How Good Were the Players in Sousa’s Band?

Mike Lawson • Commentary • June 8, 2018

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John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) started his own band in 1892, which toured and played until his death in 1932. It was made up of over 1,169 different musicians over that 40-year span of time.

Over the years, the number of musicians, including soloists, and not including Sousa, ranged from48 to 66. It normally operated with around 55 musicians on each tour. One of the considerations for the maximum number of musicians to take on tour was, of course, financial. The combination of players usually changed, but the sound and instrumentation of the Sousa Band remained about the same. Musicologists debate which year Sousa assembled his best band. Among the top choices always includes the year 1903.

On tour with Sousa in 1903, Arthur Pryor played trombone, Simone Mantia played euphonium, Walter B. Rogers played cornet, Franz Hell played flugelhorn, Maud Powell played violin, and Estelle Liebling sang soprano. Arthur Pryor (1870-1942) was considered as the “Paganini of the Trombone,” and played in the Sousa Band from 1892 through the 1903 European tour. He briefly conducted recording sessions for Victor in 1901-02. Pryor was assistant conductor of the Sousa Band from 1895 to 1902 and conducted the Sousa Band during many of the recording sessions at Victor.

After hearing Pryor play a solo at the Sousa Band concerts in Leipzig at the Palm Garden, from June 10-13, 1900, members of the Gewandhaus Orchestra (founded, 1781) under conductor Arthur Nikisch, came backstage to see his trombone, thinking it rigged with a trick device to allow him to play so amazingly well. Of course, there was no “trick device” hidden in his trombone. He was simply that good. Pryor was considered by experts as the best trombone player who ever lived.

Trombone players might be interested in the fact that his trombone had a small bore of .458 of an inch, and a bell of 6.26 inches in diameter.

On Sousa’s tour in 1903, Pryor dazzled his audiences with two trombone solos; “Love’s Enchantment” and “Thoughts of Love.” He usually followed with an encore of “In the Deep Cellar,” “The Sunflower and the Sun,” or “The Honeysuckle and the Bee.” He played over ten thousand solos in his lifetime, with an unusual and expressive lyricism and dazzling technique which others could not duplicate.

Arthur Willard Pryor, who was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, left Sousa to conduct his own band, which performed their first concert on November 3, 1903, at the Majestic Theatre in New York City. During his career, he was also with Liberati’s Grand Military Band, and conducted the Stanley Opera Company in Denver. He was heavily involved in the recording industry and recorded for Berliner. Pryor was a charter member of the American Bandmasters Association. Pryor, who declined to join Patrick S. Gilmore’s band when offered the soloist position in 1890, started playing a valve trombone as an 11-year-old boy in his father’s band. Arthur later had the first slide trombone in St. Joseph and soloed by age thirteen.

Arthur Pryor became the world’s greatest slide trombone player without any formal musical training on the instrument. The boy taught himself to play the instrument. Simone Mantia (1873-1951) was born in Italy and played euphonium with the Sousa Band from the fourth tour in 1895 through the second 1903 tour. When he started with Sousa, he had been in the United States only about five years. Mantia, along with Emil Kennecke on cornet, Arthur Pryor on trombone, Marcus Lyon also on trombone, Franz Hell on flugelhorn, and Orlando Wardwell also on euphonium, would play a sextet from Sousa’s comic opera, The Bride Elect. After he left Sousa, he was assistant conductor of Arthur Pryor’s Band. Walter B. Rogers (1865-1939) was born in Delphi, Indiana, and played cornet and trumpet in the Sousa Band from the fourth and fifth tours in 1898 through the first tour in 1904.

He played cornet solos in many bands, including, English Opera Company Orchestra in Indianapolis, Anglo- Canadian Leather Company Band, Phinney’s Iowa State Band, and Baldwin’s Cadet Band in Boston. Walter Bowman Rogers was not only a famous cornet soloist, but a conductor, composer, and arranger.

Among others, he conducted Cappa’s 7th Regiment Band of New York, and the Walter B. Rogers Band. Rogers was associated with several recording companies. He was director of music for Victor Talking Machine Company, where he conducted bands, orchestras, and light opera companies. He was recording manager for the Paroquette Record Company and the Brunswick Company. He served as music director of Paramount Record Company. Among the many companies for which he recorded cornet solos include: Berliner, Brunswick, Columbia, Paroquette, and Victor.

Franz Hell (1857-1929) played flugelhorn in the Sousa Band on most tours and engagements from June 1896 to June of 1905. Many newspaper articles and concert programs will have his name spelled as Franz Helle, but, when he signed his own name on his naturalization paper in 1900, he clearly signed it, Franz Hell, without the letter “e” on the end.

Among his other positions, he played in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and in the Vienna Prater Orchestra. Hell played in the Ohlmeyer Band, and the Coronado Tent City Band, both in San Diego, and the California Shriner’s $10 Million Dollar Band. Hell was also a recording artist for Victor Records.

He was one of the musicians who played in a sextet from Sousa’s comic opera, The Bride Elect, on this tour. In his career with Sousa, Hell was featured as a flugelhorn soloist. One of the solos he enjoyed was “Werner’s Farewell” by Nessler, from The Trumpeter of Sakkingen, in 1884, which he followed with an encore of “Don’t Be Cross,“ from Der Obersteiger, by Carl Zeller.

Victor Ernst Nessler’s opera was based on an 1853 poem by Joseph Victor von Scheffel, where Werner, a young trumpeter in the German army, falls in love with a girl named Maria, the daughter of a baron. The baron commands his daughter to wed the son of a Count, not this army trumpet player. When Werner and Maria are discovered together, Werner is ordered to leave the castle. “Werner’s Farewell“ is the song he sang upon leaving, and the song this Austrian “trumpet” player, used as his solo.

Franz Hell had immigrated to the United States though the Port of New York on June 2, 1893, almost three years to the day before joining the Sousa Band. He was married to Philippina Nedetsky on May 11, 1887, in Brunn, Moravia, a mere six years before arriving in America. One can only speculate if there were any personal feeling evoked inside this Austrian trumpeter by this sentimental and tender song concerning Werner’s plight. Sousa enjoyed having a flugelhorn in the band, but after Hell left the band in June of 1905 at the age of 48 and relocated to California, he never hired another, instead, doubled the flugelhorn part in another conical-bore instrument, the cornet. Whether it be Hell or Helle, Franz was one-man Sousa would never replace. Maud Powell (1867-1920) was born in Peru, Illinois, and played violin on Sousa’s European tour in 1903 and his British tour in 1905.

She was born into a family who valued education and accomplishment. Her father, William Bramwell Powell would become superintendent of schools in Washington, D. C. in 1885, and her uncle, John Wesley Powell, led the first scientific expedition into the Grand Canyon. It is little wonder that Maud would begin her study of piano and violin around age seven. She continued her studies in 1881-82 at the Leipzig Conservatory under Henry Schradieck and at the Paris Conservatory from 1882-83 under Charles Dancla. After a concert tour of England in 1883-84, Maud studied with Joseph Joachim at Berlin Hochschule in Germany.

Upon her return to the United States in 1885, she performed her American debut with Theodore Thomas and the New York Philharmonic. After a tour of the American west, Powell gave the American premiere of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony Orchestra. In 1891, she toured the United States as soloist with Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore and his band. The next year, she performed Antonin Dvorak’s Violin Concerto for the composer in a private meeting. Between her tours with Sousa, she married H. Godfrey Turner and established their home in New York. Powell’s career as a violin soloist would include all of the great musicians of her day. She played Tchaikovsky with Hans Richter in England, and Saint-

Saens’ Violin Concerto in B Minor, with the composer, himself, conducting in London in 1902, and was the first woman to lead an all male professional string quartet on tour. She also played Beethoven’s Concerto with Gustav Mahler conducting the New York Philharmonic. Later she would play Sibelius’ Concerto with Jean Sibelius conducting.

During World War I, this most acclaimed violin soloist, took time to play for the soldiers in military camps in the United States. Maud Powell died of a heart attack while warming up for a concert at Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1920, ending a spectacular musical career.

Estelle Liebling (1880-1970) sang over sixteen-hundred soprano solos with the Sousa Band, and never missed a performance. Liebling came from a musical family. Her father, Max Liebling, and his brothers, Emil, George, and Solly, all studied with Franz Liszt. Her brother, Leonard, was the editor-in-chief of the Music Currier.

Estelle was only eighteen years old when she made her debut at the Dresden Royal Opera House in the title roll in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. She studied in Berlin with Selma Nicklass- Kempner, and in Paris with Mathilde Marchesi.

She would go on to coach or train about 80 New York Metropolitan Opera singers, including Beverly Sills. Sousa’s 1903 European tour consisted of 362 concerts in 133 cities and towns throughout northern and central Europe, but one concert bears special note. It was a command performance at Windsor Castle for the royal family in England.

This was not the first time Sousa encountered His Majesty the King. A little over a year earlier, Sousa, received the Medal of the Victorian Order from King Edward VII of England. He received this award following a surprise birthday concert he conducted for King Edward VII’s wife, Queen Alexandra.

This time, in addition to his own family, King Edward VII had invited several foreign dignitaries, and all the members of His Majesty’s Scots Guard Band to attend Sousa’s concert. The concert took place at 10 pm on January 31, 1903 and lasted two hours! The band played God Save the King as the king and queen entered the hall.

This was followed by El Capitan by Sousa. The second number was Pryor’s own trombone solo, “Love’s Enchantment, followed by the three movements of Sousa’s Looking Upward Suite. Then Estelle Liebling took center stage with “Thou Brilliant Bird,” from the Pearl of Brazil, by Felicien David. She was accompanied by Marshall Lufsky (1878-1948), who played the flute obbligato.

Among other compositions, the band played Pryor’s caprice, “The Passing of Rag Time,” and of course, Sousa’s “Imperial Edward March,” which he had composed and dedicated to the King in 1902.

Maud Powell performed Zigeunerweisen by Pablo de Sarasate. Many of the rest of the compositions played that night were either by Sousa or Pryor, such as “Hands Across the Sea” and “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” They finished with “The Star Spangled Banner” and “God Save the King.”

Over the years, the Sousa Band featured many of the best soloists in the world. Cornet soloists, Herbert L. Clarke, Herman Bellstedt, and Frank Simon, just to name a few, but, taken as a whole, the 1903 band Sousa took on the European tour would be difficult to top, even by the best bands in the world today.

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