Tone Poem Tuesday: The Annotated “Stars and Stripes Forever” (a repost)

This is a repost of something I wrote some years ago. Back in my BlogSpot days this post was a regular driver of search-engine traffic to my blog; I’m not sure if that’s the case now or not, but it can always bear a repeating!

Anyhow, in my Something for Thursday series, I’ve lately posted several Grand Marches from various operas, and now I’m thinking a bit of the wide variety of music that falls under the general category of the “March”. You have Grand Marches, as I’ve noted above, that involve long musical scoring to big set pieces in operas. You also have the Funeral March, which are generally downbeat and sad-sounding, for obvious reasons. You have Processional Marches, with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches being prime examples. And there are the Military Marches, patriotic marches, circus marches, symphonic marches, and so on. Lots and lots of marches.

One of the most famous of all marches is, of course, John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever. It’s a staple of nearly every patriotic-themed classical music concert you might ever attend, and the march is as central a staple in July 4th festivities as hot dogs or fireworks. In college, when the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra played a concert on our campus, their first encore work was The Stars and Stripes Forever.

Sousa wrote many marches — hence the moniker “The March King” — a number of which are very familiar to our ears now (Washington Post and Liberty Bell among them), but The Stars and Stripes Forever is by far his most familiar work. It can sound a bit clicheed these days, but like all works that have to a degree become clichee, when you blow off the dust and actually listen to the thing, you can hear anew those qualities that allowed it to become cliche in the first place.

The Stars and Stripes Forever is also a perfect example of the traditional American military march, which in their heyday of the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to follow specific forms. If you were to join a concert band in rehearsing one of these marches, you would hear some odd-sounding terms: “Let’s begin at the second strain, first time through.” Or, “Just the trombones, please, starting at the dogfight.” You’d be thinking, “What’s a dogfight? Are there going to be planes flying in aerial combat above our heads?” Well, of course not! So what we’ll do here is go through The Stars and Stripes Forever, with my notations below indicating at which point each section starts.

(This is one of the niftiest musical videos I’ve ever seen, by the way.)

0:07 to 0:10: The is the Intro section. Most marches will have some kind of intro section.

0:11 to 0:24: This is the First Strain, which is will be repeated once.

0:24 to 0:39: The First Strain, repeated. Sometimes, but not always, a band or orchestra will perform a repeat of a strain differently than they did the first time: they’ll dial down the dynamics, playing the repeat softer, or maybe they’ll actually vary the instrumentation a bit. This is often at the discretion of the conductor. Marches in this genre tend to be “modular” in construction, making it easier to tailor the piece a bit depending on the demands of the performance. You might need to make it longer or shorter, depending on the situation, so a conductor might decide to repeat each strain twice instead of once; but then deciding to play the first repeat softer and the second repeat softer still, or some other kind of variation. Some conductors, with experienced ensembles, will even have hand signals ready so they can indicate to their ensemble such a change while in the midst of performance.

0:39 to 0:54: Here is the Second Strain, first time through. Note that it is more lyrical than the boisterous First Strain. In a well-written march, the strains will usually contrast in some way.

0:55 to 1:09: Now we repeat the Second Strain. Note in this performance that the brass join in the melody and it’s a bit louder and more boisterous than the first time through. This difference is why, in rehearsal, our conductor will say things like “OK, start at the second strain, second time through.” He has to let the brass know if they’re playing or sitting out.

OK. After we’re done with the first two strains — and there are usually just two — however many times we’ve performed them, with whatever performance variations our conductor has decided upon, we’re onto the Trio. Sometimes we’ll have a key change when we hit the Trio, along with some other way to differentiate the Trio from the Intro and the first two strains. In Stars and Stripes Forever, our relatively brisk sound of the first two strains yields to a longer, more lyrical melody — even more lyrical than what we heard in the second strain. Additionally, there is less syncopation now, although Sousa still puts key parts of emphasis on the occasional off-beat. A Trio section is often the longest part of a march, and it often revolves around a single melody or musical idea, as opposed to the first and second strains, which posit musical ideas briefly and then shuffle them off the stage. The Trio is the main attraction, as it were.

Now, with our Trio section, there’s only one main musical idea going on, but we’re going to hear it three times. Sousa doesn’t want to bore us, so he’ll change it up a bit each time. How? Let’s see:

1:10 to 1:39: The Trio, first time through. Sometimes we might call this the First Strain of the Trio, or we might just call it the Trio, first time. In any event, this specific case is one of the most recognizable melodies in musical history, and in terms of marches, it’s probably the most famous march melody ever. (It might be a close second to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March #1…or the Elgar is a close second to Stars and Stripes. Not sure which.)

By the way, note that Sousa doesn’t just give us this melody by itself; he continues to remind us that this is still a march by putting all those little staccato flourishes softly playing behind the melody. There’s always something going on in a Sousa march, something new or different or contrasting with the main thing at any given moment. Case in point: when the melody reaches its highest note at 1:24, note the descending arpeggio in the lower brass, or at 1:34 when we reach a high note again, a little “tweet” of a fanfare in the trumpets.

Note, also, that one time through the First Strain of the Trio takes as long as two times through each of the First and Second Strains.

1:39 to 2:02: Now, having heard the complete Trio strain one time through, we’re going to repeat it twice. But unlike the First and Second strains, which are repeated in immediate succession, we get a bit of contrast in a passage that stands in marked rhythmic and dynamic contrast to the Trio strain. This contrasting section, found in the Trios of many marches of this type, is called the Dogfight. We’ll hear it twice through; this is the first time. The Dogfight isn’t really a melody, per se; it’s more of a martial fluorish. Note that the Dogfight is, by itself, longer than either the First or Second Strain.

2:02 to 2:30: The Trio strain, repeated (or, alternatively, the Second Strain of the Trio). Sousa lowers the dynamics again, back down to a softer setting, but we get the first variation of the Trio here. The Stars and Stripes melody plays again in its entirety, but this time with a brilliant touch: a counter-flourish played by the solo piccolo. Note also that the little trumpet fanfares from the first time through aren’t there anymore, in favor of our piccolo solo.

2:31 to 2:55: The Dogfight, second time through. Many performances play the Dogfight a bit louder this time through, and have the Dogfight end with a crescendo into the Trio strain’s final repeat.

2:55 to end: Now we get the last repeat of the Trio strain (or, alternatively, the Third Strain of the Trio). After hearing the Trio strain played softly twice, this time Sousa lets it all hang out: everybody’s playing at full-bore, including our intrepid piccolo player. Now, a lesser composer might think that just hearing this great melody with the entire band playing forte might be pleasing enough to send the crowd away, but Sousa isn’t done giving new things to hear. Specifically, this last time, he gives a countermelody to the low brass that plays mostly on the off-bars of the main melody; when the main theme is holding a long note, the low brass are doing their thing.

And at the very end? That final punctuating note that the march ends on? That’s called the Stinger.

Most marches of this type derive their excitement from variations along the way, as described above: variations in dynamics (loud versus soft), variations in instrumention (who plays what and when), variations in backing detail (little fanfares versus that solo piccolo line). What doesn’t vary is tempo: a march of this type will always end at the same tempo it started. The only place I’ve ever heard a change in tempo in The Stars and Stripes Forever is at the very end of the Dogfight, the second time through, where some conductors — not all — will throw in a ritardando on that last descending scale before the Trio strain’s final repeat, and that’s about it. A march is not the place for the type of rubato that you might hear in, say, some Romantic symphony.

Anyhow, there you have it: a road map to The Stars and Stripes Forever. Next time you’re hearing this march while eating a hot dog and watching fireworks, note the march’s tight construction!

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One Response to Tone Poem Tuesday: The Annotated “Stars and Stripes Forever” (a repost)

  1. Roger says:

    I LOVED humming along to the lowest notes on the screen, the bass notes, because they’re in my sonic wheelhouse.

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