Meredith Willson on playing for Sousa

Here’s a piece that was cut from The Music Man program because of space, or lack thereof. The text was transcribed  from a recording made by the late Larry Walcoff, then the director of WSUI, the radio station for the University of Iowa, and made available by Judy  Walcoff, Larry’s wife and a member of Theatre Circle.

In 1958, Meredith Willson gave a concert-lecture at the University of Iowa, where he discussed what it was like to play “The Stars and Stripes Forever” in Sousa’s famous band. Willson’s description of Sousa’s band, how it surrounds and embraces its players and fills them up to their hairlines with music—when I hear or read that description, I easily hear the lyric to “Seventy-Six Trombones.” Willson seems to become Harold Hill at this point in his lecture, and it’s that love of the band and its music that is worth paying attention to. In this speech we can find the genesis of one of the country’s finest entertainments, The Music Man.

“Some thirty-seven years ago, I was playing with John Philip Sousa’s Band, and we did a concert in Des Moines, in fact we did several days there.

“And one, I was the … young, I was very young, I was very young, 1921, I was three years old to be exact, I was… [laughter]

“This particular matinee in Des Moines was especially given for the University of Iowa, and the crowd that assembled that day came largely from here. Very exciting day for me. For those of you whose parents have neglected to tell you about a Sousa Band concert, allow me to say that it was quite a thrilling affair.

“The highlight of a Sousa Band concert of course was his dramatic rendition of ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever,’ which occurred, oh, almost near the close.

“The march started out in the conventional way, and everything went normally until you got to the first interlude. That was the signal for the piccolos to come down to the front of the stage while that interlude was going on. So we came down, and then we embarked on the famous piccolo obligato.

“Then the interlude sounded a second time. And that was the signal for all the cornets and the trumpets to come down on to the right flank and all the trombones to come down on to the left flank and the cornets and  trumpets played the air, we played the piccolo obligato, the trombones played that celebrated trombone counterpoint, and in the back there were a dozen sousaphones, those big bells pumping out the organ bass out into the crowd  and in back of them were fourteen Napoleon field drums reaching all the way to the platform and giving out that seven beat nonstop consecutive Sousa roll: … br-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rum br-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rum br-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rum br-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rum … and we were literally surrounded with a forest of clarinets and French horns and double reeds, single reeds, euphoniums single and double, etc., etc.

“It was a very, very exciting affair.

“Nothing so exciting in my memory as that.”

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About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peak behind the curtain at the Indiana University Theatre Department productions and student work.
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