Music Appreciation: The Fairest of the Fair by John Philip Sousa

Summer band concert season is in full swing this week, so what better time to talk about a piece by the “March King” himself? While John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) wrote an incredible number of marches, the one I love is The Fairest of the Fair. He wrote it in 1908 – the only work he composed that year. He wrote this for the Boston Food Fair, and the story goes that he was inspired by a lovely lass he saw, but never met.

Many (most?) of Sousa’s marches follow a specific formula. The Fairest of the Fair is no exception. This form contains several sections which should be fairly easy to tell apart. See if you can figure out where each section starts. I’ll give you the time marks as I walk through the piece and you can see if you got them right. (Or you can just keep reading without guessing. But where’s the fun in that?)

  1. Introduction
  2. First strain (repeated)
  3. Second strain (repeated)
  4. Trio
  5. Break strain (or Dogfight)
  6. Trio (modified; repeat sections 5 and 6)
  7. Stinger

The intro and first two strains are in one key – in this case, E♭ major. We begin with a happy little tune in the first strain, supported with a traditional march oom-pah from the lower voices (tubas as the “oom” on the beat, horns as the “pah” playing the off-beats). We take the repeat of the first strain, then move on to the second strain (0:37).

The second strain introduces a new theme. The theme occurs in the upper voices with a countermelody happening in the middle voices. Partway through this strain, we get a reprise of the theme from the first strain. We repeat the entire second strain.

Next up is the trio (1:27). As is usually the case in American marches of this form, we change keys here. The pattern is to add a flat to the key signature – this takes us to A♭ major, which has four flats compared to our previous key of E♭ major, which has three. (This takes us one move counter-clockwise around the circle of fifths. The circle of fifths shows how keys are related to each other.) Not only do we change keys in the trio, but we change moods as well. The theme here is smoother and a bit more reserved than the previous themes. We play this section only once.

So why is it called a trio? Back in the day, as in the 1600s, there were a lot of instrumental dance forms. One of those was called a minuet. Eventually, the minuet evolved into a longer form – basically adding a new section in the middle. So you had an ABA form to the music. That B section was called the trio, as it often utilized just three instruments. “A Guide to the Minuet and Trio Form” by John Mello has more information.

Then we reach the break strain at 2:02. The break strain truly creates a break in the piece. We go from a lovely trio melody to a loud, rhythmic burst from the band. I’d always heard the term “break strain” as interchangeable with “dogfight”, but I noticed that the Virginia Tech music theory page lists a dogfight as a specific type of break strain. At 2:19, I like how Sousa inserts a quote of the first theme in only the upper voices, which then leads us into the restatement of the trio melody.

One thing I find a bit different about The Fairest of the Fair is that Sousa doesn’t add any type of countermelody or obbligato when restating the trio theme (2:23), which is often what happens during this section of a march. An obbligato is a specific countermelody, often played in an upper voice, that is yet considered part of the accompaniment. Probably the most famous one, at least to Americans, is the piccolo line that happens during The Stars and Stripes Forever.

We repeat the break strain and trio theme to bring us to the end of our march. But before we sign off for good, we end with the typical march “stinger” – one last, short chord from the entire band. The vast majority of American marches end with a stinger. There’s a notable exception in Sousa’s Riders for the Flag march – no stinger! It can be difficult to fight the natural tendency to add one when playing that piece!

I hope you enjoyed our visit to a genre that’s very familiar to community bands and their audiences all across the country. It wouldn’t be a summer band concert without a march (or three), with at least one of them coming from Sousa!

Shamless plug: I’ve arranged this piece for clarinet choir; it is available at You can also find the original band parts at IMSLP.

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Music Appreciation: Irish Tune from County Derry by Percy Grainger

I know St. Paddy’s Day has come and gone, but I wanted to talk about this piece anyway. Most people know Irish Tune from County Derry as “Danny Boy” (or even “Londonderry Air”). While there are certainly some wretched versions out there that make people swear they never want to hear this song again, give this one a chance. I believe it is far and away the most gorgeous rendition of the tune.

Ireland countryside

Ireland countryside
(Used under CC0 Public Domain license)

Percy Grainger (1882-1961), an Australian composer and pianist, was quite an odd duck – he actually made a list that ranked composers, and put himself at number 9. He had some… interesting… tastes in his personal life, and tried out many new musical ideas. But behind the eccentricity was some great music. He had a love for folk music and traveled around with a phonograph in order to record ordinary people singing the music of their heritage. He focused on English folk songs.

One quirk of Grainger’s that entertains me is that he didn’t bother with using traditional Italian terminology in his music. So instead of crescendo, he used “louden” (or even “louden hugely”). My husband, the horn player, gets to play “as violently and roughly as possible” in one piece we’re playing for band! (Children’s March: Over the Hills and Far Away)

Enough chatter – let’s listen to some music!

The piece begins in the low brass and woodwinds, with the melody in the baritone, trombone, horn 4 (there are usually four separate-but-related horn parts in band music) and alto clarinet.  What’s interesting is that the melody is not the highest voice you hear. Grainger puts the melody in the middle and has harmonic material above it (which happens to sound quite melodic). That’s part of what makes this piece challenging to play – you have to make sure those middle voices don’t get buried during this first section. The cornets join in at 0:23 with more harmonic material, but the melody is still down in the lower voices. I do love the rising line at 0:43.

At 0:51, the melody is still in the middle, but we’ve given it to the entire horn section and most of the trombones. Listen for some juicy harmony from 1:12 to 1:15. We arrive at the climax of this first section at 1:18, then begin to quiet down through the end of the first time through the theme.

We begin the second time through with a flute solo, backed by the clarinets. The oboe joins in at 1:56, another make-it-or-break-it part, as that has a tendency to come out way too powerfully in this delicate section. The oboe in this recording has a nice, smooth entrance. The top clarinet part gets its own tricky line at 2:08-2:09. It’s a soft, but big, leap into the upper register of the instrument – it takes practice to do that without blaring the top note (I’ve spent some time on that myself recently as I’m playing that part for an upcoming concert). The horn takes over the melody as a solo at 2:11, giving the piece a bit of a woodwind quintet feel. Grainger keeps adding more instruments into the mix as we near 2:36.

Everyone enters again for the final quarter of the piece. Here we’re treated to some wonderfully lush harmonies and a full, rich sound from the band. Listen for the horns (and maybe even trombone at 2:59) throughout this last section, as they have beautiful countermelodic material. Like that rising line back at 0:43, I absolutely love the high horn line that starts at 3:25. It’s only a few notes, but it helps give the piece a satisfying ending.

Grainger uses close harmonies and suspensions liberally in this piece. I think that’s part of what makes it so gorgeous. When the piece is played well, it gives me goosebumps. The notes generally aren’t all that hard and there’s nothing tricky about the rhythm. Grainger doesn’t even change the key during the piece. But the piece is difficult to play well. Sometimes the “easy” pieces are actually the hardest ones to play.

That’s it for this installment. There won’t be a “bonus features” post for this tune; I plan to go right to the next piece I want to discuss. Those folks who have played Irish Tune in band may be able to guess which piece that is!

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