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John Philip Sousa Plays Violin in Jacques Offenbach’s Centennial Orchestra: Philadelphia 1876

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The following is a guest post from Senior Music Specialist Loras Schissel.

Portrait of John Philip Sousa, ca. 1876. Music Division, Library of Congress.

In 1930, John Philip Sousa set down his memories of playing in the first violin section in a special grand orchestra assembled for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia during the summer of 1876.  The conductor of this orchestra was the celebrated composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880).  We have transcribed Mr. Sousa’s original typescript which is in the John Philip Sousa Collection in the Music Division.

I was traveling as orchestra leader with “Matt Morgan’s Living Pictures” (1) and I concluded at the end of the season to go to Philadelphia and see the Centennial.  It was a big event in the life of any young American and I believe the first event of its kind that the country has ever had.  I called on Simon Hassler (2), the well-known musician and inquired if there was any work for a young violinist and he told me that he was engaged to supply some extra men for the Offenbach Orchestra which was to open in a hall built for Offenbach on the corner of Broad and Cherry Streets.  He said, “if you can play good enough I will give you an engagement.”  ”When do you want to hear me,” I said.  ”Whenever you like,” he said.  ”I will go back and get my fiddle and will be back here in a half-hour.”

Portrait of Jacques Offenbach, 1878. Reproduction number LC-USZ62-83023. Prints & Photographs Division.


I returned and played for him and was engaged for the orchestra.  I was then a young man of nineteen or so and I felt the honor greatly when Mr. Hassler, after hearing me, engaged me.  When we came to the first rehearsal we noticed that Offenbach only conducted his own compositions, and, with the exception of one or two of which he had the printed copies, the rest had been copied and very badly by some copyist before he left France.  We played selections from his various opera and a [Polka] (3), if I remember rightly, was called “The American Girl,” but the selections that Offenbach played from his own were, evidently owing to their many mistakes, unsatisfactory to him and more time was occupied in correcting the parts than in the rehearsals themselves.

Hassler came to Offenbach’s help by bringing him Conradi’s selection of “Offenbachiana,” (4) which Mr. Offenbach rehearsed and had on every program while he was in America.  ”Offenbachiana” is a reprint of Offenbach’s many operas and was arranged and put together by Conradi, a German composer and arranger.

It was the first time in my life I had ever been with a good orchestra—large and well-equipped—and it gave me insight of the possibilities of the orchestra.  We had as assistant conductors Max Maretzek (5), Hassler and one or two other conductors who led the heavier numbers which embraced compositions by Beethoven, Haydn, Wagner, etc. etc.  Offenbach’s attitude to the members of the orchestra was exceedingly polite and good-natured, and he was a great favorite with the members of the orchestra. (6)


(1)  Matt Sommerville Morgan (1839-1890) was a London-born cartoonist and artist.  He came to the U.S. in the early 1870s to work for publisher Frank Leslie as an illustrator and caricaturist.  In the mid-1870s Morgan produced a series of tableaux vivants representing famous paintings of nude women.  Sousa toured as music director of the group and composed incidental music for the production.

(2)  Simon Hassler (1832-1901) was a German-born conductor and composer.  Hassler, along with brother Mark (1834-1906), were well-known throughout Philadelphia society as conductors of orchestras and bands and were active and admired theater conductors.  Sousa performed in several orchestras for the Hassler brothers, and orchestrated and arranged many works for their performances and stage productions.

(3)  Sousa didn’t quite remember correctly here.  It was a concert waltz.

(4)  August Conradi (1821-1873) worked as an assistant and copyist for composer Franz Liszt and was active as a performer and composer for many years.  In addition to his “Offenbachiana,” Conradi composed eight operas, a ballet, and five symphonies.

(5)  Max Maretzek (1821-1897) was a Moravia-born conductor, composer, and opera impresario.  Traveling to the U.S. in 1848, Maretzek settled in New York City and founded the Max Maretzek Italian Opera Company.  This pioneering company performed numerous American premiers of Verdi operas.  Maretzek composed two operas, Hamlet (1843) and Sleepy Hollow (1879), and two volumes of memoirs.

(6)  Sousa composed one of his first large-scale works for the Centennial Exposition entitled “The International Congress.”  This composition was a potpourri of many national anthems and patriotic airs.

Comments (3)

  1. As my family were in-laws to the John Philip Sousa family here on Capitol Hill in Washington and as a former violin player, I particularly enjoyed reading about John Philip’s participation as a young violinist in Jacques Offenbach’s Centennial Orchestra. I treasure the personally autographed copy of “John Philip Sousa’s America”, written by my cousin John Philip Sousa IV and co-authored by the Library of Congress’ Senior Music Specialist, Loras Schissel. In my own book, I of course have included a long treatise on the “March King’s” musical genius and his life here in Washington. I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the life and musical accomplishments of John Philip Sousa to take advantage of the Library’s blogs and its Music Department’s vast collection of materials.

  2. I’m curious as to whether Sousa wrote original works for this group. There is a published piece called “On Wings of Lightning” Galop, Op. 26, that is attributed to Sousa with the notation “As played by Hassler’s Orchestra at the Chestnut Theatre, Phila.” I’m interested in learning if this is truly a Sousa original, or if it’s something he arranged as suggested by footnote #2.

    • Hi Nathan, thanks for your question. According to Loras Schissel, Sousa didn’t compose anything original for the exposition orchestra. “Wings of Lightning” and several other pieces were written when Sousa was a member of the Arch Street and Chestnut Street Theatre. He did quite a bit of arranging and composing for these theaters when he was a young man.

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