Circus Music and the Greatest Show on Earth

30 Mar

Another article in our series highlighting Water for Elephants

By 4string

Music can add so much to an experience. Many of us have heard a song on the radio that may remind us of the past. Maybe a specific experience that leads into vivid memories of important moments of our lives. It can bring back emotions, how food tasted, what you wore, and remind you of the people who were in your life at the time. Ok, so where is this going? Music can make you feel what the instrumentalist or songwriter wants you to feel. It sets the mood and since we’re counting down to the premiere of Water for Elephants, let’s focus on the exciting music of the circus. Just thinking about it can make spirits lift. It’s all about thrill, joy and action!

The circus march, or ‘screamers’ as they are also known, were designed to budge the audience up in a craze, especially as performers and animals strutted their way under the big top to lift everyone to their feet and cheer. Because of the focus on impact and volume, circus ensembles generally consisted of brass, drums and occasionally woodwinds. [1] They utilized the loudest instruments that were easiest to travel with. The style is typical of marches and many of these compositions got their start as a military march. They are normally set to the rhythm of the animal’s gait or to work with the specifics of a performer’s act. It is a very symbiotic relationship and requires an alert musician. According to Circus Ring Circus Band,  “Circus marches are faster than a normal military march, often 130 to 150 beats [per] minute.”[2]

Circus music got its start in 1830s and circus bands generally did not use original pieces because of the time consuming nature of writing parts for a full band and used anthems such as Yankee Doodle Dandy, Billy Barlow or Jim Crow as part of the show. The original tunes began around the early 1900s.

The most famous circus song is Thunder and Blazes. It was originally known as Entrance of the Gladiators, which was composed in 1897 by Julius Fucik and was initially a military march. Later, in 1910, a Canadian composer by the name of Louis-Phillipe Laurendeau wrote an arrangement specifically for a small band and it became the epitome of circus music.[3] When you think circus, you think of this song and its rapid chromatic passages, courtesy of the horns.

The composer is probably the second most famous circus theme is euphonium player Karl King. He got his circus start when he joined The Robinson Famous Circus at age 19 as a baritone player. [4] And later joined Barnum and Bailey for whom he wrote the very well-known anthem Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite in 1913 for B & B’s 32-piece band.

If you go to the circus, hopefully you never hear Stars and Stripes Forever by John Philip Sousa. It is typically the disaster, or emergency music of a circus and warns show workers something is amiss under the big top.[5] It may be used if animals break free, a fire starts or other emergency under the tent breaks loose. It is never part of a circus band’s normal repertoire. One very famous instance was in July 6, 1944 at a Ringling show in Hartford, CT when 168 women, children and men perished that day and hundreds more were injured.[6] It is a very sad footnote in circus history.

Being a performer in a circus band is not for the faint of heart. Not only are the rapid compositions tough to play, but the circus band, usually, not only plays during the performance, but also before the show as well. During a show, a circus band may play more than 190 planned cues per performance, [7] and often plays around seven hours a day.[8] The instrumentalists have to be alert and able to switch rhythm or composition at a second’s notice under the conductor’s direction. So the next time you visit the Greatest Show on Earth, give some extra applause for the band.

The Water for Elephant’s soundtrack can now be pre-ordered on Amazon. Listen to clips of the music here.

Please join us to discuss circus music on Thursday 3/31 @ 7pm Est / 12 UTC


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84 Responses to “Circus Music and the Greatest Show on Earth”

  1. Littlebells March 30, 2011 at 10:41 AM #

    4string, wonderful article! Welcome back by the way! 🙂

    I don’t know if I could sit for 7 hours playing music non-stop, all the while having to change tempos and tunes at a moments notice.

    It’s very interesting that the circus would decide on music to be what would signal an emergency. It makes sense as everyone can hear it. No walkie talkies, no cell phones–just music.

    Do you know why they chose such a patriotic anthem to be the emergency may-day?

    Also, I did click on that fire article. Oh my goodness. And yes, I did click on the images. Completely disturbing. I cannot even imagine the hysteria being trapped in that situation, especially with my babies.

    • 4string March 30, 2011 at 12:40 PM #

      That fire article totally tore at me. I’m not sure why Stars and Stripes was chosen. Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia (I would have included this, but didn’t want to use Wiki as a source since it can be edited by anyone).

      “In show business, particularly theater and the circus, this piece is called the Disaster March. It is traditional code signaling a life-threatening emergency. This helps theater personnel to handle events and organize the audience’s exit without panic. Circus bands never play it under any other circumstances. One example of its use was at the Hartford Circus Fire in July 1944.”

      • Littlebells March 30, 2011 at 1:19 PM #

        Thanks 4string. If I ever go to a circus and hear it, I will know to GTFO.

        • ozzie20 March 30, 2011 at 5:38 PM #

          That’s a very interesting article 4string. Well done! I learned alot of new things.

  2. Open Book March 30, 2011 at 7:35 PM #

    4strings,

    Great article!! I have to say this is one of my favorite articles to read. How fun!! Who new the amount of time circus musicians have to play during performances. Wow!

    Did u learn anything new from researching this topic. Given your a musician yourself. Were there things u found interesting during your research? Are there things u wish u could have found to include in this article but could not?

    Have u listened to the WFE soundtrack? If so, what do u think of it?

    • 4string March 30, 2011 at 8:09 PM #

      I’ve only listened to snippets of the soundtrack so far. One of the things I wish I could have included is circus music’s influence on popular culture but couldn’t find enough sources to corroborate. Apparently the Gremlins score was inspired by ‘darker’ circus music. Tai was also in a Britney Spears video. I know there are more instances than that, but couldn’t find the sources enough to make it legit. I didn’t want to just go by my memory or interpretation.

      I didn’t realize that Star and Stripes was a universal ‘disaster march’ before this article. I originally thought it might have just been for the book, but it makes sense. You don’t want the audience in a frenzy, but need to alert the workers. From my research, those musicians are hard workers who are sharp and highly skilled. They’ve got to be ready on a turn of a dime.

      • 4string March 30, 2011 at 8:10 PM #

        PS: I’m sure (this is me assuming) that they got breaks during the day, but that is still a long day of playing.

        • Littlebells March 30, 2011 at 11:49 PM #

          callouses! callouses! (is that how you spell it?) I wonder if any of them developed hearing problems. For such upbeat music and loud instruments….I wonder….

          • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 6:59 PM #

            Good Q! Littlebells

          • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:03 PM #

            They probably had some type of ear protection, I’m assuming.

            • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:12 PM #

              True!!

      • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:05 PM #

        Although I’m sure it would have been interesting to see how circus music has influenced pop culture. I think u did a great job detailing the history and backgrounds of circus musicians. I found it very interesting to read and learn about.

        • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 7:09 PM #

          I did as well!
          I didn’t even consider that they would use standard music instead of unique compositions.
          Would have made it easier to integrate band members along the way too. Not much of a learning curve.

  3. Open Book March 31, 2011 at 6:58 PM #

    Hi Everyone,

    Welcome new and returning visitors. Please join in on the discussion tonight it should be fun.

    • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 7:03 PM #

      Hi!

  4. Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:02 PM #

    4Strings,

    Great Article! The Stars and Stripes by Sousa, I always thought was the “quintessential” circus music. I didn’t know that it meant danger if its played it meant something was wrong.

    • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:05 PM #

      If I ever hear it played somewhere. I’ll know to look for the nearest exit.

      • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:09 PM #

        Why not hide under the bleachers? I mean if the exit is a long shot. At least u could avoid the stampede or being squished!!

        • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:10 PM #

          What if the bleachers fell?

          • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:11 PM #

            Well then u would be screwed!! LOL!

            • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:12 PM #

              LOL! true.

  5. Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:04 PM #

    Hi Ladies!

  6. Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:09 PM #

    Did you know that the music for La Nouba which is a Cirque Du Soleil production is live as well?

    • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:10 PM #

      Really? Wow! Love it!!

      • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:13 PM #

        Yeah I was completely fascinated when I saw it each time.

        • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 7:16 PM #

          One day I will get to see Cirque. Its on my list.!

          • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:24 PM #

            its awesome just don’t sit in the front row.

        • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:28 PM #

          Here’s the show I went to and absolutely love.

          http://www.cirquedusoleil.com/en/home.aspx#/en/home/shows/details/o.aspx

          • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:37 PM #

            you saw O!!!!!!!! Did you stay at the Bellagio too? The Bellagio is one of my favs. Love the fountains.

            • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:44 PM #

              No we didn’t but I will the next time I go.

              • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:49 PM #

                The rooms look nice. I didn’t stay but want to really badly.

    • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 7:11 PM #

      No but I have to say that during the recent trip to the ballet, the orchestra was incredible. Live music adds something unique to the experience.

      • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:14 PM #

        I agree.

      • ozzie20 March 31, 2011 at 7:14 PM #

        Hello ladies!

        • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 7:15 PM #

          HI Ozzie!

        • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:16 PM #

          Hi Ozzie!

      • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:16 PM #

        Live music really adds so much depth and ambiance to the environment u can’t beat it. I love going to the Opera for that same reason there’s nothing like it.

        • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 7:18 PM #

          I am actually anxious to go to an Opera. I have been looking for shows I might want to see. I’m not even opposed to traveling like to San Fran or NYC or Europe to see one.

          I really really enjoyed the symphony on NYE this year.

          • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:26 PM #

            Do you have a theater near you that plays the operas on the movie screen? Its not the same thing as being live but its still cool to see.

            • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:35 PM #

              Oh! That’s a good idea.

              U know sometimes Universities have Operas. I know it’s not the real thing but sometimes depending on the school they can be pretty good.

              • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:38 PM #

                I did not know that.

            • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 7:38 PM #

              That’s a great idea. I’ll look into it.

  7. Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:16 PM #

    Hi Ozzie!

  8. Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:17 PM #

    Have any of u heard the WFE soundtrack yet?

    • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:18 PM #

      I listend to some of the clips that are the net. It sounds like an awesome soundtrack.

      • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 7:20 PM #

        I grabbed that link to hear the clips. I’m sure it will sound great once you can put the music in perspective of the film. Its sort of hard in an abstract for me.

        • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:47 PM #

          ITA!!

      • ozzie20 March 31, 2011 at 7:20 PM #

        I’ve listened to the clips. I think it will be amazing!

  9. Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:27 PM #

    Does anyone think the stars and stripes will play when the stampede happens in WFE?

    • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 7:30 PM #

      Oh, that’s a great question!
      I guess I have something else to look for when I go to see the movie!

    • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:30 PM #

      Hmm! Good Q? It should but there’s so much going on in that scene.

      • ozzie20 March 31, 2011 at 7:33 PM #

        Maybe it will be in the background of the more damatic stampead piece.

  10. Lurker March 31, 2011 at 7:40 PM #

    Open Book, I bet you’re excited to hear some of the old music?

    • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:46 PM #

      Yes, I really can’t wait to see how they work it into the film. I really love the music from that era.

      • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 7:50 PM #

        Sorry I’m distracted. I was checking out the SF Opera webpage and upcoming schedule. Carmen in Nov!
        I might have to go!

        • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:52 PM #

          🙂

  11. Open Book March 31, 2011 at 7:56 PM #

    How many of have ever played a musical instrument? If so what instrument did u play?

    • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 7:57 PM #

      piano. how about you?

      • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 8:07 PM #

        Do u still play the piano?

        • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 8:09 PM #

          not as much. i’m reteaching myself because i do enjoy it.

          • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 8:15 PM #

            I think that’s great. I was considering taking up trying to learn to play an instrument again but it’s either that or learning a foreign language.

            • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 8:18 PM #

              A foreign language is easy but you have to practice it constantly. Also helps if you know someone that speaks that language.

    • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 7:58 PM #

      I have, Flute.

      • ozzie20 March 31, 2011 at 8:02 PM #

        Violin and the piano. Still not very good at them but then I don’t play them constantly only on and off! 🙂

        • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 8:06 PM #

          Oh see I always wanted to try the violin. That’s fantastic Ozzie.

          Lurker,

          How long did u play the flute?

          • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 8:12 PM #

            4 years, middle school and then first year of High School. I was in the marching band and realized I couldn’t memorize the music. So I joined the color guard and was the rifle captain.

            • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 8:13 PM #

              Awesome!! Rifle captain. I’m scared of u……..

              • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 8:16 PM #

                I have to tell you symphonic band was easier. The music was in front of us. Marching band as much as everyone in high school makes fun of being a band geek is hard. You have to memorize the music and then memorize where you’re supposed to be in formation thru 3 peices of music. It’s hard.

                • ozzie20 March 31, 2011 at 8:24 PM #

                  Hmm, I sort of might of been good at that. I can’t read sheet music so I have to memorise it all!

              • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 8:18 PM #

                I had great upper arms in HS heaving that rifle! Ozzie that’s me those geeky pictures on facebook. Yikes coming up on way way too many years ago.

                • ozzie20 March 31, 2011 at 8:21 PM #

                  Lol! I haven’t looked but I may have to now!

                  • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 8:25 PM #

                    Ok no laughing!
                    It was a long time ago.

    • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 8:04 PM #

      I tried the piano off and on.

      But I settled on the flute and clarinet.

      The clarinet was my last hope. Then I decided it was not in the cards for me and moved to drawing and painting. LOL!!

      • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 8:14 PM #

        I always wanted to try another instrument but being really good at the flute was time consuming. So why tackle another?

        I’ve always wanted to try the piano. I always figured I could never get both my hands doing something different and then realized how fast I type. Its about practice.

        • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 8:15 PM #

          that’s true.

        • Open Book March 31, 2011 at 8:21 PM #

          See I’m sure u could pick up the piano quick now.

          My brothers were really good musicians, so I decided to leave it up to them. LOL!!

          • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 8:23 PM #

            LOL I probably could. 🙂

  12. Open Book March 31, 2011 at 8:01 PM #

    Heres some info on the band extras for WFE. Very fun read!!

    http://filmwaterforelephants.wordpress.com/wfe-cast/meet-extraordinary-extras/

    • ozzie20 March 31, 2011 at 8:11 PM #

      Great link!

      • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 8:22 PM #

        Great link!

  13. Open Book March 31, 2011 at 8:23 PM #

    Well ladies I have to go.

    4strings! This was a fun article.

    Goodnight everyone!!

    • Parisienne March 31, 2011 at 8:24 PM #

      Have a good night. I’m going to head out too.

      • Lurker March 31, 2011 at 8:26 PM #

        Great chatting tonight!
        Paris, take care!
        Ozzie no laughing…

        • ozzie20 March 31, 2011 at 8:29 PM #

          Night all!
          I promise I won’t laugh!

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