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The Stars and Stripes Forever March
The Stars and Stripes Forever March from The Complete Marches of John Philip Sousa: Vol. 3


“The Stars and Stripes Forever” (1896)


With the possible exception of “The Star Spangled Banner,” no musical composition has done more to arouse the patriotic spirit of America than this, John Philip Sousa’s most beloved composition. … Symbolic of flag-waving in general, it has been used with considerable effectiveness to generate patriotic feeling ever since its introduction in Philadelphia on May 14, 1897, when the staid Public Ledger reported: “It is stirring enough to rouse the American eagle from his crag, and set him to shriek exultantly while he hurls his arrows at the aurora borealis.”

Aside from this flowery review, the march’s reception was only slightly above average for a new Sousa march. It grew gradually in public acceptance, and with the advent of the Spanish-American War the nation suddenly needed such patriotic music. Capitalizing on this situation, Sousa used it with maximum effect to climax his moving pageant, The Trooping of the Colors.

“The Stars and Stripes Forever” had found its place in history. There was a vigorous response wherever it was performed, and audiences began to rise as though it were the national anthem. This became traditional at Sousa Band concerts. It was his practice to have the cornets, trumpets, trombones, and piccolos line up at the front of the stage for the final trio, and this added to the excitement. Many bands still perform the piece this way.

With the passing years the march has endeared itself to the American people. The sight of Sousa conducting his own great band in this, his most glorious composition, always triggered an emotional response. The piece was expected–and sometimes openly demanded–at every concert of the Sousa Band. Usually it was played unannounced as an encore. Many former Sousa Band members have stated that they could not recall a concert in which it was not played, and that they too were inspired by looking into the misty eyes of those in the audience. That the players never tired of it is surely a measure of its greatness.

Sousa was very emotional in speaking of his own patriotism. When asked why he composed this march, he would insist that its strains were divinely inspired. In a Sousa Band program at Willow Grove we find this account:

Someone asked, “Who influenced you to compose ‘Stars and Stripes Forever,’” and before the question was hardly asked, Sousa replied, “God–and I say this in all reverence! I was in Europe and I got a cablegram that my manager was dead. I was in Italy and I wished to get home as soon as possible. I rushed to Genoa, then to Paris and to England and sailed for America. On board the steamer as I walked miles up and down the deck, back and forth, a mental band was playing ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’ Day after day as I walked it persisted in crashing into my very soul. I wrote it on Christmas Day, 1896.” The march was not put to paper on board the ship. Presumably it was penned in Sousa’s hotel suite in New York soon after docking.

The composition was actually born of homesickness, as Sousa freely told interviewers, and some of the melodic lines were conceived while he was still in Europe. In one such interview he stated:

In a kind of dreamy way I used to think over old days at Washington when I was leader of the Marine Band...when we played at all public official functions, and I could see the Stars and Stripes flying from the flagstaff in the grounds of the White House just as plainly as if I were back there again. Then I began to think of all the countries I had visited, of the foreign people I had met, of the vast difference between America and American people and other countries and other peoples, and that flag of ours became glorified...and to my imagination it seemed to be the biggest, grandest, flag in the world, and I could not get back under it quick enough. It was in this impatient, fretful state of mind that the inspiration to compose ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ came to me, and to my imagination it was a genuine inspiration, irresistible, complete, definite, and I could not rest until I had finished the composition. Then I experienced a wonderful sense of relief and relaxation. I was satisfied, delighted, with my work after it was done. The feeling of impatience passed away, and I was content to rest peacefully until the ship had docked and I was once more under the folds of the grand old flag of our country.

The interviewer then added this telling postlude: “’Amen! to those sentiments,’ I said. And as I looked at John Philip Sousa there were tears in his eyes.” Sousa explained to the press that the three themes of the final trio were meant to typify the three sections of the United States. The broad melody, or main theme, represents the North. The South is represented by the famous piccolo obbligato, and the West by the bold countermelody of the trombones.

By almost any musical standard, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” is a masterpiece, even without its patriotic significance. But by virtue of that patriotic significance it is by far the most popular march ever written, and its popularity is by no means limited to the United States. Abroad, it has always symbolized America. It has been recorded more often than practically any other composition ever written. Sales of the sheet music alone netted Sousa over $400,000 in his lifetime; radio broadcasts, sheet music, and phonograph records brought his heirs tidy sums for many years. After the copyright expired in 1953, over fifty new arrangements appeared in the United States alone. Looking back at the march’s astonishing success, it is difficult to believe that the publisher had shown little faith in it and that he had even suggested to Sousa that “Forever” be stricken from the title.

Sousa did not claim that his march title was original. He could have come by it in one of two ways. First, the favorite toast of bandmaster Patrick S. Gilmore’s was “Here’s to the stars and stripes forever!” Also, one of Sousa’s publishers had earlier printed a piece with the same title.

Sousa wrote words for the march, evidently for use in The Trooping of the Colors, his pageant of 1898. These are printed below. One phrase (“Death to the enemy!”) was curiously omitted, however–one which he said came to him repeatedly while he was pacing the decks of the Teutonic.

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.

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.

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.

(Second time) 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.
Other nations may deem their flags the best
Hurrah for the flag of the free!

Paul E. Bierley, The Works of John Philip Sousa (Westerville, Ohio: Integrity Press, 1984), 43. Used by permission.