Why did John Philip Sousa write the Transit of Venus March in 1883?

John Philip Sousa (1854 - 1932) was very interested in the 1882 transit of Venus. In 1883 only a few months after the 1882 transit, he wrote the 'Venus Transit March'. He didn't write it specifically to commemorate the transit itself, but was commissioned to write it to honor the great American physicist Prof. Joseph Henry who had died on May 13, 1878. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. asked Sousa to write this march for the planned unveiling of the commemorative statue of Henry which was to be placed in front of the Smithsonian Institution in 1883. The music was to be played while dignitaries walked from the museum to a special receiving stand in front of the museum.

Sousa was a Freemason, as were many 'intellectuals' of that time. His march was performed at a specific time and date: April 19, 1883 at 4:00 PM. While 10,000 people and representatives from many branches of government filed in a stately procession at this propitious hour, the planet Venus, invisible to the participants, had completed its arc in the sky and was setting in the west. At the same time, Virgo was rising in the east, and Jupiter was directly over head.

Why did this time and date get selected for the unveiling of the magnificent bronze statue? In the mystical circles in which Sousa and the event organizers orbited, Venus was associated with the element copper, Joseph Henry had used large quantities of copper to create his powerful electromagnets, which at that time operated some of America's newest technology. The connection of the 'passing of Henry' commemorated by the statue, and the 'passing of Venus' in the west may have seemed like a fitting bond between two separate worlds: human and cosmic. This is not the only mysterious connection between 'cosmic' patterns and human designs. Author David Ovason in his book 'The Secret Architecture of our Nation's Capital' (1999) has identified dozens of similar connections with astronomical events among other aspects of Washington D.C. buildings and monuments.

Thanks to the Library of Congress Music Division, they have created a website about the music of the transit of Venus, including John Philip Sousa's music which you can download and listen to, including a band score you can perform. Visit the "I Hear America Singing" web page to learn more about this in the days to come. The pages will be available in early April.