Circus Music Development

Source: “AT THE CIRCUS” Practice Book Series by Rod Everhart, WJU#1351

In the early circuses, music was not a factor.  But as time passed, musical accompaniments began to be added.  Initially they were on a relatively small scale, often comprised of string instruments and serving as interludes between acts or as a modest background addition.  However, that was soon to change, and dramatically so.

When the Civil War ended, community bands began popping up in small towns across the United States, serving to both entertain and increase music awareness with their summer concerts in the local park or gazebo.   Further, these bands provided an incentive for composers and publishers to tap into this growing new market.

Throughout the 1870’s and 1880’s, music became increasingly important to the circus presentations.  Initially, the melodies played were typically those of famous composers, and were often from the classical music category.  Fairly quickly, however, music started being composed specifically for certain circus acts.   The objective was to match the pace of the acts and add to the excitement levels. 

Often, the composers of the tunes to be used for a given circus act were musicians in the circus band.  Because of the extra excitement generated by pieces tailored to the needs of an act, the music itself came to be viewed by circus owners as a competitive advantage.

During the last decade of the nineteenth century, most circuses had added musical directors to their staffs.  These directors played crucial roles well beyond selecting musicians and conducting the band.  Since the pace of the show and the excitement levels generated were highly dependent on the musical accompaniments, music selection and arranging was a key priority.  By the end of the century, many of these band directors were commissioning arrangers to write music during the off season specifically for the new acts to be introduced in the upcoming tours. 

Bugle Windjammers Circus Music #MYWJU
Two-keyed bugle

The first instrument played by a star soloist with the circus band was a keyed bugle. That was in 1822.  In the early to mid-1800’s, performances on the keyed bugle became a circus attraction in themselves, with stars like Ned Kendall and Thomas Canham rising to the top.  But the keyed bugle was difficult to play due to the spacing of the keys that opened holes in the side of the instrument.  So, the newly invented cornet began to replace it and by the outset of the Civil War in 1861, the keyed bugle was obsolete.

Once circus bands had become a competitive force in the circus industry, they were mostly comprised of brass instruments, primarily because their sound carried best in the tents and for street parades.  A piccolo flute was added because its high frequency trills also carried well.

While circus music composers and publishers actually became a source of the music the town bands could play, in turn, those bands became a significant source of musicians for the now-expanding circus bands. 

cornet windjammers #mywju merle evans circus music
Merle Evans and his
“Mighty Midget” cornet

Because of their importance, some bandleaders became celebrities in their own right.  Merle Evans (1891 – 1987) is a notable example as he undoubtedly was the greatest of all the American circus bandmasters.  At age 28, he attained and then held for 50 years the position of bandmaster for the huge Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. 

With the brilliant efforts of Merle Evans and other famous bandmasters, circus music became such an integral part of the circus acts themselves that not having it was unthinkable. There was a saying at “traditional” American circuses: “If the Ringmaster isn’t talking, then the band is surely playing.”

About Joe Shearin 16 Articles
Joe (WJU #3773) is an Editor and Contributor at MYWJU.ORG in addition to being a Trustee, Secretary and Trombonist in Windjammers Unlimited.