Saturday, February 20, 2016

At the U. S. Marine Band Library

When I was in the thick of my research on the early history of the Sousaphone, I knew that a trip to the U. S. Marine Band Library, located at the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., was in order. After all, Sousa was conductor of the Marine Band from 1880 to 1892, and I was aware that the Library contains many important artifacts and files relating to the great bandmaster, both from those years, and from his entire life.

And while I should have posted on this back when I made the trip in December 2014, I thought I'd finally record it and share what I found while I was there. 

To begin with, the historical significance of the area, and its resident band, is apparent from the street as you approach the Marine Barracks. Here is the sign that is posted along the walkway, about a block away:

And here's a close-up of the text, if you're interested in the history of the band, as well as its most famous leader:

I had driven down to D.C. from Philadelphia on Sunday night, December 28th, in order to spend all day Monday, the 29th, in the Library. Welcoming me warmly was Gunnery Sergeant and Assistant Chief Librarian and Historian of the U. S. Marine Band, Kira Wharton (who was not required to be in uniform that day):

Kira graciously gave me the grand tour of the Library, and pulled all of the relevant documents for me to look at, which included copies of the Sousa Band Press Books (the originals are locked away in fire-proof cabinets), as well as the Library's files on the history of the Sousaphone. She set me up with a great workspace (below), and even helped by doing some online newspaper searches for the earliest references to the Sousaphone (the Marine Band was on break, so she offered to assist me, which was wonderfully kind!).

So what did I find, over the course of the day, as it relates to the history of the Sousaphone? Well, the most important thing is what I didn't find. 

As it turns out, while the Sousa Band Press Books are a fantastic resource - a kind of scrap book of news-clippings on Sousa's band over the course of it's 40 year history - there is a gaping hole in the series. Book no. 3 ends with September 3, 1894, and book no. 4 begins with June 14, 1896! That gap is the very period in which the first Sousaphone was built by J. W. Pepper and went on tour with the Sousa Band! I was totally bummed!

What happened to the news-clippings from that period? Were they lost at some point, or were they perhaps not kept for those months? We simply do not know at present.

But all was not lost for my day at the Library. I did find a number of important references to Conn's first Sousaphone, which was introduced in January 1898 (probably having been built in late 1897, although Conn has only ever mentioned 1898 as its birth year).

It was Kira who found the most historically significant reference in the course of her online newspaper searches. Notice what it says on page 7 of the January 17, 1898 edition of The Washington Post:

This is now the earliest known reference to a Sousaphone in the press (apart from a few J. W. Pepper publications in 1895 and 1896). It almost certainly is speaking of Conn's new horn, which was more formally introduced five days later, on page 11 of the January 22, 1898 edition of The Music Trade Review (which I found in Press Book no. 5, although I had seen it before):

While this notice seems to speak of the Sousaphone as if no one would have seen one yet, the Washington Post reference above, from a week earlier, suggests the new instrument was already known by that time (perhaps from the Pepper Sousaphone travelling with the band in 1896?).

The next reference I found in the Press Books was from a month or so later (February 1898, although this is just a guess, based on where it appears in Book 5). The Sousaphone is mentioned in a poem by F. W. Wadsworth, which is part of a larger article titled "Sousa and His Band: Matchless Organization Plays to an Immense Enthusiastic Audience." (unfortunately, neither the newspaper nor the date accompanies the clipping). Here's the entire, rather cheesy, poem for your reading pleasure!

Did you catch the reference?
In this fundamental trio [of basses],
   Noted for volume and depth of tone,
There's one of tremendous size,
   Known as the "Sousa-Phone."
The extra attention given to the "Sousa-Phone," as well as the hyphen in the name, suggests that the instrument was a recent addition. But notice also the reference to "volume and depth of tone." This was what Sousa was searching for in creating the Sousaphone in the first place - a big, warm sound that would pour over the band from the huge, upright bell.

In Press Books 8 and 9 we get our first look at a "Sousa-Phone" - a drawing from the September 17, 1899 edition of the Pittsburgh Post. The extensive article, written by Gustave Schlotterbeck, was titled, "March Master and His Method," and featured this:

The horn matches one made by Conn, but interestingly, it is not the first model of Sousaphone that Conn built (the valve cluster changed at least two times before Conn was satisfied; for more on this, click here).

Here's one last find from my day at the Library. In Press Book 12, I came across an actual photograph of the Sousaphone in use in Sousa's Band - and on parade at that (something Sousa rarely did). It was in the August 4, 1900 edition of Collier's Weekly, which featured the band in Paris. This was not a photo I had seen before, so Kira pulled the original so that she could get a quality scan of it for the Library. Check out what can be seen on the far left of the front rank, as you are looking at the photo:

I'll zoom in so that you can see the big horns up front - a Sousaphone and three tubas:

This wasn't the first time a Sousaphone was seen on the march (that happened back in the States), but it may very well have been the first time for such a spectacle in Europe.

Of course, I found many other interesting things in the Press Books, but these are the most relevant to the early history of the Sousaphone.

In wrapping up this long post, let me take you outside of the building, where stands the one and only statue of the namesake of that great bass horn:

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