Sousa and Tsar Nicholas II’s Birthday: An Unexpected Tour Adventure Exhibit Opens Today

The Russian imperial capital of St. Petersburg was a major stop during John Philip Sousa’s 1903 tour of Europe.  He expected to make a grand debut in Russia because his band’s performances coincided with both the tsar’s birthday and the bicentennial of the city’s founding.  The Sousa Band’s European tour which took place between January 2 and August 7, included performances in Belgium, Bohemia (currently Czechia), Great Britain, Denmark, Germany, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, and Russia. The tour was originally planned to be the band’s first world tour which would have included performances in China, Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines and the United States territory of Hawaii, but these destinations were dropped from the tour because of failed visa and contract negotiations.  Sousa’s Russian performances also were stymied by the country’s passport and visa regulations.  In addition the band had to adhere to strict censorship rules for advertising and the lyrics of the songs performed by the band. What resulted from Sousa’s performances in Russia could be characterized as a musical misadventure. In addition Russian critics wrote tepidly about his performances and attendance was poor because the concerts had been scheduled at the beginning of the country’s summer vacation season.

Sousa also wrote despairingly in his autobiography,

Another annoyance awaited me in St. Petersburg – I found the city plastered with the name of some rival who seemed to have come at the same time and whose name was Суза. I wondered who this Суза could be, and remonstrated with my advertising agent for not seeing that I was billed as prominently. I found out that “Суза” was the Russian way of spelling Sousa!

While this portion of the Sousa Band’s 1903 tour was challenging to the March King, the remainder of the tour was well received by his British and French audiences.  This exhibit explores Russian audiences’ reception to Sousa’s unique music performances at the start of the twentieth century, and Sousa’s solution to the Russian government’s censorship of Estelle Liebling’s song, Thou Charming Bird, which was sung by his lead singer throughout the 1903 tour.

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