John Philip Sousa, the long-time leader of the U.S. Marine Band as well as his own concert band, was perhaps the most famous American musician of his day. He spent a lifetime as a musical ambassador for the United States, conducting thousands of concerts in cities around the country and world. His compositions ranged from waltzes to operas, but his most beloved tunes were his marches, including “Semper Fidelis,” the “Washington Post,” and his most famous, “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Sousa wrote “Stars and Stripes Forever” as a salute to his country. The music came to him in December 1896 as he steamed home from Europe after receiving word that the manager of his band had suddenly died. He later wrote:
||Here came one of the most vivid incidents of my career. As the vessel [the Teutonic] steamed out of the harbor I was pacing on the deck, absorbed in thoughts of my manager’s death and the many duties and decisions which awaited me in New York. Suddenly, I began to sense a rhythmic beat of a band playing within my brain. Throughout the whole tense voyage, that imaginary band continued to unfold the same themes, echoing and re-echoing the most distinct melody. I did not transfer a note of that music to paper while I was on the steamer, but when we reached shore, I set down the measures that my brain-band had been playing for me, and not a note of it has ever changed.
Sousa died in 1932 at age seventy-seven. “Stars and Stripes Forever” was the last song he ever conducted. On December 10, 1987, the piece became America’s official march. The U.S. Marine Band carries on the tradition of playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” in performances across the country.