“The Fairest of the Fair” (1908)
“The Fairest of the Fair” is generally regarded as one of Sousa’s finest and most melodic marches, and its inspirations came from the sight of a pretty girl with whom he was not even acquainted. It was an immediate success and has remained one of his most popular compositions. It stands out as one of the finest examples of the application of pleasing melodies to the restrictive framework of a military march.
The Boston Food Fair was an annual exposition and music jubilee held by the Boston Retail Grocers’ Association. The Sousa Band was the main musical attraction for several seasons, so the creation of a new march honoring the sponsors of the 1908 Boston Food Fair was the natural outgrowth of a pleasant business relationship.
In fairs before 1908, Sousa had been impressed by the beauty and charm of one particular young lady who was the center of attention of the displays in which she was employed. He made a mental note that he would someday transfer his impressions of her into music. When the invitation came for the Sousa Band to play a twenty-day engagement in 1908, he wrote this march. Remembering the comely girl, he entitled the new march “The Fairest of the Fair.”
Because of an oversight, the march almost missed its première. Nearly three months before the fair, Sousa had completed a sketch of the march for the publisher. He also wrote out a full conductor’s score from which the individual band parts were to have been extracted. The band had just finished an engagement the night before the fair’s opening and had boarded a sleeper train for Boston. Louis Morris, the band’s copyist, was helping the librarian sort music for the first concert, and he discovered that the most important piece on the program—“The Fairest of the Fair”—had not been prepared.
According to Morris’s own story, the librarian, whose job it had been to prepare the parts, went into a panic.There was good reason; considerable advance publicity had been given to the new march, and the fair patrons would be expecting to hear it. In addition, the piano sheet music had already been published, and copies were to be distributed free to the first five hundred ladies entering the gates of the fair.
Morris rose to the occasion. He asked the porter of the train to bring a portable desk, which he placed on a pillow across his lap. He worked the entire night, and the parts were nearly finished when dawn broke. Both were greatly surprised by the appearance of Sousa, who had arisen to take his usual early morning walk. When asked about the frenzied activity, they had no choice but to tell exactly what had happened.
There were many times in the life of John Philip Sousa when he demonstrated his benevolence and magnanimity, and this was surely one of them. After recognizing Morris’s extraordinary effort and remarking that it was saving the band from considerable embarrassment, he instructed him to complete his work and to take a well-deserved rest, even if it meant sleeping through the first concert.
With no one the wiser, Louis Morris—hero of the day—was asleep in his hotel as Sousa’s Band played “The Fairest of the Fair” for the first time on September 28, 1908. Sousa did not mention the subject again, but Morris found an extra fifty dollars in his next pay envelope —the equivalent of two weeks salary.
Paul E. Bierley, The Works of John Philip Sousa (Westerville, Ohio: Integrity Press, 1984), 43. Used by permission.