Do you remember the excitement you felt hearing that the circus had come to town and your parents told you they were taking you? Some circuses focused on clowns, animals acts, and trapeze artists. Some brought an additional carnival vibe with shooting galleries and side shows. And some (ok, all) seemed more intent on pushing sales of cotton candy, balloons and branded merch.
Besides having a Ring Master under the Big Tent, the other thing you could count on was music. Loud music. Some had music piped in from huge amplifiers, some had actual orchestras playing the music live. Regardless of how the music was delivered, it was often classical, or considered to be some form from the classical genre!
Most of the circus music you’d hear was what are known as “screamers.” Screamers are mostly marches that would be used to both introduce the circus to the audience at the top of the show, and then throughout the show to signal an exciting new act.
Perhaps the most famous circus screamer is "Entrance of the Gladiators" by Czech composer Julius Fucik. He wrote it in 1897 when he was a military band leader of the Austro-Hungarian Army. He had titled the piece "Grande Marche Chromatique" originally, but changed the title after reading the exciting gladiator scene in Henryk Sienkieweicz’s novel Quo Vadis. Just four years later, an arrangement for wind bands was published with a new name, “Thunder and Blazes.” It was under this name that the piece became the most popular screamer of all times. Here’s the United States Marine Band conducted by Colonel Timothy W. Foley.
A mostly self-taught musician, Karl King published more than 300 works, from waltzes, overtures, and serenades to 188 marches and screamers. In 1913, after the Barnum and Bailey bandmaster asked him for a new march for the circus, King, who had been playing baritone horn in the circus band, came up with this, "Barnum and Bailey's Favorite." The piece became one of the most popular circus screamers and got the nickname, “Granddaddy of Circus Marches.” This version is played by the United States Army Band.
Frederick Jewell was born in Indiana in 1875. If you’re a fan of old movies this might sound cliché, but when he was 16 he ran away from home to join a circus! He played the euphonium and later, the calliope, in the band for the Gentry Brothers Dog and Pony Show. He wrote around 100 pieces of music covering a wide range of styles, but it’s his marches and screamers that are still played and highly regarded. Frederick Fennell conducts the Eastman Wind Ensemble in a screamer Jewell titled "The Screamer!"
A beautiful waltz has always been THE music of choice for trapeze artists from around the world. For a hundred years these death-defying artists favored one waltz in particular. Audiences hearing it just assumed it was another waltz by Johann Strauss, Jr., especially since it was often included in Strauss-centric concert programs. Turns out that it was written by Mexican composer Juventino Rosas, who published it in 1888 as "Sobre las olas" ("Over the Waves"). After the first 40 seconds or so of introductory music, you’ll probably recognize the main tune almost immediately. Robert Stolz conducts the Berlin Philharmonic.
In 1894 the Austrian, or possibly Hungarian, composer Gustav Peter wrote a galop (a quick ballroom dance named after the running gait of a horse) which was one of the most popular styles of German light music at the time. His xylophone piece, "Souvenir of Cirque Renz," later known as "Memory of Circus Renz," became so popular that many other composers of the day copied his style, though his is the only one really known today. This is a fun video, with xylophone soloist Thorsten Blumberg joining conductor Enrico Delamboye and the West German Radio Orchestra.
There was one piece of music the circus band rehearsed and was ready to play, but always hoped you'd never have to hear it: John Philip Sousa’s "The Stars and Stripes Forever." Why? America’s national march was, and still is, reserved for an emergency under the Big Top. When the musicians would play this, other workers were alerted that animals had gotten loose, or there had been an accident, and they were being summoned. It’s a tune that everyone knows and circuses felt it was a good one for distracting attention. Here’s the U.S. Marine Band under Colonel James K. Fettig.
The look of American circuses, as we may have known them from our childhood, has changed over the decades, and rightfully so. For example, exotic and endangered animals are no longer part of the scene. Most circuses today concentrate on human acts, from clowns, magicians, and aerial acrobats to dancers and tightrope walkers. What hasn’t changed is the need for exciting music signaling a new act or new thrills. Screamers? Waltzes? Galops? Next time you go, you’ll still recognize the famous old tunes.
CODA: So how about a look at some real circus acts? This first video shows you two types of flying tumblers:
And this video has everything from sword swallowers to human cannonballs!