Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Independence Day means patriotic displays, fireworks, barbecues, parades, carnivals, picnics, baseball games, concerts on the mall, political speeches…and John Philip Sousa.

Sousa (1854-1932), an American composer and conductor famous particularly for his American military and patriotic marches, is known as “The March King” because of his mastery of the march arrangement. His most famous pieces include “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1896), the official U.S. National March; “The Washington Post” (1889); “El Capitan” (1896); and “Semper Fidelis” (1888), the official march of the U.S. Marine Corps.

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Appointed leader of the United States Marine Band in 1880, he molded the band into the finest military band in the world before resigning in 1892 to form his own civilian band, which soon became one of the finest symphony orchestras of the day and not merely a “marching band.”

In addition to hundreds of marches, Sousa also wrote 15 operettas, and various suites, humoresques, fantasies, descriptive pieces, and dances. His band made more than 15,000 appearances – though in only eight of them is the band known to have actually marched while playing – and became the first large American ensemble to complete a world tour.

Sousa had a particularly interesting Jewish connection through his lyric soprano soloist diva, Estelle Liebling (1880-1970). A member of a renowned musical Jewish family, Liebling toured with Sousa and performed in over 1,600 concerts, never once missing a performance. A modern-day Cal Ripken, critics attributed her “consecutive games streak” to her inner strength, determination, dedication to her craft, and incredible vocal technique, and she was widely praised for the astonishing range, clarity, and purity of her voice.

Sousa’s respect and affection for Liebling may explain why, for his time, the fiercely patriotic bandleader had a rather enlightened view of Jewish immigrants to the United States: “We want no Jewish Ghettos. We want the comer to our shores to imbibe Americanism and only Americanism. The quicker we make an American out of him the better for him and for ourselves.”

It also may explain why religious intolerance was a particular abomination to him. He once called a musician into his office and asked if he had referred to another member of the band as “a dirty Jew” and, when the man confirmed that he had, Sousa promptly discharged him and ordered him to never again seek a position in his employ.

After successful operatic appearances across Europe, Liebling’s debut performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1902 came with only a few hours’ notice, when she was asked to substitute for a singer who had suddenly taken ill. She went on to become not only a beloved performer, but also one of the most influential American teachers of singing technique. She taught and coached vocalists for over 50 years, and her students included some 80 Metropolitan Opera singers including, notably, Beverly Sills.

Another fascinating Jewish connection of Sousa’s was First Lieutenant George Friedlander, a New York Jew who, while serving as an artillery officer with the 306th Field Artillery, 6th Battalion, 17th Regiment in World War I, prompted the official “Army Song”:

 

Over hill, over dale, we will hit the dusty trail,
as the caissons go rolling along.
Up and down, in and out, countermarch and right about,
and our caissons go rolling along.

For it’s hi-hi-hee in the Field Artillery,
shout out the number loud and strong.
Till our final ride, it will always be our pride,
to keep those caissons a rolling along.

 

In 1917, Sousa arranged a lunch with Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to complain about the poor quality of the instruments supplied to members of the military band. Daniels, known for his philo-Semitism, invited Friedlander to attend the luncheon. During the meal, Friedlander asked Sousa to create a march for the Field Artillery Corps. Sousa took the “Caisson Song” (“caissons” are ammunition containers), which had been written by Edmund L. Gruber in 1907, changed the key, harmony, and rhythm, and renamed it “U.S. Field Artillery.” The current official version, “The Army Goes Rolling Along,” which was adopted in 1956, is essentially the original Sousa version inspired by Friedlander.

Harry Kandel (1885-1943), a Jewish American clarinetist and bandleader and one of the greatest pioneers of modern klezmer music, appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show before moving to Philadelphia in 1913, where he became famous playing in Sousa’s band. A true musical polymorph, playing clarinet, trombone, tuba, xylophone, cornet, violin, flute, viola, and piano, he left Sousa in 1916 to form his own group, Harry Kandel’s Famous Inlet Orchestra.

When Kandel began his recording career, standard discs were ten inches, with the longer 12-inch format reserved for only the most prestigious performance artists. Kandel’s musical skits, “Di Hasidim Forn Tsum Rebin/A Yiddishe Chasunah” (“The Chasidim Travel to their Rebbe/A Yiddish Wedding”) was the only klezmer record ever issued in the 12-inch format. His hits included “Der Shtiler Bulgar” (“The Quiet Bulgarian”), which was later recorded by Benny Goodman as “And the Angels Sing”; Di Mama Iz Gegangen in Mark Arayn” (“Mama’s Gone to Market”), subtitled “Old Hebrew Song from Odessa”; the delightful “Azoy Fayft min un a Shviger” (“That’s How We Fool a Mother-in-Law”); and several tunes which became standards in the chassidic wedding repertoire.

At the turn of the 20th century, New Yorkers were drawn above the raucous and grimy streets to enjoy extravagantly decorated rooftop theatres. Theatrical manager and producer Rudolph Aronson (1856-1919), a German-Jewish immigrant, pioneered the development of urban rooftop terraces and conceived and built the Casino Theatre, the first roof garden theatre in the United States. The Casino opened in 1882 on Broadway and 39th Street as the first playhouse designed specifically for Broadway musicals. But Aronson had much bigger plans for Washington D.C. In this February 16, 1912 correspondence, Sousa writes to him:

“Your splendid idea to erect here in Washington a ‘Palace of Art’ deserves the commendation of every American who believes in this country’s future. I compliment you on your conception and earnestly hope it may come to a quick and successful fruition.”

In his 1912 memoir, Aronson cites with pride Sousa’s endorsement of his proposed American Palace of Art and, in a Sunday, October 8, 1911 editorial, the Washington Evening Star heartily approved of the project while also providing fascinating historical insight into the cultural and intellectual status of the nation’s capital only a century ago:

 

Mr. Rudolph Aronson’s appreciation of Washington as the ideal American artistic center may not immediately lead to the creation of an institution or a structure or any other tangible token, but it must nevertheless advance the day of the capital’s recognition as the truly national intellectual focus….

A marked influx of people of wealth and leisure and taste has been in progress for two decades, until Washington is now for fully half a each year a place of residence of the country’s leaders in al lines of thought…. Artists, singers, musicians, writers, scientists, all who are active in the realm of the mind are here, eminent members of their professions and specialties…. Mr. Aronson’s specific idea is of building a great building modeled on Grecian lines where could be given the most attractive and significant musical performances the country enjoys. His ideal is inspiring, and it is to be hoped that it is to be realized.

 

Aronson produced many important, turn-of-the-century Continental operettas, giving Americans their first opportunity to hear in English works that were among the leading hits of their era, some of which have remained popular ever since. In a great coup at the time, he engaged Johann Strauss for the Casino Theatre and introduced most of Strauss’s best works, including “The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief” (1882), “Prince Methusalem” (1883), “Die Fledermaus” (1885), “The Gypsy Baron” (1886), and “Vienna Life” (1901). However, his biggest success came with a now-forgotten work, the British musical “Erminie” (1886).

An accomplished musician, Aronson also composed and orchestrated the scores for several comic operas, notably “The Rainmaker of Syria” (1893). In a very public, pitched battle with fellow impresario Oscar Hammerstein, Aronson beat him out to stage the American debut of Mascagni’s super-popular opera, Cavalleria Rusticana (1891), which went on to have a substantial 53-performance run at the Casino. Aronson eventually lost both the Casino and his producing organization but, to the end, he remained filled with grand ideas, including his plan for the “American Palace of Art” referred to by Sousa in his letter, a sort of Kennedy Center designed to comprise a music conservatory and school of dramatic art – some 60 years ahead of its time (the Kennedy Center opened in 1971).

Finally, generally unknown is the effect that famed Jewish composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) had on Sousa. When Offenbach visited America in 1876 to participate in the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, he hired Sousa to play first violin in his orchestra. There Sousa was exposed to march music and, consequently, decided to pursue a career writing marches.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.