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Laurie Niles

Rachel Barton Pine's Maud Powell Favorites, Part III

May 14, 2010 at 7:18 PM

John Philip Sousa(This is Part III in a three-part series featuring violinist Rachel Barton Pine, talking about the Victorian-era violinist Maud Powell, and the preservation of her history and her music. If you haven't read them yet: Part I and Part II.)

Did you know that John Philip Sousa was a classically-trained violinist?

Yes, I'm talking about the man who composed 136 marches, including Stars and Stripes Forever, whose Sousa Band toured from 1892–1931, performing at some 15,000 concerts.

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine revealed Sousa's violin background to me while we were talking about the American violinist Maud Powell. Powell toured Europe twice with Sousa and his band. The first tour, in 1903, included 362 concerts in 30 weeks in 13 countries! The Sousa Band backed her up for pieces like the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Saint-Saëns "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso," according to Maud Powell Favorites, the new book that also has the violin music for a piece called "Fantasia on Sousa Themes" by Max Liebling, which she also played during those tours.

In fact, the Sousa Band performed in hundreds of cities and towns across America and played an important role in bringing classical music to American ears.

Sousa and Powell
Sousa and Powell

Rachel: This is a part of classical music history in America that either the orchestral world doesn't want to admit or has simply forgotten. When you think about, say, the year 1900, there were six major orchestras in America. Those six orchestras – combined -- played fewer concerts in the year 1900 than the Sousa Band did. Not every town in America yet had an orchestra; that's why violinists would play concertos with piano accompaniment.

The players in the Sousa band, in many cases, were superior to the players playing in what are now the famous orchestras, because the Sousa Band paid better. Someone who wanted to get the best-paying job would be in the Sousa Band instead of the New York Phil. So (the Sousa Band's) level of player was phenomenal, and they were playing concerts at every town that had a rail stop, playing for populations that never had heard an orchestra and weren't going to hear an orchestra any time soon.

Sousa himself was a violinist. That was his instrument!

The only reason that he chose to tour with a band and not an orchestra was because stringed instruments were less well-suited to the harsh travel conditions of the time. The type of touring he was doing involved sometimes playing multiple towns in the same day, and no climate control whatsoever. Instruments made out of wood -- they weren't too hardy. They still had gut strings at that time. It would have been a disaster!

His band, what we call the Sousa Band, was not like the bands that we now know today. It had a totally different configuration, different numbers of wind and brass instruments. He basically tried to replicate a symphony orchestra as closely as he could, without using strings. So he would have 40 clarinets in place of the first and second violins. Even when we play repertoire composed by Sousa, we don't ever hear it played the way it actually was played by Sousa's band, with that kind of configuration.

On top of that, Sousa always said that his mission was to educate, as well as to entertain. We remember him for all his marches and waltzes and overtures, for the light, popular music that he did. But on every one of his concerts, he was playing (Richard) Strauss tone poems, movements from Dvorák symphonies. The Sousa Band played portions of Die Meistersinger, 10 years before the Met ever got around to doing its first American staging. He was doing the most cutting-edge modern classical music, arranged for his band, at a time when people had never been exposed to this music before. His Sousa Band would play works by Tchaikovsky, works by Brahms,  the most progressive, new music coming out of Europe. It's fascinating; people were hearing these classical works, these symphonic works, played by Sousa Band long before they ever heard them played by orchestra. That was how America was being introduced to the symphonic repertoire.

I'm still so surprised that more hasn't been written about this.

On every of his concerts, he would feature a woman singer -- either an alto or a soprano -- and a female violinist. This was a bit of showmanship. The guy was no dummy; he said it was 'Relief for the eyes, as well as the ears...' – a terribly un-PC thing to say these days!

But he arranged violin repertoire like Saint-Saëns B minor, Mendelssohn, Wieniawski D minor -- all of these concertos -- for Sousa Band accompaniment!

The Sousa archives are at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, I've been to the archives. There are manuscript parts, for the entire Sousa Band, of all the great violin repertoire, for Sousa Band accompaniment. There's an album waiting to be made, but believe me I'm not going to record the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Sousa Band until after I've recorded it with an orchestra! (laughing)

Laurie: That sounds reasonable enough.

Rachel: But some day, that would be kind of interesting, to record those things just to say, hey, here's how thousands of people all across America first heard the Mendelssohn Concerto!

I can't imagine it, the introduction to the Mendelssohn...

Rachel: But this is artistically valid – he was a true musician, he was a great orchestrator, and he was trying to retain as closely as he possibly could, the original flavor and colors of the real orchestral arrangements. So he wasn't just doing a cheesy, let's-get-the-show-on-the-road transcription, he was trying to be true to the spirit of the real music. He wished that he could do it with an orchestra, but he was going to do the next-best thing because he couldn't do it with an orchestra.

I've also done some interesting research on the women violinists who toured with Sousa, of which of course Maud Powell was one. It calls up a couple of interesting things. First of all, Sousa wanted the best, and he could afford to hire the best. It seemed to me that learning about the women who soloed with Sousa's band would be virtually synonymous with learning about the best women violinists from America during those years.

Sousa kept very meticulous scrapbooks of every concert program, pre-concert feature story and post-concert review. He always said he would let the audience settle down by giving the what they came for, by playing the popular pieces. Then he would lay on them some of the classical music, this cool modern stuff that he really believed in. We never think of that side of Sousa when we think of who he was.

He would always play one piece that was printed on the program, and then he would follow that up with two or three or even four encores. So each one piece that you see printed on the program was actually three to five pieces that were performed. The only way to know what actually was performed is to read the reviews.

It's interesting to see what the women violinists played, and played as encores. The reviews would go into detail, describing their playing, describing what dress they wore. I actually went through the entirety of Sousa's scrapbooks, a major undertaking. I paid an intern hourly to go through and Xerox and anything that referenced one of the violin players. I have about a foot of photocopies, of every single clipping from all of Sousa's career, about every one of his women violinists. I paid another intern to collate it by violinist. Some of the women would tour for a couple years and then years later, they would come back for another couple of years – it wasn't consecutive. There's a doctoral dissertation waiting to be written!

I don't even know how to spread the word, but I would love to turn over my materials to a young person, some doctoral candidate who wants to undergo that project. I'm never going to have time to go all the way with it because I have to do my concerts! But if they wanted to do their document on the topic of Sousa's women violinists, they could start with the clippings as a jumping off point, looking into each of these women's lives, or even just picking one and focusing on her. But it's a dissertation so waiting to be written!

From Janis Cortese
Posted on May 14, 2010 at 7:33 PM

Not a doctoral candidate -- that would be an audience of about a thousand people.

I know this is easy for me to say because it's not my nearly nonexistent free time I'm kissing goodbye, but RACHEL WRITE A BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Either that or attach yourself to someone who can be like the Carl Sagan of American classical music and see what can happen.

Seriously -- whose byline would we want to see on this alongside Rachel's name?  Rachel, if you were to fantasize walking into a Borders or something and seeing a big, fat color cover on a nice $25 hardcover book on the main table that's right there in front of the cash registers about The History of American Classical Music, whose name is next to yours on the byline?

From Lawrence Franko
Posted on May 14, 2010 at 9:42 PM

Turns out there IS a book: Maud Powell: Pioneer American Violinist by Karen A. Shaffer. Check it out on Amazon. I wonder if there is a Harvard Musical Association connection... I am pretty sure there is a Sousa connection re the HMA library. I will investigate and report back. Absolutely fascinating history! Thank you Rachel and Laurie. PS Rachel, your Zigeunerweisen on You Tube is fantastic. You really LIVE that music.  I've never heard anyone else take so much time with the phrases...and TIME is, for me, anyway, the difference between being a violinist and a (real) musician! RE Gypsy music, have you ever played the Dohnanyi First Violin Concerto? The Gypsy Variation in the last movement is one of the most amazing moments in the whole of all musical literature. I think you would love it!

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 1:09 AM

There is also the book series that inspired these articles, Maud Powell Favorites, by Karen Shaffer and Rachel Barton Pine. This book series was just published. Here is the link to buy the books:

It's a four-book series with much biographical information about Maud Powell as well as program notes, violin music and piano music for 43 pieces that were Maud's favorites, plus a CD of Rachel playing several works. Sousa's story is one of the many stories told in the book of program notes. To buy the book series, you have to print out a form and send it to the Maud Powell Society with a check. Click here for the order form.  A little old-fashioned! The four books cost $115, but if you consider how much sheet music and information you get, this is not a bad price.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 2:51 PM

 The band can be heard on Youtube:

From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 2:56 PM

 Maud Powell left a recorded legacy. Here is one example:

From Ray Randall
Posted on May 15, 2010 at 5:24 PM

Then Sousa's band ras really an orchestra masquerading as a band. Or vice versa.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 17, 2010 at 5:56 AM

That is absolutely fascinating.  Rachel, you did a lot of serious research on the subject, and the fruits of your labor are blessings for all of us.  I learned so many new and fascinating things.

Corwin, thanks for the link to the recording of Maud Powell on Youtube.  She sounded so good.  I especially liked her double stops on every note near the end.

Laurie, thanks again for bringing all this to us.

From Margaret Mehl
Posted on May 20, 2010 at 10:15 AM

Great work! I've asked our university library to purchase the volumes. I don't think Maud Powell made it to Japan (several of her contemporaries did), but as background to my research on the history of the violin in Japan I am very interested in the conditions touring violinists operated under and the repertoire they played. I was fascinated to read about the Sousa Band! One of the things that becomes obvious is, that then as now musicians had to think creatively about how to please large audiences if they wanted to survive.

Keep it up! With best wishes,


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