Golden Age of Circus Music

Thousands of pieces composed for circus bands during Golden Age of Circus Music

Source: Adapted from AT THE CIRCUS Practice Book Series by Rod Everhart, WJU#1351

Golden Age of Circus Music

The Golden Age of Circus Music is considered to be 1890 to about 1930. During that era an estimated 5,000 musical pieces were written for, or had primary use by, the circus. Many of the titles reflect the hyperbole and exaggeration that circuses were famous for using in promoting their attractions. 

Circus melodies were written for a variety of performance needs. The music encompassed many styles, rhythms and tempos, including ragtime, marches, waltzes, foxtrots, cakewalks, one-steps, two-steps, trombone smears, polkas, show tunes and galops, as well as the more historical classical music. 

When people think of circus music, they often envision a lightning-fast tempo and an avalanche of notes, and it is true that much traditional circus music is played up-tempo to generate a feeling of excitement and fast pace.

But circus music is more than just fast and loud. In the circus music spectrum, the galop is at one extreme. Lovely waltzes supporting the aerial fliers are an example at the other end. And virtually every other musical style between those two has been covered at one time or another during circus performances and Center Ring Concerts. 

Many talented and prolific composers wrote circus music. Some of the more well-known were Karl King, Henry Fillmore, Charlie Duble, Russell Alexander, Walter English, Al Sweet and Fred Jewell. 

Karl King (1891–1971), a circus baritone/euphonium player and bandmaster, published 288 titles of band music, of which 188 were marches. 

Henry Fillmore (1881–1956), a trombone player and bandmaster, composed 256 original works, including more than a dozen popular trombone smears. 

While King (Ft. Dodge, IA) and Fillmore (Cincinnati, OH) also created their own successful publishing houses, the leading publisher of circus and community band music was, and remains, C.L. Barnhouse Publishing Company, of Oskaloosa, Iowa. 

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