Press "Enter" to skip to content

John Philip Sousa’s Christmas Gift to the United States

John Philip Sousa’s Christmas Gift to the United States.

We may think of “The Stars and Stripes Forever!” around Independence Day, but did you know it was written around Christmas?

Cover to Stars and Stripes
Cover to Stars and Stripes

“The Stars and Stripes Forever” is certainly America’s greatest march. It is associated with the United States and recognized everywhere in the world. The march was not born in the aftermath of a great battle (like “The Star-Spangled Banner”) but, like our national anthem, is the result of a vision of the American flag flying on a staff. We may celebrate the birth of the United States every July 4th with the playing of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” but we pause at this season to remember John Philip Sousa’s Christmas gift to the United States.

Sousa in 1896
Sousa in 1896

In his autobiography, “Marching Along” written in 1928, John Philip Sousa wrote that he composed the march “The Stars and Stripes Forever” on Christmas Day, 1896. Sousa had composed the march in his head and committed the notes to paper after his arrival in the United States. The new march was first performed at The Academy of Music in Philadelphia (not Willow Grove Park, just outside Philadelphia, as reported in some other places) on May 14, 1897, and was immediately greeted with great enthusiasm.

Sousa had left the United States Marine Band in 1892 after 12 years in service to the nation as the Director of the “President’s Own” to form his own civilian organization. During his time with the Marine Band he produced some of his greatest marches including “Semper Fidelis” (1888), “The Thunderer” (1889) and “The Washington Post” (1889). His new band enjoyed great success and it toured the nation to great acclaim. After four years of touring which included some major concerts and the premier of his operetta “El Capitan”, Sousa and his wife left for a vacation trip to Europe in September 1896. They were in Naples when they saw a startling newspaper article. Sousa’s band manager, David Blakely, had passed on November 7th having been found dead in his Carnegie Hall office. The news was shocking as Blakely had been the person responsible for the Sousa Band tours and the one who persuaded Sousa to leave the Marine Corps. Sousa and his wife headed home to New York, leaving from Liverpool, England aboard the SS Teutonic on November 18 and arriving in New York City on the 25th. (or possibly the 26th according to the SS Teutonic schedule found at: This would make sense as a Sousa Band tour was set to start on December 27th.

This ship Sousa and his wife sailed on, the SS Teutonic, was a British liner owned by the White Star Line and built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, Ireland. Information about the ship can be found at:
Interestingly this was the same owner and builder of the RMS Titanic, the ship that would meet its fate in 1912.

The S.S. Teutonic. Note the US Flag flying at the foremast.
The S.S. Teutonic. Note the US Flag flying at the foremast.

One can imagine Sousa pacing the deck during the late fall voyage and thinking about his manager and the person that guided him to national prominence, David Blakely. Information about Blakely can be found here:

David BlakelyDavid Blakely

It is most certain that during the trip Sousa would have looked up at the foremast where the flag of the United States flew. In 1896 this would have been the 45-Star flag (Utah having been admitted on January 4, 1896). Why would the US Flag be flying on a British liner? The foremast is where the flag of the ship’s destination flew. Sometimes (but incorrectly) referred to as the “destination flag”, the flying of a “courtesy flag” or “courtesy ensign”, is the ensign of another country flown when entering that country’s port and during the ship’s entire time in port. This flag is flown also during the voyage. This courtesy is done as means of honoring that country. Conversely, failing to do so was considered highly disrespectful, especially for naval vessels. It must have been the sight of the flag fluttering in the breeze that inspired the music that went through his head.

45 Star Flag
45 Star Flag

Sousa wrote about the genesis of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” several times. In 1915, in an interview for the New York Review, Sousa said the song was about the feeling of coming home to America and how in a foreign country the sight of the Stars and Stripes seemed the most glorious in the world. 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 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 differences between America and American people and other countries and other peoples, and that flag our 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 inpatient, fretful state of mind that the inspiration to compose the stars and stripes forever came to be, add 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 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.”

In a 1923 program Sousa wrote:

“On board the steamer as I walked 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.”

In his autobiography, “Marching Along” (1928), he 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. It kept on ceaselessly, playing, playing, playing. 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.”

What is interesting in the story is that Sousa arrived in New York on November 26, yet waited almost a full month before setting the tune that was in his head down on paper. If one was to believe Sousa rushed from the ship and wrote it immediately after docking, one would have to go back to the ships records. The records show the ship arriving on November 25th or the 26th. The Teutonic made another voyage in December, arriving in New York on December 23rd. This would fit into the story quite well, having Sousa leave the ship and setting the music to paper two days later. However, the five-month concert tour was set to start on December 27th and certainly Sousa would have needed time to prepare the band and himself for the long and arduous road trip. Plus Sousa’s arrival in New York was mentioned in the “Theatrical Gossip” column of the New York Times on November 27, 1896. He waited a month before writing the march, yet his 1915 interview seems to indicate that he wrote the composition while on the ship. There are contradictions in his stories.

Did he:
1. Write the piece onboard the ship?
2. Write it “when we reached shore”?
3. Wait a month before writing it down?

Sousa never claimed to write the music immediately after arriving so we must assume he waited a month before writing out the piano score that would become the skeleton for the full band arrangement. As a writer, Sousa worked several stages when composing a march. Usually a sketch was done of ideas for a musical composition, then a piano score was done. The piano score was then put into a full score format from which copyists would write out individual parts for the band members. The march would be turned into other versions such as a piano solo for publication and orchestral arrangements usually set in a key to suit orchestras.

Unfortunately there are no sketches for “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” This is disappointing as Sousa would jot down ideas as they came to him, whether it be at home, in a hotel room, at dinner, or on a train. Many sketches to other works survive.

There are three original scores that survive.
1. An untitled pencil piano score signed and dated xmas 1896.
2. An ink piano score signed and dated xmas 1896.
3. A full score signed and dated April 26, ’97 Boston.

James R. Smart in his article “Genesis of a March The Stars and Stripes Forever” puts that the pencil score (which he discovered in the Library of Congress) and the ink score were both done on Christmas Day 1896. It is possible Sousa may have written down a few ideas as a sketch (unfortunately lost) and then did the untitled pencil piano score before Christmas Day and then inked out the two-page piano score signed and dated “xmas 1896.” But considering his very busy schedule between his arrival and Christmas Sousa would have had little time. There were rehearsal and tour arrangements to be done in the absence of David Blakely. But since both are dated Christmas Day, we must assume that is when they were completed.

The pencil score
The pencil score

One thing to mention is that Sousa did not always put a title on a new march until its first performance or sometimes just before publication. It is interesting to note the first piano score has no title and the ink piano score has a title (called erroneously “The Star and Stripes forever”) that is in pencil perhaps indicating the title was added at a later date.

The ink piano score
The ink piano score

Once the music was written as a piano arrangement, (Sousa signed the piano score “xmas ’96” he put the music aside. He must have taken the two piano versions with him on the tour that started on December 27 and then scored the work for band finishing it on April 26, 1897 in Boston. This was done while during a 5 month tour, no small feat! He scored the work for piccolo in D-flat, two oboes, two bassoons, clarinet in E-flat, two clarinets in B-flat, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, three cornets, four horns in E-flat, three trombones, euphonium, tuba, and percussion.

Full Score
Full Score

As for the name, “The Stars and Stripes Forever”, it no doubt refers to our flag. The term Stars and Stripes was used as a reference to the flag long before the march and several pieces of music under that title were published including one composed by William Lemon in 1861 and one written by Frank Armstrong and published in 1895. Sousa was more than likely familiar with the term and attached the title in the spring of 1897.

Stars and Stripes Forever 1861
Stars and Stripes Forever 1861

By April 1897,  Sousa had been on tour for three months and working on the scoring of the march. According to the signed manuscript, he finished the work on April 26 in Boston. Sousa had in mind to premier the march in Philadelphia on May 14 to coincide with celebrations of a new statue of George Washington the city was planning.

There is an indication that Sousa had promised or had been asked to write a new march for the occasion. On May 9th the Philadelphia Inquirer announced that a new Sousa march would be unveiled at the concerts and that the name of the new composition would be announced on May 14. So at the Philadelphia Academy of Music would be the place of the new work. But certainly Sousa would have rehearsed the untitled march ahead of time and there seems to be indications that he performed the untitled work as an encore selection as early as May 1 in Augusta, Maine. But certainly, the first announced performance was on May 14 in Philadelphia. Washington and Baltimore would hear the work within a few days when the band visited those cities.

Philadelphia Academy of Music

And the reaction? It was enthusiastic. Almost from the start the march seemed to hit the right chord with everyone.

The Philadelphia Ledger wrote,  “It is of martial nature throughout and 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.” Many similar, if not so flowery, reviews followed. Ovations were given and encores demanded of the new work to which certainly must of pleased Sousa. The Baltimore Sun wrote, “The fervid reception it met with caused the bearded bandmaster to blush with pardonable pride to the very roots of his rapidly disappearing hair.

Philadelphia Times Review May 15, 1897

The first known recording of the march was made by the Berliner Recording Company on August 18, 1897 in New York, followed by Columbia in Washington. Later recordings by Edison and Victor were conducted by Arthur Pryor. Although Sousa would conduct performances of his march at virtually every concert until his death, only one recording of Sousa performing the march with his band which was made on August 7 1909 by Edison in New York is known to survive today. Sousa disliked recordings and radio, and most of the Sousa band recording sessions were conducted by Herbert L. Clarke. What is interesting in the Sousa recording of his own work, is his re-orchestration of some of the parts. Most notably is the addition of the octave leaps in the second strain and the octave dropping of the melody in the trio. Also a unique feature is the the repeat of the march, a practice that harken back to 19th century performance styles.
Here is the recording:

Over the years “The Stars and Stripes Forever” has been performed and recorded by great bands and orchestras led by some of the world’s most renown conductors. It has been arranged into almost every conceivable type of ensemble and subjected to many interpretations including Jazz settings. It was also the basis for a ballet by Hershey Kay and was the title of a 1952 movie based on Sousa’s life. To celebrate becoming an American citizen, legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz wrote a transcription of it for solo piano. He performed it at Carnegie Hall on March 28, 1945.
It’s a interesting interpretation:

A tradition (not knowing where or how it started) is clapping along to the first two strains and the Grandiose last 32 bars. This is reminiscent of Europeans clapping to Strauss’s Radetzky March. “The Stars and Stripes Forever” has also achieved a ceremonial status in the US military. The last 32 bars is used as a Honors March to recognize civilians who hold certain ranks.

After a long effort petition Congress that began in 1915, it became the National March of the United States of America in 1987 through an Act of Congress.

Lyrics were set to the march by none other than JP Sousa.

Stars and Stripes Forever Song
Stars and Stripes Forever Song

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.

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
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.

Sousa conducting “The Stars and Stripes Forever” in the 1920s. US Navy Video

This panoramic photo of Sousa’s Band taken on Sunday, March 5th, 1922 is identified as the 25th anniversary of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” which took place at the Hippodrome Theatre in NYC. On this special occasion, Sousa’s Band is supported by B.F. Keith’s Boy’s Band while Mr. Sousa is flanked by Charles Dillingham and R.H. Burnside, owner and artistic director respectively, of the Hippodrome. Photo Courtesy of The Barry Owen Furrer Collection

“The Stars and Stripes Forever” became a major part of every Sousa Band concert and is today played by the United States Marine Band on every tour they make. Sousa conducted the march countless times and it was a staple of every concert he performed.

Sousa died in 1932 at the age of 77 in Reading, Pennsylvania after conducting a rehearsal with the Ringgold Band. Fittingly, the last piece he conducted was “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” As Ann M. Lingg wrote, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” has gloriously outlasted Sousa’s worldly life. It still stands a symbol of two of the finest American traditions-energy and optimism in an emergency-which have inspired its composition.

– James R. Smart, Genesis of a March The Stars and Stripes Forever (Washington DC: Ludwig Music Library of Congress 1998)
-Paul Bierley, John Philip Sousa: American Phenomenon (New York: Appleton, Century, Crofts, 1973)
-Paul Bierley, The Incredible Band of John Philip Sousa (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006)
– John Philip Sousa, Marching Along (Boston: Hale Cushman and Flint, 1928)
-Ann M. Lingg, John Philip Sousa (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1954)


Stars and Stripes vintage ad
Stars and Stripes vintage ad
John Philip Sousa, 1854-1932, half-length portrait, standing, facing right. Date Created/Published: c1896. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
John Philip Sousa, 1854-1932, half-length portrait, standing, facing right. Date Created/Published: c1896.
(Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

1st Cornet part

Sousa conducting Stars and Stripes Forever 1900
Sousa conducting Stars and Stripes Forever 1900


  1. Karin R. Miller Karin R. Miller December 24, 2018

    Have always loved this march — we sang it in my high school chorus. It has to be the best march of all time!

  2. Bob Bowman Bob Bowman December 23, 2017

    An original recording of the John Philip Sousa Band performing his composition “The Stars and Stripes Forever March” played on an Edison cylinder roll phonograph with a latest patent date of 1906. Home video made in the entertainment room of our Victorian house on November 1, 2012.

  3. Juliana Cheng Juliana Cheng March 25, 2017

    Wow, inspired by the guy who wrote” it is well with my soul”?

Comments are closed.


Enjoy this blog? Please spread the word :)