Golden Age of Circus Music

By Rod Everhart, WJU#1351

SOURCE: 2015-04 Circus Fanfare

The Golden Age of Circus Music is generally considered to have run from 1890 to about 1930. It is estimated by some historians that over 5,000 musical pieces were written for, or had primary use by, the circuses of that era. Many of these tunes reflected the hyperbole and exaggeration the circuses were famous for using in promoting their attractions. Since these melodies were written for a wide variety of performance needs, the
resulting music clearly encompasses an incredible array of styles, rhythms and tempos. These include ragtime, marches, waltzes, foxtrots, cakewalks,
one-steps, two-steps, trombone smears, polkas, show tunes and galops, as well as historical classical music.

When people think of circus music, characteristically, the first thought is of a very fast tempo and a lot of notes per measure. Most people can actually hum Fucik’s “Entry of the Gladiators” (known in the circus world as “Thunder and Blazes”) when asked if they know any circus

Some of the fastest music played in the circus are of a style called the “Galop.” Galops were most often used as “come down” music at the end of trapeze and other aerial acts while the performers dropped to the net or slid to the ground via ropes. Galops were also used as exit music for animals and in performances where speed was relevant – chariot races, for example. Galops were conducted one-beat-to-the-bar and were generally played as fast as the band was capable of handling. A very rapid drum beat added to the frenzy of this music.

While it is certainly true that much of the traditional circus music is played up-tempo to generate an additional feeling of excitement and fast pace, circus music truly covers all spectrums. The circus galop may be at one extreme, but the lovely waltzes supporting the aerial fliers is certainly
an example at the other end. It is probably safe to say that virtually everything musical has been covered at one time or another by a circus. Therefore, it would be hard to overstate the degree of variety that has existed in the music played during circus performances and
Center Ring Concerts.

C. L. Barnhouse, John N. Klohr, and Henry Fillmore

There were many talented and prolific composers of circus music, such as Karl King, Henry Fillmore, Charlie Duble, Russell Alexander, Walter English, Al Sweet, Fred Jewell, and C.L. Barnhouse to name a few. Karl King (1891-1971), a circus baritone/euphonium player and bandmaster, alone
composed at least 291 titles of band music, of which 185 were marches. Likewise, Henry Fillmore (1881-1956), a trombone player and bandmaster,
composed 256 original works, including more than a dozen popular trombone smears. Karl King (Ft. Dodge, IA) and Henry Fillmore (Cincinnati, OH) also created their own successful publishing houses. But the leading publisher of circus and community band music was, and remains, C.L. Barnhouse Publishing Company, of Oskaloosa, Iowa. That company and Andy Glover, current Windjammers Unlimited VP and COO of C.L. Barnhouse, hosted the Windjammer Unlimited summer meet in 2011
in Oskaloosa to celebrate the company’s 125th Anniversary.

About Rod Everhart 1 Article
Rod (WJU #1351) is an Editor and Contributor at MYWJU.ORG in addition to being a Trustee, Circus Fanfare Editor and Cornetist in Windjammers Unlimited.