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Pan-American Exposition of 1901

John Philip Sousa

The night-time illumination of the grounds and buildings was perhaps the most extraordinary feature of the Exposition. The thousands of lights, controlled by special rheostats, were lit gradually every evening to reach their full power. Although the following two accounts are contradictory in terms of the musical details, they both attest to the power that the illumination held for people attending the Exposition. John Philip Sousa is the central figure in both accounts.

From the Final Report of the Pan-American Exposition Company by William Buchanan. Buffalo, N.Y.: n.p., 1902.

One of the incidents connected with the musical features of the Exposition and which became a feature later was the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner" by all bands on the grounds at the moment the lights throughout the Exposition were switched on in the evening. This feature had its origin with Sousa's band, which for three nights played "Nearer My God to Thee" as the lights were being turned. In order that a distinct feature might be created out of the lighting of the Exposition each evening, it was deemed by this office peculiarly appropriate and desirable that our national air should take the place of that piece of music, and an instruction was given Mr. Sousa to that effect; this instruction he at once carried out, and from and after that time all bands were similarly instructed to do so. It thus came about that the music of "The Star Spangled Banner" begun by each and every band on the grounds as the first glow of the hundreds of thousands of electric lights appeared and began to show in fire the outlines of the buildings of the Exposition, became an emotional, uplifting, exquisite feature of the Exposition and one that will undoubtedly linger as one of the most delightful memories of the Exposition with every one who had the pleasure and good fortune to be present at such a time.


Exposition at night

From Marching Along: Recollections of Men, Women, and Music by John Philip Sousa. Boston: Hale, Cushman & Flint, 1928. p. 230-231.

John Philip Sousa

John Philip Sousa

At the close of the Willow Grove season we left for Buffalo and opened there on June 10, 1901 for a month at the Pan-American Exposition. I noticed at our first evening concert that the lights were suddenly dimmed until the grounds were shrouded in darkness; then a little light appeared, the illumination grew steadily, till, brightening and brightening, the full blaze was restored. It was new at that time and had an almost supernatural effect on the watchers. When you burrow deep into the heart of the real America you will discover an intense affection for the old hymn tunes of the churches. Whatever a man's religious convictions, a hymn tune reaches his heart quicker than any other burst of music. Remembering this, I contrived the next evening, when the illumination began to wane, to have the band softly begin, "Nearer My God to Thee', and as the lights grew the band crescendoed and swelled out its power to the utmost. The effect was thrilling! It was afterward the subject of much editorial comment. One paper said, "It was left to the bandmaster to discover the meaning of the illumination. The music was inspiring and beautiful." I received hundreds of letters of congratulation, and the crowds flocked to the bandstand.

After several days, someone in authority sent me an order to substitute "The Star Spangled Banner" for Nearer "My God to Thee." Now patriotic songs are inspiring only on patriotic occasions; at other times their appeal is purely perfunctory. But, having been trained to obey orders, I played "The Star Spangled Banner" the next night. Morning brought a number of written protests. In three nights the order was revoked and I was requested to resume "Nearer My God to Thee." The official had doubtless found out the real preference of the public.