The March


Few sounds are more thrilling than a rousing march played at a parade or a concert in the park. Bands entertain us at football games, mixing choreographed routines with brassy melodies. But the origin of this rhythmic music goes back to a time when soldiers stepped to the beat of military bands. In this Active Minds program, we'll hear music that sent armies into battle – and memorable melodies that inspire feelings of patriotic pride today.


A glance through the pages of history reveals one war after another – with the destruction of cities, of cultures and countless lives of soldiers and civilians. So, while it seems inevitable that there would be militaristic marches played for the warriors, it makes one wonder about the act of creating music that celebrates the brutality and tragedy of unending bloody conflicts. But there they are: rousing tunes that unfold with a steady one-two-one-two rhythm. We hear them everywhere, from the pens of the great composers, created as stand-alone works meant to inspire armies and those who support them, or as dramatic elements in operas, plays, ballets – and at the circus. Stravinsky wrote a march-like polka for Barnum & Bailey's elephants! But most marches are centered on the battlefield. Originally, the only musical sounds accompanying soldiers headed to war consisted of drums, pounding a beat that would keep those marching feet moving with a consistent pulse (who wants an army of stragglers meandering about?). Once instruments were added – flutes, bagpipes, trumpets, etc. – melodies were created that stressed the rhythms of soldiers in lock-step. In the late-1600s and early 1700s, court composers in Versailles penned stirring tunes, as the French armies headed out. Those send-offs would continue to be part of the march repertoire, along with rousing tunes celebrating returning troops and their victorious leaders. The role of percussion increased thanks to the influence of Turkish Janissary Bands. On the other hand, there are solemn works that honor fallen kings, generals and those who served under them in a funeral procession. Those also keep a regimented beat, but the mood is dark and slow – think of Chopin's famous Funeral March in his Second Piano Sonata, or the profoundly moving slow movement of Beethoven's “Eroica” Symphony. The presence of armed soldiers brings a sense of spectacle and excitement to opera, notably in the Triumphal March from Verdi's “Aida”: trumpets blazing as the chorus salutes the victorious Egyptian army. For most Americans, a mention of military marches brings forth a single name: John Philip Sousa, our March King. Rousing and tuneful they may be, but those works are carefully scored for a large band and meticulously organized into two separate themes, each repeating, followed by a smaller-sounding Trio section (think of the melody in “Stars and Stripes Forever” with the silly words, “Be kind to your web-footed friends...”). That modest tune will then explode in a finale that inspires rhythmic hand-clapping and flag-waving. Few can resist the infectious beat of a great march – though it emerges from the bloody destruction of war.

Exploration Questions

  • How does Gounod's “Funeral March for a Marionette” figure in popular culture? (hint: Alfred Hitchcock)
  • Besides Sousa, who are some of America's finest march composers?
  • How did the Ottoman Turk armies impact the sound of the march?
  • What is meant by a Tatoo as it applies to military marching?

Reflective Questions

  • Can you think of famous marches in the movies? (hint: one of them featured a group of whistlers)
  • Some 20th-century marches lament the horror and stupidity of war, such as heard in Shostakovich's “Leningrad” Symphony. How is this negative viewpoint expressed in music?
  • If you had to name a favorite non-Sousa march, what would it be?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Sousa, John Philip. Marching Along. GIA Publications. 2014. 414 pages. This autobiography is a delightful read and a valuable resource into the world of America' March King.
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  • Kraaz, Sarah. Music and War in the United States.Routledge. 2019. 342 pages. An engagingly detailed look at the presence of musical signals and marches played during America's conflicts, from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam. Explanations of drum-and-bugle calls are included, and an examination of how military music affected non-military compositions.
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