John Philip Sousa critiques modern music, 1930

A primary source by John P. Sousa

John P. Sousa to John W. Hughes, March 12, 1930. (Gilder Lehrman Collection)John Philip Sousa (1854–1932), an American composer of classical music, served as the director of the United States Marine Band from 1880 to 1892. During Sousa’s time as leader of “The President’s Own,” as the band was called, he composed some of the best- known pieces of music closely associated with official functions of the United States government and military. These include the famous march “The Washington Post” as well as the equally well-known official march of the United States Marine Corps, “Semper Fidelis,” and the official march of the United States, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

In this letter written just two years prior to his death, Sousa declared that the only true measure of the value of music was its beauty. For Sousa, music was inspired from “something above,” and the music of the 1920s was devoid of divine character.

A full transcript is available.


March 12, 1930

My Dear Sir:

There is only one way of judging music and that is either by its beauty or its lack of beauty. In the olden days men were very much impressed with the beauty of melodic design and worked for the success of music according to their idea of melody and their harmonic knowledge. Most of the composers of today go in for color and, if they get a lot of color they feel satisfied and let it go at that.

It is my belief that a man or a woman cannot write melodic music without an inspiration from something above themselves – that might make your atheist laugh, but I believe that the compositions of today are written by men who write them without inspiration and write entirely from their knowledge of harmonic structure and thus produce music that is lacking in the quality of inspiration.

Yours very truly,

John Philip Sousa

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