The Circus March

Anyone who looks through the library listed on the Center Ring Circus Band website will notice that the music is divided into categories, or “styles” of compositions.  You may also notice that the “style” with the greatest number of compositions is that of the “Marches.” We are often asked the difference between non-circus and circus marches.  So, we will attempt to offer some insight into the characteristics that set “Circus Marches” apart from other marches as well as defining the similarity in “form” of similar march compositions.  We will also attempt to offer some ideas about the “function” of the circus march.

Many, if not most, people associate circus marches with a variety of circus acts as a type of music that typifies circus music itself, as these march compositions relate to performances throughout American Circus history.  So the characteristics we will discuss relate to marches used in American Circus performance from about the later 1800s through the end of the 20st century. Often a person’s first impression with circus music is the “March.”

Common March Characteristics and Unique Circus March Characteristics

Marches can be written in any time signature, but the most common time signatures are 4/4, 2/2 (alla breve) or (cut time), 6/8, and 3/4; however, some modern marches are being written in 1/2 time. The modern march tempo runs at around 120 beats to the minute (the standard Napoleonic march tempo); however, many funeral marches conform to the Roman standard of 60 beats to the minute. A specialized form of “typical American march music” is the circus march, or “screamer,” typified by the marches of Henry Fillmore and Karl King. These marches are performed at a significantly faster tempo (140 – 200 beats per minute) and generally have an abundance of runs, fanfares and other “showy” features. Frequently the low brass has one or more strains (usually the second strain) in which they are showcased with both speed and bombast.

The parts of the march is divided into “strains” and identified in a variety of ways. Commonly the first section is called the “Exposition.”  This consists of two strains.  Commonly, there is also an introduction that precedes the exposition. These introductions vary in length from only a few measures to lengthy introductions of many measures. After the exposition there is a “Trio,” commonly identified on the score and parts.  The Trio usually has a key change by adding one flat to move the trio to the subdominant key. Trios can be a melodic, stately or lyrical; they can be followed with a “Breakstrain” (sometimes known as a “Dogfight”) resembling some of the exposition or another lively melody. Trios, also may not contain a breakstrain, but instead comprise of two different melodies each, that repeat. There can also be a trio consisting of a single, but lengthened melody that repeats, soft then loud. This is the traditional interpertation of the form of the march.  Today all bets are off, and March composers will deviate from this traditional form.

Circus marches usually follow these traditional march forms.  But, circus marches tend to be made up of melodies that have jumps and rapid runs that are often syncopated with brass parts that have technical runs, sometimes very technical! Stylistically, many circus marches employ a lyrical final strain which (in the last time through the strain) starts out maestoso (majestically—slower and more stately) and then in the second half of the strain speeds up to end the march faster than the original tempo. A common example of this is the famous “Billboard” march by John Klohr.

Until about 1970 almost all circus marches were composed by circus musicians. As popular as Sousa marches were, they were not found in circus performances.  The one exception was Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever”. This march served to function as a “disaster” signal for all circus employees that an emergency was eminent and to come running to help. Merle Evans, bandmaster of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus band wanted the most familiar march that everyone knew and band members could play instantly from memory to alert all that an emergency was happening. It was this march played by Merle’s band that saved thousands of lives during the Hartford Circus Fire on July 6, 1944.

Function of Circus Marches

American Circuses from the mid-1800s through ca. 1980 featured marches for many uses including: overtures, band features, grand entries, specs (Spectacles), production numbers, various animal acts, daredevil acts, exits and finales as well as “blowoffs” (when the audience exits).  And the list goes on. When the circus needed to make a musical statement, it relied on the familiar circus march.

The circus march collection found on the web pages of the Center Ring Circus Band is forever growing. Our objective was to reproduce authentic arrangements of these famous marches and correct the errors in the march compositions as well as re-orchestrate them for today’s concert band instrumentation.  There are several wonderful publishers of circus marches such as the C. L. Barnhouse Company of Oskaloosa, Iowa, USA. Also, the widest assortment or recorded circus marches can be obtained from “Sounds of the Circus” website located at www.soundsofthecircus.com.

We welcome contributions, corrections, or additions to this article.  Please feel free to contact the author, Joel Schilling at CenterRingCB@comcast.net. Here’s looking forward to hearing from you!

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