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John Philip Sousa and National Anthems

President Barack Obama and President François Hollande of France listen to the French and U.S. national anthems during the state arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Feb. 11, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

It has been custom, when welcoming a visitor of high profile, that musical honors are paid to the person’s rank or status and to the nation they represent. When a leader of a foreign nation is welcomed at the White House on a State Visit, they are met with a gun salute and the playing of their national anthem followed by the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A foreign high ranking military person or defense minister is met at the Pentagon with appropriate gun salutes, musical honors that are accorded to the rank of the person (General’s March, Admiral, or Flag Officers March, or Hands Across The Sea). In terms of protocol, there are directives for the honors accorded foreign heads of State, officials, ambassadors, mayors, etc. These are offered but not always performed due to wishes of the visiting official. These honors are done to show honor, respect, and courtesy to those visiting officials.

In the late 19th century countries were associating more with each other. No doubt as the United States was becoming a world power, it became necessary to have on hand, those national anthems or airs when dignitaries came to town. The protocol of performing a national anthem to honor a foreign country may have its roots in the United States with none other than the great March King himself, John Philip Sousa.

John Philip Sousa, Director of the US Marine Band 1880-1892

While Sousa was director of the United States Marine Band, he found himself involved with providing music for visiting dignitaries. During his time with the Marine Band it was not uncommon to have foreign high officials (Sousa called the “foreign personages of importance”) visit Mount Vernon (home of George Washington) where they were treated to lunch and music provided by the band. On one occasion 17 ambassadors visited Mount Vernon and the Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin F. Tracy, asked Sousa to play each of their anthems. Sousa was prepared. He had been collecting the anthems of many nations for years. He had composed a medley of anthems in 1876  entitled “International Congress.” The selection included “Hail Columbia”, “God Save The Queen”, “The Marseillaise”, “Wearing of the Green”, “Wacht Am Rhein”, “Russian Hymn”, along with folk songs from Poland, Finland, Italy, Greece, and other nations. The composition ends with a stirring version of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” done in a Wagnerian style reminiscent of Tannhäuser.

The playing of the anthems at the Mount Vernon reception proved to be successful with the ambassadors rising to their feet as the music was performed. I can only imagine how long it took to play all 17 anthems.

Benjamin F. Tracy, Secretary of the Navy 1889-1893

Sousa was approached by Secretary Tracy some days later and congratulated on the performance and on Sousa’s work in collecting the anthems. Tracy suggested they should be put into one collection. Sousa thought it a great idea and said he would publish it under the Navy Secretary’s authority.

Navy Department
Washington Oct. 18, 1889

John Philip Sousa, the Bandmaster of the band of the United States Marine Corps, is hereby directed to compile, for the use of the Department, the National and Patriotic Airs of all Nations.
B. F. Tracy,  Secretary of the Navy

Sousa began work on the book immediately visiting embassies, consuls, libraries and publishers to gather music from around the world. He consulted with ethnomusicologists and those who had traveled to a foreign land. He would have them sing a melody and he would harmonize them. The harmonization is Sousa’s and reflects a Western music influence on some melodies from other cultures. One can’t blame Sousa, as all he had was a single melodic line to go on. And traveling personally to each country would have taken years to complete. Anthems of nations like France, United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, and Russia were not hard to find. Airs from distance lands and music of the native Americans also found their way into the collection. Sousa was especially fond of indigenous American music.  Sousa admired music of American origin with text that espoused patriotism. It is interesting that “Hail Columbia”, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, “Yankee Doodle”, “Columbia Gem of the Ocean” and “My Country ‘tis of thee” made it into the book, while “Battle Hymn of The Republic” and “Dixie” did not. This may have been a deliberate move on Sousa’s part.

The resultant work was “National, Patriotic and Typical Airs of All Lands” published by Harry Coleman of Philadelphia in 1890. It was dedicated to Tracy. The 283 page piano book is in public domain and can be found on the internet. Sousa put the book into three categories-National, Patriotic and Typical. The National Air was the accepted anthem of that nation, Patriotic were tunes with text expressing devotion and support to a nation, and Typical were tunes like folk songs found in that country. Sousa, I’m sure, amusingly wondered why the largest countries had the shortest anthems, and why anthems grew in length the smaller they were.

“The Marseillaise”, the National Air of France

What makes this collection so unique is that it was the first time a book of music of world anthems was published. Sousa was praised for the work done in collecting and arranging the selections. The book was noted for its scholarly approach and increased his standing in the musical world. In France, on a visit, he was able to get coveted box seats for Bastille Day ceremonies, not because he had letters of proper introduction but rather because he was recognized by the Minister of Beaux Arts for the anthems collection.

The preface reads:
In presenting this volume to the public, the compiler desires to state he has divided the airs into three classes — national, patriotic, and typical The first embraces those airs, which, either by official decree or by the voice of the people, are known as the principal patriotic airs of their respective countries; the second comprises those which embody words of a patriotic character, or are used at times for patriotic purposes. Under Typical, he has placed those airs which are indigenous to the soil, or the people, and which have come to him as specimens of national music in the broad sense of the term.

It was the compiler’s intention to give a few examples of the best modern patriotic songs of our land, but he was compelled to abandon his project. It is popularly supposed that this country is poor in patriotic songs, but instead of finding this to be the fact he discovered such a great number that no volume of ordinary size could contain them.

Many of them are excellent compositions and well fitted to serve the purpose of their creation.

Quite a number of the airs me to the compiler without harmonic treatment of any description; he has endeavored to supply that deficiency, but in no instance has he altered the melodic design of any of the airs.

Sousa’s manuscript for the national anthem of Brazil
From the collection of Barry Furrer

A folio of band music was soon published with arrangements done by Sousa. This book was published by Carl Fischer of New York. The “Tannhäuser” version of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” is included in this band collection. This march size book remained in the folders in the Sousa library and when he left the Marine Corps in 1892 to form his own band he found it useful, especially when he toured the world at the turn of the century. Once during the Sousa Band’s annual engagement at Willow Grove Park, a foreign dignitary along with their entourage were visiting the park and Mr. Sousa was asked to play their national air on the spot; and he did! A copy of the band collection of the National, Patriotic and Typical Airs of All Lands is hard to find. I was able to obtain a copy which I scanned for the US Air Force Band library. Unfortunately it is missing the 3rd Clarinet part.

In the 20th century The US Navy took on the task of arranging and updating current national anthems. Arranged for bands, they are printed in march-size format to enable use by military bands. Many of these arrangements are still in use today. The standard accepted Department of Defense version of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the one found in this collection today. It’s the one that is authorized for all military bands to perform.

Today the US Army Band (Pershing’s Own) is the repository of all the national anthems to be performed by military bands. If a request comes in for a military to perform an anthem, that band should contact the US Army Band in Washington to make sure it is the correct and updated version. When a request is received, a member of the Army Band contacts the Embassy to insure the version correct. Many times this is done with a phone call to the military attaché.

When I served in the US Air Force Band, one of my duties was handle the requests for national anthems and keep an updated copy of the music plus sound files. At times I was requested to make a brass quintet version of a particular anthem when the occasion called for a smaller ensemble to perform at a ceremony.

As for the protocol in performing anthems of foreign nations.


Q: If both the U.S. national anthem and the national anthem of a foreign country were being played at an event in the United States, which one would be played first?

A: It is standard practice for the visitor or guest of honor’s foreign national anthem to be played first, followed by the host nation’s. In the United States, the national anthem of the foreign country should be played first, followed by the U.S. national anthem.

Because of his interest in codifying music in the Navy, Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin F. Tracy ordered specific music to be performed in honoring the flag. In July, 1889 Tracy authorized music for the raising and lowering of the national flag. For the raising he specified “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hail Columbia” for lowering in the evening. John Philip Sousa alternated using the two at his performances (there was no official national anthem at that time) but preferred “The Star Spangled-Banner” to end his band concerts. Sousa would go onto championing the “The Star-Spangled Banner” becoming our national anthem. The US Army took note of the use of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and in 1895 ordered its use for flag lowering going so far as to designate it as our national anthem even before congress did in 1931. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is still used for flag lowering ceremonies in the Army and Air Force while the Navy and Marines use the bugle call of Retreat. The naval services  still use the directive issued by Navy Secretary Tracy to raise the flag with the “The Star-Spangled Banner”

you can read more about Retreat Ceremonies at at

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