Sousa vs Alford, march kings

John Philip Sousa (an American) is probably much better known than the Englishman Kenneth Alford but I have to say I prefer Alford’s marches. Both wrote marches that start out, for the most part, jubilant, buoyant and aggressive and maintain this tone until the trio. The overall feeling of the music amounts to a celebration of war as something exciting and ennobling, something that will arouse men’s martial instincts.  Sousa’s “Washington Post” and Alford’s “The Standard of Saint George” are typical. Both are excellent marches.

The difference between the two composers often comes in the trio. In Alford’s marches the trio switches to a radically different mood from the opening. His trios convey a proud kind of melancholy and give rise to thoughts of mourning. Gone is the jubilant tone struck at the opening of the march. The tone struck now is sad and reflective and conducive to brooding on the sadness and waste of war. The trio of  Alford’s  “The Retreat of the Vanished Army” is a good example of this (Google “Youtube and ‘The Vanished Army’ and see what you think.)  The trio’s air is carried by the melancholy, virile voice of the euphoniums which are supported by muted percussion and the occasional battle-call riff of a muted trumpet. Alford’s sad, muted tones are probably the natural expression of a very old country that has experienced dozens of wars throughout its history and knows well what sadness they bring. Sousa’s is the voice of a newer country which has had some horrible wars, (especially The Civil War), but has still remained positive and hopeful.

How is it that Sousa is much better known than Alford? I think movies have much to do with it. Many Hollywood movies, especially those set in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, feature Sousa marches.  Some of these marches have been done to death and this massive exposure has made Sousa the better known of the two composers. This is good for Sousa fans in a way: they are more likely to hear their favorite composer. It is also a negative thing for them because some of Sousa’s marches are played to death and become just a little bit boring. They can even sound a bit hackneyed. On the other hand, apart from  “Colonel Bogey” (featured in the excellent movie, “Bridge on the River Kwai”) Alford’s marches are not as well known as Sousa’s and they still retain some of the charm of newness.

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