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John Philip
SOUSA (1854-1932)
Music for Wind Band Volume 1
The Royal Artillery Band - Keith Brion
rec. 5-6. 8. 99, Henry Wood Hall, London
Naxos 8.559058 [53.51]
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And Sousa composed operas, operettas, symphonic poems, suites too. We're told 'his principles of instrumentation and tonal colour influenced many classical composers. His robust patriotic operettas of the 1890s helped introduce a truly native musical attitude in American theatre.' There are over two hundred works in all. You can see his kind of orchestration colouring at least the American classical and Broadway scene. What seems to have happened to this remarkably inventive and sonically challenging composer, always receptive (for instance to Gershwin) is that he poured his inventiveness into a pint pot that he made immortal. Well, 'pint pot' is being polite. He standardised the march form with rapidity - at 26 he was established as a band leader. His own band set new standards throughout the world. Brion has founded it successor and nurtured it as the New Sousa Band.

We tend to think of Sousa and Monty Python with an affection for a fashion that, unlike the waltz, which Sousa also composed, has passed. The marches, following on each other with an almost relentless brio, do yield up their special qualities after a few hearings. But the great themes, as opposed to melodic abundance, aren't as frequent as say his older contemporary Johann Strauss. Still, they are there, with a harmonic resourcefulness - try the Looking Upward Suite of three pieces, or his Humoresque on Gershwin's Swanee. This comes from 1920. There's an unexpectedly plangent minor theme to his The Invincible Eagle (1901) too. The other facet to Sousa's inventiveness is his intelligent, witty sense of occasion. Again the brass sonority itself doesn't really quite help. Each of these marches is jewelled with in-jokes and references. The comedy of being asked to compose a march for the Women's Texas University and quickly converting it into a march for a soon-imprisoned businessman William B Foshay, furnishes an example at the end of his life. It was August 1929. He loved tower blocks, and this march commemorated Foshay's tower, designed to rival the Washington Monument. The march, not the block, became the tycoon's. Then came the crash and Foshay was imprisoned, probably for not jumping out of its top window as one was supposed to do. Sousa's family, worried at the associations, impounded the score for over fifty years. That tells us much about family life. But of course the Texas Women's University hadn't got their march, and straight after tossing this up to Foshay he set about writing one of his most famous marches, Daughters of Texas. The two marches follow each other.

In other works - there are twelve in all - inter-twinings and quotes breed (for instance, in Imperial Edward with obvious and less obvious ones). In the Humoresque on Swanee there are many quotations including The Pirates of Penzance pointing up various lifestyles on the river. It's the one quote Brion doesn't pick up.

Brion's conducting of the Royal Artillery Band instead of his own begs possible contractual difficulties, that for instance Marin Alsop had with her orchestra. It's the orchestra's loss, with Naxos's exposure. Whatever, the RA play superbly, caught in full bloom at the Henry Wood Hall. At 53 minutes this disc doesn't outstay its welcome. Still, those symphonic poems sound intriguing ... Oh, and Monty? Wait for Volume 2...

Simon Jenner

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