Circus music

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Circus music (or circus music ) is music that is played in the circus mainly during artistic performances. Circus music comes from the music of the fairground attractions and the popular theater music of the 18th and 19th centuries. Century ago. It is mainly instrumental music . Choirs and chants exist in it at most as interludes .

Circus music consisted and mostly consists of a loose sequence of stopped numbers , which has proven itself time and again in practice. A counter-concept to this are the well- composed musical programs of the Cirque du Soleil .

Circus acts like juggling , trapeze or music clowns require great presence of mind from the accompanying musicians. The musical accompaniment of the high school requires knowledge of horse training. The accompanying music can often play relatively independently for other performances such as magic .


A systematic order of the functions of circus music was first created by Rüdiger Becker (2008). He divides these into atmospheric, syntactic, dramaturgical, autonomous and media functions. The more general atmospheric functions include attuning to the performance, creating a group feeling and intensifying the experience and thus creating a typical circus atmosphere. Specifically, a situation-related atmosphere can also be created, e.g. B. by integrating place, space and time references or by psychological and physiological conditioning of the audience. The syntactic functions essentially relate to the identification of formal structures of the circus performance as well as the constitution of formal elements of the program sequence and individual numbers. The spectrum of dramaturgical functions is very broad. This includes accompanying and supporting artistic performances e.g. B. descriptive, illustrative, commenting, stylizing and accentuating elements. In contrast to the aforementioned functions, circus music can also appear autonomously, in particular typical musical-artistic genres such as musical clowns or musical acrobats are included here. In earlier times, circus music took on media functions in the design of circus parades or the circus orchestras' own concerts; today this function is largely fulfilled by the production of sound carriers.


Philip Astley's amphitheater at the beginning of the 19th century: a sizeable orchestra plays in the background.


Music and artistry have a common tradition that goes back thousands of years. Artistic performances were coupled with accompanying music as far back as ancient times. At the numerous fairs of the Middle Ages, where countless jugglers and minstrels performed their activities, the accompanying music was a natural part of the performances. Long before the first modern circus company was founded, you could marvel at almost all artistic genres that later became style-defining for the circus. At that time, however, there was no separation between artistic and musical staff. Rather, besides their artistic skills, the minstrels and jugglers mostly also mastered several musical instruments and therefore not only acted as artists, but also as musical accompanists to their performances.

The close connection between artistry and music has persisted even in modern times, when the first societies were founded in Europe around 1770, which, according to our current understanding, can be described as circus companies. The performances were announced and accompanied by music as early as the performances of the English art riders, who are considered the forerunners and founders of the modern circus system. The musical accompaniment was still quite primitive at the time and the line-up was initially very small. For example, the first performances of the circus pioneer Philip Astley in London were musically supported only by a big drum and one or two cross pipes. But the first larger formations soon emerged, accompanied by the rapid development and spread of the circus industry in Europe, which justified the name circus orchestra. As early as 1784, a mixed string and brass ensemble was playing in the “Royal Grove” near Astley in London.

From the first third of the 19th century, the circus orchestras became more and more important. For example, in the Renz circus, which took on the leading role in the German circus system from the second half of the 19th century, an 18-man orchestra under the conductor August Cahnbley was already playing in 1850. Employing high-quality orchestras became more and more important for the reputation of the great circuses.

The heyday of the circus in the first third of the twentieth century, which was also the heyday of the circus orchestra, brought about a clear change in the evaluation of circus music. As early as the mid-1930s, the new trends in popular music were taken into account with regard to the instruments and line-up of the circus orchestra. The advancing technical development of entertainment electronics cost numerous musicians their jobs. After the Second World War, elements of jazz flowed more into circus music. Very soon there were hardly any pure brass bands left, but now more modern formations set the tone, and from the mid-50s the line-up resembled more and more a mixture of dance combo and big band.

With the general decline of the circus industry in the 50s and 60s, music also lost its meanwhile high status. Since the 1960s, orchestras from the Eastern Bloc countries, especially from Poland, have increasingly conquered the German and European circus music scene. The further downsizing of the circus orchestras in the following years meant that they gradually took on more of a combo character. Formations with 3–4 wind instruments and a rhythm section emerged as a common line-up variant.

With the re-establishment of Circus Williams-Althoff by Franz Althoff jun. In 1977, for the first time, a major German circus completely dispensed with an orchestra by adding all of the musical accompaniment on tape. Many other companies followed suit, so that the circus orchestras were threatened with extinction in the early 1980s. The reversal trend back to the traditional circus orchestra was initiated by Circus Roncalli, which raised live music to the principle in its concept and, due to its great success, inevitably found imitators with this view.

The orchestra of the Canadian Cirque du Soleil has been setting a completely new trend in circus music in Europe for several years with great success. In the overall conception of the Cirque du Soleil productions, musical and acoustic elements are almost equally important to visual elements. For each of the productions, music is composed that is completely tailored to the artistic content and the overall concept.


As the military bands enlarged and multiplied towards the end of the 19th century , brass instruments increasingly found their way into the circus orchestra. The invention of the circus tents around 1900 was a radical change , as a result of which the acoustics in the circus changed significantly and increased demands were placed on the spatial mobility of the circus staff. As a result, the chorus playing string groups in the circus orchestras disappeared.

A large part of the circus musicians came from Bohemia and the Palatinate around 1900 (see West Palatinate Wandering Musicians ), where craft-like traditions had developed. Today most of the circus musicians come from Poland.

The emancipation of jazz bands from the wind orchestra since World War II brought a stylistic reorientation and downsizing of the circus orchestra. The old style opera melodies gave way to new, especially South American dance forms. Since then, a circus orchestra has essentially consisted of a wind instrument combo ( saxophones , trumpets , trombones ) with a rhythm section . The fact that every style of music is arranged for this line-up is what makes circus music so special.

Crisis and recovery

Around 1980 it seemed like that, so the circus orchestras were increasingly being replaced by music electronics and playback . As a countermovement, companies like Circus Roncalli tried to raise the level of music. Today most of the larger circuses have bands again.


There is actually no lasting repertoire of circus music, as the fashionable music of the present was always played in the circus. Popular dance music has a large share , from waltzes and marches to tango and samba to hip-hop . Well-known melodies, formerly from operas and operettas , today more from films , serve as identification marks.

However, some pieces of music are permanently connected to the memory of the circus, as the most parodic used march Entry of the Gladiators by Julius Fučík , Souvenir du Cirque Renz ( "Circus Renz Gallop") by Gustav Peter , Aquarela do Brasil ( "Watercolor of Brazil ”) by Ary Barroso or the saber dance from the ballet Gayaneh by Aram Chatschaturjan .

Most of the circus bandmasters (such as Adolf Taubert , Hans Franke , Raymond Wraskoff ) composed music for their own use, which, together with the numbers to which it belonged, was "passed on" in artist families or in the archives of other bandmasters.

The theme tune for the television series Salto Mortale (1969–1972), composed by Rolf-Hans Müller , has established itself as a relatively new perennial hit in circus music .

Circus music in other media

Since the 1950s, the composer Nino Rota transferred the tonal structures of circus music to film music, especially for the films by Federico Fellini .

In 1967 the song Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, composed by John Lennon , appeared on the Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band ! , a tribute to circus music.


  • Rüdiger Becker: Circus Music in Germany - Results of musicological and music pedagogical research on a forgotten genre . Diss. Cologne 2008
  • Rüdiger Becker: Circus Music in Germany. From the beginning to the present. Allitera publishing house. Munich 2014, ISBN 978-3-86906-579-3
  • Rüdiger Becker: History of Circus Music . In: Parolari, Reto: Circus music in theory and practice. Winterthur 2005
  • Reto Parolari: Circus music in theory and practice. Edition Swiss Music, Winterthur 2005, ISBN 3-9501993-1-4