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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Gray Matter: "Stars and Stripes Forever"

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Independence Day is fast approaching. There will be many local and area observances for us to enjoy. Patriotic music accompanying spectacular fireworks displays are TV staples for this special day.

Many are familiar with the Boston Pops Concerts concluding with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. I had often wondered what the Russian composer's concern had been with our obscure skirmish with England in 1812, but I finally discovered there was no connection at all. Due to a lucrative commission offered in 1882, to mark the 70th Anniversary of Russia's defeat of Napoleon, Tchaikovsky wrote that bombastic overture, of which, it was said, he was not particularly fond.

The American connection was trumped up in 1929 by a Boston businessman who convinced Arthur Fiedler to pair it with cannon and fireworks to enliven their Fourth of July event. It proved so popular that it has become a "not-very-American" American tradition.

So I suggest we scuttle the Tchaikovsky in favor of John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever". There is nothing in all music literature more appropriately American!

Some time ago I heard a discussion on KWIT/KOJI, my favorite public radio station. Those folks said there is a movement afoot to declare the Sousa masterpiece our "National March". They suggested that bands play it sparingly to keep its sparkling freshness alive, and then concluded with exultant praise for that splendid, surging trombone ending. Those words piqued my memory and sent chills down my spine. Let me try to explain.

Early in my parents' marriage they lived in rural Nebraska, down the road from a family of motherless boys. It seems those kids took a fancy to Mom and Dad and spent a good bit of time with them. One of the lads developed into an exceptional trombonist.

When the U. S. entered WW I, he was called up and found himself in the Marine Band which Sousa had once directed. I grew up with stories of their friend, home on leave, playing his trombone for their community and in their home. "Stars and Stripes" was always a part of those tales.

Around that time, Sousa was touring with his own band and my parents were privileged to attend one of his concerts. Due to all this, my father held that piece in utmost esteem. Whenever it was played on the radio, we listened reverently and Dad always had tears in his eyes by the time they swung into that trombone chorus.

In a few years, my father succumbed to kidney cancer. Lying on his death bed, he candidly confided that his idea of heaven was a place where you got to do the things you had wanted to do in life, but never had the chance. (Not profound theology, perhaps, but typical of his thinking.) He then asked, "Do you know what I'll be doing the first day I get there, if that's the case?" He went on to tell me, "I'll be playing that trombone part in 'Stars and Stripes Forever'." He died a short time later.

Not long after that, a movie came out, titled "The Sousa Story". My husband and I saw it in Cherokee. It was a rather unremarkable film, except for the music, until the stunning finale. I didn't know this at the time, but have since learned, that at the end of Sousa's career, when he was no longer directing, he often filled in as trombonist in other bands, and it was during one of these sessions that he collapsed and died. So, appropriately, the final scene portrayed a band in splendid regalia, marching UP through wonderful fleecy clouds to the tune of - you guessed it - Dad's favorite. I strained to see the tall trombone player at the right of the screen and burst into tears. My understanding husband offered me his handkerchief and consoled me as best he could.

As the lights came up, everyone must have stared curiously, for it had not been that emotional a movie. For me, though, it truly touched a tender chord.

So now you see why I so heartily endorse replacing the "1812 Overture" with "Stars and Stripes Forever" in all observances of Independence Day. The sooner the better!