profile image

25 years as a conductor, professional trombonist, and teacher. This author enjoys writing about his passion for music.

The Story Behind “The Stars and Stripes Forever”

The influence and motivation behind a musical composition for a composer is sometimes very unique. This is the case with this particular composition known as the “Stars and Stripes Forever”.

In 1896, John Philip Sousa, respectfully known worldwide as the “March King” was on a European vacation with his wife. As they were enjoying the sites and sounds of Europe they learn of the death of Mr Sousa’s band manager, David Blakely, a few days earlier. This prompted Mr. Sousa and his wife to get on a ship and head home to New York.

During the voyage home, Mr. Sousa started hearing “The rhythmic beat of a band playing with in my brain. It kept on ceaselessly, playing, playing, playing. Throughout the whole tense voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and re-echoing the most distinct melody.“

When the couple got home Mr. Sousa wrote down the music on paper for what later the world would know as the “Stars and Stripes Forever.

The March, being a special musical genre was in its heyday from the mid 1850’s to approximately the 1940s and saw many great composers such as: Patrick Gilmore, Edwin Franko Goldman, Henry Fillmore to name but a few, contribute their talents, but none had the public attention quite like that of John Philip Sousa.

Below, are a few of the 136 marches that Sousa wrote over his great career. None have the worldwide appeal and popularity as The Stars & Stripes Forever. The one piece that ends most band concerts either as the last number in the program or as an encore. The one piece that people look forward to at a patriotic event or concert. So popular that in 1987, the United States Congress adopted it as the official March of the United States of America.

  • Semper Fidelis
  • Liberty Bell
  • Washington Post
  • High School Cadets

The American Flag

The symbol of a free America.
The symbol of a free America. | Source

John Philip Sousa - The March King

I was introduced to the name John Philip Sousa while in a rehearsal in a regional high school music festival which featured some of the better high schools musicians in the area back in the late 60’s. We were rehearsing Sousa’s High School Cadets March, which was evidently selected by the guest conductor for the concert we were preparing for. And I do remember it being fun to play, but also very difficult. The conductor was relentless and wanted to get this piece just right.

The thing I remember the most about this conductor was what he said to us before we played the famous piece of music. He said, “A band that can play a Sousa March well, is a good band“. I guess we were a good 85 piece symphonic Band because we played it very well and to this day, High School Cadets remains as one of my favorite marches.

John Philip Sousa was born in Washington DC., on November 6, 1854. He was the third of ten children, four of them died very early in life. His father, John Antonio and mother, Marie Elisabeth were both American immigrants.

It was around 1861 that John Philip Sousa began taking music lessons. His father was a trombonist in the United States Marine Band at that time and wanted his son to get music training early in life. Before he started his public school education John Philip was enrolled in a Conservatory of music for more formal music lessons and observing much in the way of musical training. He studied voice, violin, and piano.

When John Philip was 13, he was enlisted into the United States Marine Corps as an apprentice musician where he studied harmony, composition, and violin. By the time he was 20 he was out of the Marine Corps and playing violin professionally.

In 1880, Sousa enlisted again into the Marine Corps but this time as the 14th conductor and director of the Marine Band. For the next 12 years he built upon what was at the time a mediocre ensemble into the finest band anywhere. It was in 1892 that Sousa left in the Marine Corps to conduct his own professional band known as the Sousa Band.

In less than a year his band was the most recognized and sought after organization in the country. The bands fame had spread throughout the world. His marches were gaining great popularity. Not only had Sousa become “The March King” with a great band, but he was a superb entertainer with this band. When a town knew that the Sousa Band was to appear, they would close the town down so that everybody could witness the phenomenon known as the Sousa Band.


Sousa was and still is "The March King"!

John Philip Sousa

Composer of the Stars and Stripes Forever.
Composer of the Stars and Stripes Forever. | Source

How to Listen to the March

Below is a breakdown of how a typical American military march is written and in this case, the Stars & Stripes Forever. Listen along as you read about how the march was composed.

  • The first thing we hear is what is called the introduction (fanfare). This is usually four, eight, or 16 measures in length. The introduction is played in a loud and forceful manner (Marcato style)
  • The next section is called the first strain and displaying the first of several melodies to be heard. The first Strain is usually eight or 16 measures long with four measure phrases. After this strain is played, it is repeated, sometimes with other parts called “counter-melodies”. * As you are listening to this march, pay attention to how many melodies Mr. Sousa has written and being played at the same time.
  • The second strain is new material made up of 16 measures consisting of the second primary melody. The Stars & Stripes Forever and other marches of that period would repeat the second strain and for musical contrast have the first time through played with a softer dynamic volume while the second time being louder.
  • The third primary melody in a march is called the trio. The trio is referred to as the main melody of the march. In a typical trio, two things most always occur. First, for complete contrast purposes, the tonal center changes with a new key. This is a device a composer uses call “modulation“. The second, the mood of the march shifts from a loud bombastic sound to a softer dynamic in order to introduce this main melody.
  • In the orchestration of the Stars & Stripes Forever, Mr. Sousa has chosen the clarinets to play the melody in their chalimeau register of the instrument while the euphonium plays the melody and it’s tenor voice. This is a beautiful blend and used in most of his march trios. I learned this many years ago along with other techniques for conducting a Sousa march.
  • The next section of this march is called the break strain and sometimes referred to as the dogfight. This also makes it the fourth melody of this piece. This strain is loud, intense, and forceful. The purpose is to break a space between the trio section. It also offers contrast to the usually softer trio melody. In the Stars and Stripes Forever, Mr Sousa has a 24 measure break strain.
  • After the break strain the trio is hears again in the same style as the first. The second trio has an added melody called a “counter - melody“. This counter - melody is the most famous piccolo solo in all of music. Two melodies being played at the same time.
  • After this trio the break strain returns again then moves to the final trio.
  • The final trio is known as the grandioso and is the most exciting part of the march. Typically performed with the loudest dynamic level using all of the sections in the ensemble to bring this composition to a rousing conclusion. The grandiose adds yet another counter-melody giving our ears three melodies to listen to at once. Phenomenal!

The Stars and Stripes Forever Song - Lyrics written by John Philip Sousa
The Stars and Stripes Forever Song - Lyrics written by John Philip Sousa | Source

A band that can perform a Sousa march well, is a good band!

Lyrics to the song.

Stars and Stripes Forever

[First Strain]
Let martial note in triumph float
And liberty extend its mighty hand
A flag appears 'mid thunderous cheers,
The banner of the Western land.
The emblem of the brave and true
Its folds protect no tyrant crew;
The red and white and starry blue
Is freedom's shield and hope.

[Second Strain]
Other nations may deem their flags the best
And cheer them with fervid elation
But the flag of the North and South and West
Is the flag of flags, the flag of Freedom's nation.

(repeats) Other nations may deem their flags the best
And cheer them with fervid elation,
But the flag of the North and South and West
Is the flag of flags, the flag of Freedom's nation.

[Trio]
Hurrah for the flag of the free!
May it wave as our standard forever,
The gem of the land and the sea,
The banner of the right.
Let despots remember the day
When our fathers with mighty endeavor
Proclaimed as they marched to the fray
That by their might and by their right
It waves forever.


Let eagle shriek from lofty peak
The never-ending watchword of our land;
Let summer breeze waft through the trees
The echo of the chorus grand.
Sing out for liberty and light,
Sing out for freedom and the right.
Sing out for Union and its might,
O patriotic sons.

[Grandioso]
Hurrah for the flag of the free.
May it wave as our standard forever
The gem of the land and the sea,
The banner of the right.
Let despots remember the day
When our fathers with mighty endeavor
Proclaimed as they marched to the fray,
That by their might and by their right
It waves forever.

Portrait of Sousa

John Philip Sousa was the 17th conductor of the United States Marine Band.
John Philip Sousa was the 17th conductor of the United States Marine Band. | Source

The President's Own Marine Band - Semper Fidelis - John Philip Sousa. The official march of the United States Marine Corps..

© 2017 Reginald Thomas

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