John Philip Sousa's Violin: An American Original
The restoration of the iconic bandleader's first violin focuses attention on the beginnings of a remarkable career
“What’s waiting on your bench on Monday morning?” I ask violin maker and restorer John Montgomery. Several of us are sharing an airport taxi, making conversation on a sleety, grey spring day. “John Philip Sousa’s childhood violin” was the unlikely reply.
For the rest of the ride, Montgomery regales us with youthful tales from “The March King’s” little-
remembered early years as a child violin prodigy in Civil War–era Washington. Though most famous as a band leader and composer of marches, he was originally a successful violinist, conductor, orchestrator, and composer of, among other things, operettas.
Montgomery, who owns a violin shop in Raleigh, North Carolina, was just finishing a restoration of the little fiddle in time for the opening of “Winning the Hearts of Americans,” a new exhibit at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia. As composer of “Semper Fidelis,” the official march of the US Marine Corps, and the bandleader who whipped the Marine Band into the crack touring ensemble that it remains today, Sousa is still very important to the Marines.
A Yearlong Restoration
Sousa, born in 1854, took up the violin at age six. “I feel for sure it had to be his first one,” Montgomery says of the violin. The fiddle itself is not remarkable—a quarter-size German student instrument of the sort imported by the thousands in the mid-19th century—“but it was such an important part of who he was, who he became.”
The construction methods, oxidization of the damaged wood, and the story that the Marine Corps gave Montgomery left little doubt that this instrument belonged to Sousa and was broken at the time he was a child.
The tiny violin was donated by the Sousa family to the Marines in the early 1970s, along with other artifacts and memorabilia.
“It was shattered,” Montgomery says of the violin. The top was riddled with cracks, the lobe of one f-hole was missing, as were edges, corners, fingerboard, and one ear of the little scroll. The neck, which was broken at the heel, had been reattached, but at a rakish angle, held in place with a big screw. The restoration project took about a year. “Almost everything that can break on a violin did,” Montgomery says. “But it’s Sousa’s, so I pulled out all the stops. It became the complete restoration that the Marines asked for.”
Montgomery painstakingly preserved every remaining part of the violin, including the hand-painted flowers that decorated the lower bout, and carefully matched wood and workmanship when replacing missing pieces. Serendipity intervened when Ron Midgett, a dealer in American violins who was closing his business, showed up with a box of old wood for sale—just as the Sousa violin was delivered.
“In that box of wood was a piece that was probably as old as this violin,” Montgomery says. “Every time I pulled a piece out of it to replace a wing or an edge, there was almost no retouching to do. It was the right color, grain width, color of grain. Sometimes everything really matches up beautifully.”
Montgomery returned the fiddle to playing condition, hunting through his collection for period-appropriate pegs, tailpiece, and strings, hoping to hear what Sousa heard as a child. “So, if it sounded like a horrible violin, I wanted it to sound like a horrible violin!” he says. “When I finished it, I did play it and it wasn’t bad for a quarter-size. He had something to work with.
“Now I feel I’ve done my service to my country,” he says.
Fate and the Fiddler
Montgomery speculates that the poor instrument’s near-total destruction actually ensured its preservation. Small-size instruments usually get passed along to a younger child, but because this one was broken, it stayed with the family.
“When you read about his youthful personality, you could quickly make a story that included his involvement in the breaking of the violin,” Montgomery says with a chuckle. At age five, the story goes, young Sousa became so angry with his mother for refusing him another doughnut that the child ran away on a cold, wet night and hid for so long that he nearly died of exposure.
Complications from pneumonia following the doughnut incident kept Sousa out of school for two years. His home schooling included violin lessons with a prominent Italian violin teacher at age six. “You always talk about the moments in history where things could have gone this way or a different way—that to me is huge in terms of John Philip Sousa and who he became. I think [violin playing at such an early age] was pretty rare. I think it’s lucky that he did get home-schooled in this instance and that he got all that attention.”
The times were ripe for a talent such as Sousa to flourish. Music was growing in importance in America; first parlor music, as people enjoyed more leisure time, and then concert-hall music. “That was a really critical and interesting time and change in this country,” Montgomery says. “And he was exceptional—they couldn’t ignore it.”
History took another chance turn when, at age 13, Sousa was approached by the leader of a circus band who had overheard him practicing. Sousa was persuaded to run away from home to join the circus band, but his father, a trombonist in the Marine Band, learned of the plot and in 1868 enlisted him as an apprentice musician in the US Marine Corps, according to Sgt. Mike Ressler, the US Marine Band historian.
Sousa came and went from the Marine Corps until 1892, when he formed his own band. “Marine Barracks became their school,” Ressler says. Apprentices age 13 to 21 studied basic academic subjects, music, and several instruments. “They were used as what was called ‘field musics,’ or musicians. They were sent out on ships with Marines, or, if they were involved in combat, they would provide music in combat. It was the musicians that sent signals to the troops in the field,” Ressler says. “It was the kids that did it.”
In his off-duty hours Sousa studied music with George Felix Benkert, an Austrian-trained music theorist who offered Sousa a musical education usually available only in Europe. Benkert conducted his own symphony orchestra in which Sousa played violin.
At the same time, Sousa played first violin in a quartet that performed weekly concerts at the home of Assistant Secretary of State William Hunter. Hunter obtained the latest quartet music from Europe to keep the group challenged.
A taste for cutting-edge art music became an important part of Sousa’s musical makeup. Decades later, as the mighty Sousa Band crisscrossed America, Sousa challenged his audiences with such serious music, sometimes slipping the American premiere of important new works in between marches and pop tunes of the day—often in the capable hands of a female violin soloist.
“This was a bit of showmanship,” violinist Rachel Barton Pine says in an interview for Violinist.com. Her studies of Maud Powell, one of Sousa’s violinists, piqued her curiosity about the bandleader. “The guy was no dummy—he said it was ‘relief for the eyes, as well as the ears.’
“A terribly un-PC comment these days!”
“It’s fascinating,” she says. “The Sousa Band played portions of Die Meistersinger ten years before the Met ever got around to doing its first American staging. That was how America was being introduced to the symphonic repertoire!”
At 20, Sousa was playing and conducting in Ford’s Opera House and the Washington Theatre Comique on the side. He left the Marine Band in 1875 to spend the next five years working mostly as a theater musician, which informed his sense of what audiences wanted to hear. A stint conducting a traveling show that ventured as far west as Nebraska foreshadowed the constant touring of his own band.
He left the show in order to be in Philadelphia for the nation’s 1876 centennial celebration and quickly landed a seat in the first-violin section of the International Exhibition Orchestra, guest-conducted by Jacques Offenbach. Sousa stayed on in Philadelphia working as a violinist and music editor.
An American Composer
In 1880, Sousa returned to the Corps as director of the Marine Band. “In the 12 years that he was the director,” Ressler says, “he brought the band to unprecedented levels of excellence. Like launching a rocket, he launched the band in a direction it’s been headed ever since.”
Sousa never resumed his violin-playing career, focusing instead on conducting and composing. But the influences of his violin-playing beginning—dance bands, musical theater, touring productions, vaudeville, and serious classical music—all informed the musician and composer he became.
“Sousa was not writing symphonies and concerti, but he was one of the most original American composers,” Ressler says. “There were composers who had studied in Europe and were composing European-style music in America, but that was not Sousa. Sousa was really an original in the American musical scene and wrote really, truly original American music.”
And it all started with a sickly child and his pint-size fiddle.
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