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Sousa’s greatest hit, transformed in Horowitz’s hands

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This Independence Day weekend, the average American will probably, at some point, hear John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” The march — premiered in 1897, made famous in 1898 (aided by pro-Spanish-American War enthusiasm), subsequently conducted by Sousa on every concert he did, up to (literally) the day he died — might be the occasion’s ideal showpiece, flamboyant patriotism balanced by musical refinement.

But it also manifests the power of performance, in that it demonstrates how a work’s biography can veer when an inimitable artist gets hold of it. In 1944, Vladimir Horowitz, a recently-naturalized US citizen, heard “The Stars and Stripes Forever” conducted by his father-in-law, Arturo Toscanini, and decided to fashion a virtuoso piano transcription of the march. He introduced it in Minneapolis, in January 1945. The fusillades of octaves, the thunderous bass, and, especially, the prestidigitation — the famous piccolo solo skirling away, the accompaniment bounding below, while the tune, in the middle rung out by way of his alternating thumbs — caused an immediate sensation. Horowitz started playing it everywhere.

There are stories that Horowitz performed the piece for a massive, May 1945 Central Park celebration of “I Am an American Day” — a short-lived national holiday to honor new citizens — but contemporary news accounts fail to mention a Horowitz appearance. Similarly, Horowitz was scheduled for New York’s official V-E Day celebrations, but apparently bowed out. (Instead, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia himself conducted a rendition of “Stars and Stripes” by three combined service bands.) Had Horowitz played his version for either event, it would have been apt. The arrangement is a musical melting pot, borrowing the better devices of 19th-century virtuosi (Liszt and, particularly, Sigismond Thalberg, the latter famous for the alternating-thumbs trick), while echoing the origins of ragtime and stride, converting the march’s oom-pah spine to precipitous left-hand leaps from bass note to chord. But it is also a conquest, and a thorough one.

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Horowitz naturalized Sousa’s march as a citizen of a rarefied province of late-Romantic European pianism — and, in doing so, subtly altered the march’s prestige. “The Stars and Stripes Forever” became a go-to opportunity for instrumental challenge: Organists, for instance, could tackle E. Power Biggs’s arrangement (or, more recently, Cameron Carpenter’s, which showstoppingly transfers the piccolo to the pedals); guitarists could attempt the fingerpicking arrangement by Berklee professor Guy Van Duser. All such efforts, in conception and effect, recapitulate Horowitz; as with his version, the required technique and skill march alongside, or even ahead of the sentiment, rather than in service of it.

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For years, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” was as customary an encore on Horowitz’s concerts as it was on Sousa’s. (Contemporary reviews found it necessary to mention when Horowitz didn’t play it.) But, after returning from a 12-year performing hiatus in 1965, with the exception of a 1977 appearance on the television show “60 Minutes,” Horowitz put “The Stars and Stripes Forever” away. (Even a White House performance for President Carter elicited “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but no Sousa.) Horowitz said he wanted to devote his energies to something besides the bravura — another way of saying that, perhaps, his claim to Sousa had long since been settled.

Listen to a recording of Horowitz’s transcription.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.