Comments on Interpretation of Sousa Marches

Marcus L. Neiman, artistic director/conductor
The Sounds of Sousa Band

To his men he would say, 'Any band can play these printed arrangements the same as we, but we shall play them differently! (1)

That's what interpretation is all about!  But, it goes a bit further.  It must be understood that Mr. Sousa was an entertainer first and he performed his marches for his audiences, not his publisher, or an adjudicator.  Published sets of music were printed so everyone would have something to play on the march.  When played indoors, Sousa massages them to his own liking. (2)

It should also be understood that from all sources of research on interpretation of Sousa's marches, it becomes clear that "his" interpretation of given marches probably didn't change from day to day, but he would occasionally change things around to suite his needs or fancy.

Various members of the Sousa Band commented on the fact that Sousa actually experimented with the marches, worked them, refined them, and polished them during the initial period following composition.  Another comment comes from Joe Lefter, flutist with Sousa's Band: I asked him one time why he changed his music when he played the marches.  When it's marked loud, why didn't he have the band play it loud.  He told me: Mr. Lefter, if everybody played it the way it's written, then everybody's band would sound like the my band so we make some changes now and then just to make it a little bit different. (3)

There are other reasons why there are different opinions on how Sousa marches should be played.  August Helmecke, Sousa's bass drummer, commented that: Sousa wrote for performance, not for publication.  In odd moments on trains, in hotel rooms, or shipboard, he'd sipmly jot down his immortal themes, hand them over to the band copyist, and then snap right into action on them.  Consequently, when they came to be published, nothing but the notes got onto the printed page. (4)

Since Sousa often wrote out the full score in more than one sitting, the changes are that things were simply left out.  Discrepancies thus occurred when published parts were taken from instrumental parts as opposed to having been taken directly from the score.  We understand that the marches were not originally published with either full or condensed scores, and most conductors used either the solo clarinet or solo cornet part to conduct their bands.  That is where it is best to start working on dynamics and articulations.

According to Capt. Frank P. Byrne, Jr., formerly of the U.S. Marine Band, the instrumentation of the bands also caused problems.  For example, between 1897 and 1951, in the arrangement of The Stars and Stripes Forever, there were ten new instrumental parts which, either in whole or in part, were not written by Sousa.  The most obvious of these changes is the addition of two entirely new trumpet parts.  These contain the well know trumpet flourishes in the trio, which are found no where else.

1 Dvorak, Raymond F. Reflections of sousa's march performances, The School Musician/Director and Teacher, 41/4 (12) 69, p. 59.

2 Bierley, Paul. Personal letter to author dated December 28, 2001.

3 Lefter, Joe. Oral history interview, n.p. August 1980, The sousa oral history project, unpublished transcripts in U.S. Marine Band Library, Washington, D.C., p. 65-66.

4 Helmecke, August. How sousa played his marches, p. 23