Circus music

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Circus music (also known as carnival music) is any sort of music that is played to accompany a circus, and also music written that emulates its general style. Popular music would also often get arranged for the circus band, as well as waltzes, foxtrots and other dances.

Circus Commonly a travelling company of performers

A circus is a company of performers who put on diverse entertainment shows that may include clowns, acrobats, trained animals, trapeze acts, musicians, dancers, hoopers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, magicians, unicyclists, as well as other object manipulation and stunt-oriented artists. The term circus also describes the performance which has followed various formats through its 250-year modern history. Although not the inventor of the medium, Philip Astley is credited as the father of the modern circus. In 1768 Astley, a skilled equestrian, began performing exhibitions of trick horse riding in an open field called Ha'Penny Hatch on the south side of the Thames River. In 1770 he hired acrobats, tightrope walkers, jugglers and a clown to fill in the pauses between the equestrian demonstrations and thus chanced on the format which was later named a "circus". Performances developed significantly over the next fifty years, with large-scale theatrical battle reenactments becoming a significant feature. The traditional format, in which a ringmaster introduces a variety of choreographed acts set to music, developed in the latter part of the 19th century and remained the dominant format until the 1970s.

Waltz dance

The waltz is a ballroom and folk dance, normally in triple  time, performed primarily in closed position.

Foxtrot dance

The foxtrot is a smooth, progressive dance characterized by long, continuous flowing movements across the dance floor. It is danced to big band music. The dance is similar in its look to waltz, although the rhythm is in a 4
time signature instead of 3
. Developed in the 1910s, the foxtrot reached its height of popularity in the 1930s and remains practiced today.



Although circuses have been in existence since the time of the ancient Romans, circus music first started as a performance by a fiddler or a flutist. [1] It was not until the twentieth century that circus music was performed by big bands. The first modern circus director and performer was Philip Astley (1742-1814), a veteran of the Seven Years' War and a skilled equestrian. With his horsemanship skills and the addition of jugglers, acrobats, and clowns, Astley opened Paris' first circus in 1782. [2] The first known composer of circus music was Charles Dibdin (1745-1814). [3] He was partners with Mr. Astley and was also the one who financed the theatre used for the royal circus. [4] Dibdin was a very well known composer in his time and had written hundreds of works before he decided to join Astley to work for the circus. He wrote all of the pieces used in the circus, which were mostly intermezzos or comedy pieces. An ensemble of approximately sixty children was used as singers and dancers to perform the many pieces that he wrote for the circus, such as “The Graces,” “Clump and Cudden,” and “Pandora,” which was arguably the most famous piece that was used in the circus because it was originally used in a popular puppet show that mocked contemporary figures of the time. [5]

Big band Music ensemble associated with jazz and Swing Era music

A big band is a type of musical ensemble of jazz music that usually consists of ten or more musicians with four sections: saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a rhythm section. Big bands originated during the early 1910s and dominated jazz in the early 1940s when swing was most popular. The term "big band" is also used to describe a genre of music, although this was not the only style of music played by big bands.

Philip Astley English equestrian, circus owner, and inventor, regarded as being the "father of the modern circus"

Philip Astley was an English equestrian, circus owner, and inventor, regarded as being the "father of the modern circus". Modern circus, as an integrated entertainment experience that includes music, domesticated animals, acrobats, and clowns, traces its heritage to Astley's Amphitheatre, a riding school that Astley founded in London following the success of trick-riding displays given by him and his wife Patty Jones in 1768. Astley's first competitor was equestrian Charles Hughes, who had previously worked with Astley. Together with Charles Dibdin, a famous author of pantomimes, Hughes opened a rival amphitheatre in London, which Dibdin called the Royal Circus and Equestrian Philharmonic Academy.

Seven Years War Global conflict between 1756 and 1763

The Seven Years' War was a global war fought between 1756 and 1763. It involved every European great power of the time and spanned five continents, affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict split Europe into two coalitions: one was led by the Kingdom of Great Britain and included the Kingdom of Prussia, the Kingdom of Portugal, the Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg, and other small German states; while the other was led by the Kingdom of France and included the Austrian-led Holy Roman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Spain, Sweden, and the Electorate of Saxony. Meanwhile, in India, some regional polities within the increasingly fragmented Mughal Empire, with the support of the French, tried to crush a British attempt to conquer Bengal.

Composition and usage

The most common type of circus music is the circus march, or screamer. It is characterized by a rapid-fire tempo - usually around 200 beats per minute - and melodies that contain showy features such as leaps, runs, and fanfares. It is difficult for "windjammers" (circus musicians) to play because of its fast tempo.

March (music) musical genre, piece of music in origin was expressly written for marching

A march, as a musical genre, is a piece of music with a strong regular rhythm which in origin was expressly written for marching to and most frequently performed by a military band. In mood, marches range from the moving death march in Wagner's Götterdämmerung to the brisk military marches of John Philip Sousa and the martial hymns of the late 19th century. Examples of the varied use of the march can be found in Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, in the Marches Militaires of Franz Schubert, in the Marche funèbre in Chopin's Sonata in B flat minor, and in the Dead March in Handel's Saul.

A screamer is a descriptive name for a circus march, in particular, an upbeat march intended to stir up the audience during the show.

Marches served many purposes throughout the course of a circus. They were often used for grand entrances and exits, overtures and finales, acts featuring wild animals, or other daredevil-type acts. Circus marches are divided into "strains":

Xylophone-Solo in Souvenir de Cirque Renz by Gustav Peter Souvenir-de-Cirque-Renz-Xylophon.svg
Xylophone-Solo in Souvenir de Cirque Renz by Gustav Peter

The galop is another popular form of circus music. Like the march, it is played at a fast, lively tempo and is primarily used for daredevil acts, such as trick-riding or other wild animal performances. Any performance or act that consisted of fast-paced tricks or stunts would probably have performed to a galop. The galop is typically written in 2/4 time and has a short length, but would only end when the ringmaster signaled the end of an act. If the act went longer, the galop could be extended by playing da capo. [7] One of the best-known examples is Gustav Peter's widely popular Memory of Circus Renz, which was published in 1894 with the title Souvenir de Cirque Renz. The piece was originally written for the xylophone.

Galop dance

In dance, the galop, named after the fastest running gait of a horse, a shortened version of the original term galoppade, is a lively country dance, introduced in the late 1820s to Parisian society by the Duchesse de Berry and popular in Vienna, Berlin and London. In the same closed position familiar in the waltz, the step combined a glissade with a chassé on alternate feet, ordinarily in a fast 2

Da capo is an Italian musical term that means "from the beginning". It is often abbreviated as D.C. The term is a directive to repeat the previous part of music, often used to save space, and thus is an easier way of saying to repeat the music from the beginning.

Gustav Peter (1833–1919) was a composer of popular music.

Circus music catered to the needs of the different acts. For example, a high-flying, nimble trapeze act could be characterized by a dizzying galop or a graceful waltz. An act containing ferocious wild animals, such as lions, would probably use a march.


One of the most recognized pieces of circus music is "Entrance of the Gladiators" by Julius Fučík (1872-1916). Fučík wrote almost 300 marches and dances, and for that reason he is often referred to as “Bohemian Sousa.” Although his most well known piece is now famous in circus music, he did not compose with the intent of having his pieces played in a circus. [8] Another very famous piece of circus music that is very recognizable is "Barnum and Bailey's Favorite" by Karl King (1892-1971). [9] Unlike Fučík, King grew up performing circus music joining Robinson's Famous Circus at the age of 19 as a baritone player. During that time circus music needed its own style because modern music did not fit with most of the acts that the circus performed. This led to his quick rise in popularity as a circus music composer for circuses everywhere. [10] Also, "Sobre las Olas", or "Over the Waves", is a popular waltz used during trapeze shows. Mistakenly thought to be a waltz by Strauss, it was written by Mexican composer Juventino Rosas. Many other composers were well known for writing screamers, among them Fred Jewell and Henry Fillmore. One piece, however, that was never normally played was John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever". Instead, it was used in emergencies, such as animals getting loose, to help signify to workers that something was wrong. [11]

"Entrance of the Gladiators" op. 68 or "Entry of the Gladiators" is a military march composed in 1897 by the Czech composer Julius Fučík. He originally titled it "Grande Marche Chromatique", reflecting the use of chromatic scales throughout the piece, but changed the title based on his personal interest in the Roman Empire.

Julius Fučík (composer) Czech composer and conductor of military bands

Julius Ernest Wilhelm Fučík was a Czech composer and conductor of military bands. He became a prolific composer, with over 400 marches, polkas, and waltzes to his name. As most of his work was for military bands, he is sometimes known as the "Bohemian Sousa".

"Barnum and Bailey's Favorite" is a circus march written by Karl King for the circus of the same name in 1913.

In 1971 Charles Bennett Jr. and Art Stensvad gathered fans of circus music and veteran circus bandleaders including Merle Evans into a circus music preservation society known as Windjammers Unlimited. The group meets twice annually to study and play the compositions of classic era circus music composers such as M. L. Lake and Karl L. King. They've also researched in the archives of the C.L. Barnhouse publishing company which was a major supplier of sheet music for circus bands. [12]

Music that imitates or evokes the sound of the circus has also been written, often showing up in film scores, some dedicated to the subject and some not. Jerry Goldsmith famously wrote a theme for the movie Gremlins in such a style, which influenced the film makers to an extent. [13]

Other bands and musicians who employ circus music in their work include Danny Elfman, Tom Waits, Mr. Bungle, the Dickies, Legendary Shack Shakers and Kaizers Orchestra. The music genre dark cabaret is heavily based on elements from circus music and from burlesque and vaudeville influences. Popular artists within the genre include The Tiger Lillies and Circus Contraption. Punk cabaret is also influenced by circus music. Artists include The Dresden Dolls, Amanda Palmer, Emilie Autumn. The dance track "Disco Circus" is named for its resemblance to circus music. Post-hardcore and metalcore bands like The Venetia Fair , Ice Nine Kills and Crown The Empire add circus music in some of their songs.


As the styles of circus music have changed, so has the instrumentation. With the nineteenth century came the introduction of brass bands. String instruments were no longer used in these "traditional" circus bands to make "traditional" circus music, which is defined by Merle Evans as music that is brighter in tone than other music. [14]

Sounds of cornets, trumpets, trombones, French horns, baritones, and tubas were able to reach far and wide, signaling to entire towns that the circus was around. Drums were also added to the circus bands and although saxophones have been arguable, they were frequently used as well. [1] The calliope, built by Joshua C. Stoddard in 1856, was also used by the circus. Not a part of the circus band, it is a sometimes called a “circus piano” and is played like a piano, but powered by a steam boiler. Its sound can carry as far as nine miles. [15]

Present-day circus music varies widely in instrumentation, style and form. It often incorporates the use of electric instruments and synthesizers alongside the more traditional instruments. [1]

Related Research Articles

American march music

American march music is march music written and/or performed in the United States. Its origins are those of European composers borrowing from the military music of the Ottoman Empire in place there from the 16th century. The American genre developed after the British model during the colonial and Revolutionary periods, then later as military ceremonials and for civilian entertainment events.

Johann Strauss I Austrian Romantic composer

Johann Strauss I was an Austrian Romantic composer. He was famous for his waltzes, and he popularized them alongside Joseph Lanner, thereby setting the foundations for his sons to carry on his musical dynasty. He is perhaps best known for his composition of the Radetzky March.

Karl King American composer and conductor

Karl L. King was a United States march music bandmaster and composer. He is best known as the composer of "Barnum and Bailey's Favorite".

"Chopsticks" is a simple, widely known waltz for the piano. Written in 1877, it is the only published piece by the British composer Euphemia Allen. Allen—whose brother was a music publisher—was sixteen when she composed the piece, with arrangements for solo and duet. The title "Chop Waltz" comes from Allen's specification that the melody be played in two-part harmony with both hands held in a vertical orientation, little fingers down and palms facing each other, striking the keys with a chopping motion. The similar "The Coteletten Polka" also was first heard in 1877, with the piano collection Paraphrases elaborating on the theme by 1879. "Chopsticks" continues to be popular in various forms of media.

The Blue Danube waltz by Johann Strauss Jr.

"The Blue Danube" is the common English title of "An der schönen blauen Donau", Op. 314, a waltz by the Austrian composer Johann Strauss II, composed in 1866. Originally performed on 15 February 1867 at a concert of the Wiener Männergesangsverein, it has been one of the most consistently popular pieces of music in the classical repertoire. Its initial performance was considered only a mild success, however, and Strauss is reputed to have said, "The devil take the waltz, my only regret is for the coda—I wish that had been a success!"

Vergnügungszug op. 281 is a polka composed by Johann Strauss II in 1864. It was written for the Association of Industrial Societies' Ball held in the Redoutensaal on 19 January 1864 and was inspired by the opening of the Austrian Southern Railway – the Südbahn – which operated many 'pleasure trains' offering trips from Vienna to the countryside.

Russell Alexander was an entertainer and composer, active primarily with vaudeville shows and musical comedy organizations.

Walter Paul "Woody" English (1867-1916) was an American tuba player and band composer. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah Territory in 1867. He grew up in Dallas, Texas (Smith) playing tuba in various bands. In 1891 he joined the circus band on the Great New York Circus in Oakland, California (Smith). In 1892 he joined the band on the McMahon Circus (Smith). During the next three years he travelled with circus bands on Howe & Cushing, Sands & Astley and Harris Nickel Plate Shows (Smith).

"The Melody Shop" is one of Karl King's most popular marches. The march is written in E♭, with its trio section changing keys to the subdominant A♭ as is typical for marches and polkas. Excerpts of the march are commonly used in auditions for euphoniums and baritone horns auditioning for a spot in a military band, a university band, brass bands, and city and state ensembles. King released this march in 1910. This was King's first year as a circus musician.

Arthur Wellesley Hughes (1870–1950) was a Canadian musician and composer. Born in Kingston, Ontario, he separated from his family at a young age, spending many years in the United States as an itinerant circus musician. He was a performer on piano, calliope, and alto horn. His circus associations on record include: Mighty Haag Circus, Downie & Wheeler Circus (1912); Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus (1922); Sells-Floto Circus (1923); and Ringling Bros & Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows (1924-26). He was with Robbins Bros. Circus (1928–29) whence his Robbins Bros. Triumphal March arose, and Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Wild West Show, and Walter L. Main Circus (1930–31). Hughes worked as composer and arranger for the Waterloo Music Company of Waterloo, Ontario, from 1932-1935. At other times, Hughes worked as arranger in the Whaley, Royce and Cundy-Bettoney publishing houses. According to his own account, Hughes wrote band music in the USA for much of his life, under various pen names, including Arthur Wellesley and H W Arthur.

Sobre las Olas waltz

The waltz "Sobre las Olas" is the best-known work of Mexican composer Juventino Rosas (1868–1894). It "remains one of the most famous Latin American pieces worldwide", according to the "Latin America" article in The Oxford Companion to Music.

<i>Heritage of the March</i> album

Heritage of the March is a series of 185 vinyl records of marches and galops released from 1973 to 1988. It remains the largest single march music record series in history, featuring close to 3,000 different marches. The records were distributed for free by march collector Robert Hoe and the series was continued after his death by the Robert Hoe Foundation created by his wife, Marilyn C. Hoe. Most records featured the marches of two composers played by a military, college, high school, or community band. The albums were given volume numbers 1 through 90 and A through QQQQ.


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