Keith Brion's "Sousa at the Symphony" Articles

Sousa's Marches For Orchestra: A brief examinationKeith Brion

Sousa's Marches For Orchestra
A brief examination
by Keith Brion

During Sousa's lifetime, over 80 of his marches were published for orchestra. Most often, these publications were part of a standard package offered by his publisher, which included arrangements for both band and for orchestra, as well as for piano and a variety of other instruments. And, usually the arrangements were by Sousa himself. The keys were sometimes changed to sharps, generally corresponding to Sousa's popular piano versions, but also enhancing a more natural and brighter string sound. These keys also allowed an easy switch between Bb and A clarinets and cornets with Bb-A rotors, and thus retained the same register in the orchestra and band keys for these instruments. The full scores to many of these marches are missing simply because the publishers did not return them to Sousa, but most of them correspond closely to Sousa's known scoring techniques for small orchestra.

The standard "orchestra" for this kind of publication, was the small theater orchestra, and in fact these works were staples for theater orchestras around the country. This is also the instrumentation for Sousa's operetta pit orchestras. Many of his 15 operettas survive in either full scores or parts. All are reasonably consistent in their orchestration practices and instrumentation.

Flute (Piccolo)
2 Oboes
2 Clarinets
2 Bassoons
2 Horns
2 Cornets
1 Trombone
Strings, sometimes single players

The piano parts served largely to fill in missing harmonies for orchestras that had less than the minimum instrumentation. Sousa often employed these orchestral piano parts as harp parts for performances with his own band.

Sousa was an expert arranger for this combination, since his early experience as a conductor in the pit, and as an arranger for various theater orchestras made him very familiar with the needs of the idiom. By training from a student of the Austrian theorist Simon Sechter, and by choice, Sousa was always a "classicist". His orchestration models were the classical style of Mozart, Offenbach and Sullivan. Sousa was actually a staff arranger and first violinist for Offenbach when he visited Philadelphia for the Centennial Exposition in 1876. He is known to have often fingered an imaginary violin while composing his marches. The marches are thus extremely idiomatic for strings.

Today, these small orchestrations, rather heavily augmented by transpositions of a few of the band parts, are sadly the versions most frequently played by today's large symphony orchestras, in spite of the fact that the balances of these theater orchestrations will often not happily support the larger orchestral forces, or the extra weight of modern brass instruments.

After Sousa became conductor of the Marine Band in 1880 he obviously performed his music most often with a massive 50-80 piece symphonic band, but for most of his long, incredibly prolific career which actively lasted till his death in 1932, he continued to issue orchestral arrangements of nearly all of his marches.

It seems obvious that during Sousa's amazingly creative last decade in the 1920's, he became aware that this music was beginning to be performed by larger orchestras, so in his last few marches such as "The Royal Welch Fusaliers", he began writing orchestral versions for four horns and three trombones and tuba.

The modern orchestral conductor must confront three major problems in performing Sousa marches.

  1. The reprint sets now available through Kalmus and Luck's are taken from the original theater orchestra plates, but in almost all cases, fuller orchestra arrangements have been created for these sets by using the band arrangement to transpose the 3rd and 4th horns, 1st and 2nd trombones and tuba parts. Thus horns 1 and 2 whose function in the theater orchestra arrangement usually corresponded to the harmonies of the 1st and 2nd trombone parts of the band arrangement are now by and large needlessly doubled with two trombones. The horn 3 and 4 parts from the band will double the existing 2nd violin and viola parts, but are missing important chordal voices, since the 1st and 2nd orchestral horn parts do not match them. The band tuba parts which have been added are in some cases too heavy to use as a constant bass line for the string section. Brass balances are also disturbed since the theater orchestra brass of 2 cornets and one trombone is far, far lighter than the weighty tone of modern orchestral trumpets and trombones.

    Conductors wishing to use these currently available "enlarged" arrangements would be well served in a balance sense to also add the energized afterbeat harmony parts of cornets 3 and 4 from the band versions. This helps greatly to support the harmonic rhythm in fuller passages so that there will be a better balance with the augmented brass.

    Lucks are now publishing full scores that can be an excellent help in deciphering these problems. The Luck's full scores are totally unedited. What these scores represent is the sum total of the exact parts that are being sold...including the added brass parts. They supply a perfect basis for the conductor to do his own editing. They are not intended to be a true "urtex" version of Sousa's first publication of the work, but rather a careful copy of the parts included in Luck's sets.

  2. Sousa never performed his band arrangements as he published them, rather he enhanced the architecture by "de-orchestrating" them. This process can effectively, and I think authentically improve the performance of his orchestral arrangements with a full orchestra, allowing the compositions to reach their maximum musical potential. The subject is too complex to define in an article of this scope, but several simple ideas and generalities might help in an understanding of the process.

    The introductions and first strains were usually played as written. The second strains were often cut back, with the trumpets and trombones resting, cymbals out and the emphasis on the lead clarinet parts (or in the orchestra, the first violins). The register of the violins (or clarinets) were often taken an octave lower the first time. These reduced sections, when they are of a martial nature, must be performed in a vigorous marcato style by the strings. The second time would be played tutti as written. The trios also, were done in the same manner. The interlude was played as written, but the next appearance of the trio was very often also played 8va lower, particularly if there was a woodwind obligato or bell solo. Then everything was played tutti and "with fire and tongs" (sempre marcato) to the end. While there are many many exceptions to this formula, it is far more true than false!

    Sousa never used tempo rubati in the performance of his marches, but the basic pulse did vary according to the character of the materials. Tempos ranged from mm112 through the low 130's, but most frequently stayed in the lower 120's.

    Interestingly, Sousa very often added harp parts to his band marches, although they were rarely published. These are a superb textural addition to the orchestral marches as well.

  3. Percussion usage has changed more drastically than any other orchestral instrument during this century. The modern orchestral snare drum is higher, brighter, louder and often "buzzier" than in Sousa's time. Sticking techniques have changed as well. The rolls in Sousa's time were more open (or transparent) than todays crushed (or opaque) orchestral rolls. The use of traditional gut snares, deeper pitched snare drums and open sticking techniques can significantly improve balances for the whole orchestra. The snare drum parts should fit the pitch and timbre of the second violin and viola afterbeats, and not function as a fanfare partner of the trumpets. Heavier cymbals are also helpful in clarifying the texture. Timpani was never used in the performance of Sousa marches for either band or orchestra since its resonance muddies the lower middle register of these scores.

    The six stroke drum rolls used by Sousa in duple time marches for tempi that lay between mm120 and 130 require a single stroke at the front of a normal five stroke roll. The single stroke is played at the same speed as the rebound strokes. These difficult rolls are essential in maintaining a steady tempo in the march finales. The five stroke rolls most often employed by modern drummers are frequently the cause of rushing at the end of the marches.


In the final analysis, good taste, a knowledge of early 20th century performance practice, and a musical sensibility based on informed judgment, are always the final arbiters.

* Conductors are invited to examine the score to our arrangement of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" for orchestra* to observe an application of some of these solutions.

"The Stars and Stripes Forever" for orchestra. Arranged by Keith Brion and Loras Schissel. Willow Blossom Music, distributed by the C.L. Barnhouse Co. 1996.

The forward to this publication contains detailed information about Sousa's percussion techniques, the history of the work and its premier, form and analysis, a discussion of thematic cohesion, and period performance practice.

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