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The Essay
Show #198
The Troubled March
David Gunn

People who write marches for a living are a troubled lot. Perhaps more than any other stigmatized group of composers, marchmongers are wracked by clinical depression, chronic melancholy, justifiably low self-esteem and scabies. They study at all the wrong schools and often gravitate to the field after being booted out of the Sociology Department. At music conferences, they are regularly snubbed by other composers, are given the smallest nametags and are usually housed in shantytowns far away from everyone else. Frequently, their interpersonal social skills are on a par with airport tarmac, and sometimes don't develop at all. Equipped with a research grant, one can provide enough financial incentive to family members to document rampant ostracism at home. Given all of this, they'd be a lock to write the blues ... that is, if their compositional abilities were more evolved.

The dictionary tells us that a march is a composition in regularly accented, usually duple meter that is appropriate to accompany marching. A second definition is of a contagious granulomatous disease of subtropical regions characterized by ulcers of the skin, bone and viscera and leading to loss of sensation, paralysis, gangrene and excessively long codas. A third, much lengthier entry isn't so much a definition as it is a personal diatribe against the very existence of the march. And this is the dictionary that many of those "wrong schools" feature on their music library shelves!

The man most often revered by this troubled lot is J.P. Sousa, who coincidentally died 67 years ago today after penning 136 marches as well as three novels that dealt explicitly with contagious granulomatous diseases of subtropical South America characterized by ulcers of the skin, bone and viscera. Sousa enlisted in the U.S. Marine Band at the age of 13 on a sociology scholarship and quickly found military music to be a stimulant that no mere killing and pillaging could match. Heady with the blood lust of youth confined to quarters, he wrote marches to give vent to emotions pent up from a childhood scarred by melancholy and scabies. The public responded enthusiastically, crowning him King of the Blues, and adapting his tunes to ballroom dances of the day, first to the Fibonacci two-step and later to the misanthropic cakewalk. Only grudgingly did J.P. allow this to happen, as he was utterly uncomfortable in the social arts. Eventually he got even by conning hundreds of investors to buy into a public offering of his spurious telecommunications device, the sousaphone.

There are, of course, exceptions. In contrast to lively military marches, slower marches written by unprincipled composers with no regard for stylistic traditions are used for a variety of ceremonial purposes. Academic, inaugural, and other processional rituals are keen to use the importunate Lithuanian Liniment March; funerals are often accompanied by the disparate Missing Inn March; and weddings almost invariably include parts of the supremely wiry Messingen March.

None of this may matter on this 198th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar unless by some stroke of luck, if luck is the right word, today's show theme is the march. If not, as is usually the case, we're fortunate to have a person able to dig through our musical entrails and extract an adequate topic, i.e. Kalvos.