Friday, 25 April 2014

Three short works by John Philip Sousa

Delightful tales from the musical pen of a composer and writer for Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

“That,” said Mephistopheles, solemnly, and with no pretense of sophistry, “is the string of death, and he who plays upon it dies at once.”

The plan was to review American music composer and conductor John Philip Sousa’s The Fifth String (1902), a novella about Angelo Diotti, a fictionally renowned Italian violinist who comes to America and falls in love with Mildred Wallace, the coldhearted daughter of a wealthy banker. 

At the heart of the story is Diotti’s possession of a unique and magnificent violin gifted to him by Satan. Unlike a typical violin which has four strings, this one has a fifth string. The four strings, when played, arouse feelings of pity, hope, love, and joy in the listener, and the fifth string, while also enchanting the listener, will mean death to the player. 

The question is does Signor Diotti play the death string?

The conversation between the composer and the devil is lively, and there is humour in the narrative. However, since I’ve only just started reading the fifty-five page ebook, I cannot offer a full review of this unusual tale.

I also read two other works by John Philip Sousa—The Conspirators, a short story about the abduction of a young girl, and Experiences of a Bandmaster, a short biographical sketch of the music composer.
 

The author in 1900.
© Elmer Chickering
Wikimedia Commons
In The Conspirators, three “scoundrels,”—Dennis Foley and his son Tom, and their accomplice Hildey, kidnap little Lillian and hold her hostage in a shack near Beaver Dam, an isolated creek, and demand ten thousand dollars in ransom from her wealthy father, Colonel Franklin. What follows is a Hardy Boys-like search and rescue of the girl by her brother Gilbert and their friends Sandy, Dink, and Leander, and some tense moments in a boat chase across the river. The action and excitement in The Conspirators is mild compared to a Hardy Boys adventure.

In Experiences of a Bandmaster, Sousa relives some of his memorable experiences as a music conductor in the service of the United States and that of the general public. As a conductor of the Marine Band, he played at state functions in the White House, under Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison in that order.

I think I may say that more than one President, relieved from the onerous duties of a great reception, has found rest by sitting quietly in the corner of a convenient room and listening to the music.

In one anecdote, Sousa recounts his embarrassment when President Arthur approached him quietly and asked him to play the Cachuca, a Spanish solo dance music. When the composer explained that the Marine Band did not have the music, the President, it seems, looked surprised and remarked: “Why, Sousa, I thought you could play anything. I'm sure you can; now give us the Cachuca.” The brief sketch has many such anecdotes.

John Philip Sousa had a distinguished music career and was known mainly for American military and patriotic marches, which earned him the title ‘The March King’ or the ‘American March King.’ He must have composed music as beautifully as he wrote his stories. The two stories and the memoir were certainly well written. You can read more about Sousa here.

10 comments:

  1. I foudn a copy of THE FIFTH STIRNG a long time ago and couldn't believe it was the same Sousa as the composer. It's a quaint, well told story albeit a familiar one. A lot more imaginative than some of the Faustian pact stories about musicians and the origin of their talent. There are several other books, stories and movies that share a similar plot idea though most of them (like THE MEPHISTO WALTZ) are pretty terrible.

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    1. John, I've had this ebook for a while and I'd been meaning to read it all this time. It is a "quaint" and "imaginative" story and Sousa tells it well. In fact, there is more to the story than I let on in my post. Diotti puts his obsession of a woman before his incredible gift of music and fame. I hadn't quite read anything like it.

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  2. Wow, this was news to me. I played a lot of Sousa in my school band days. I was a trumpet player.

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    1. George, that's interesting. Do you still play the trumpet?

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  3. I recognise the name though know little about Sousa - my knowledge regarding music is extremely limited. The second of the trio in the collection would interest me most I think, but it's not something I'm ever likely to read to be honest.

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    1. Col, only a musician could have written this story for there is technical description of the way Diotti plays the violin. My knowledge of music is limited too but I enjoyed reading THE FIFTH STRING.

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  4. Prashant, I love stories where a deal is made with the Devil. I am surely going to read this one. Thanks for highlighting it.

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    1. Neer, you're welcome. I recall reading a couple of stories about the devil though I can't say where or when. I was impressed by Sousa's prose with a bit of wry humour.

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  5. I had no idea at all that he had published anything - thanks Prashant, truly a musical education!

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    1. Sergio, you're welcome. Both THE FIFTH STRING and THE CONSPIRATORS were nice stories although the former ran a predictable course. Sousa has written more stories and even a novel or two, I think.

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