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Circus Music: Thunder and Blazes

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Harty the Clown, Chief Clown at Billy Smart's Circus, 1950s.




One of the best-known marches today is not really known to a lot of people as a march.  It lasts about three minutes, moving through three different movements.  It was composed in 1897 by the Czech composer Julius Fučik under the title “Grande Marche Chromatique”.  He later changed its title to “Entrance of the Gladiators”, reflecting a personal interest in the history of the Roman Empire.  Fučik was well known and well regarded in his day for the many rousing, patriotic marches he composed in his short life.  He is still remembered today as a Czech version of John Philip Sousa, and his marches are still associated with Czech patriotic feeling.

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Julius Fučik, Mr. "Thunder and Blazes" himself.




Despite his well-earned fame and prominence in the past, Fučik’s “Entrance of the Gladiators” would achieve its greatest fame in North America.  In 1901, sheet music for the piece started to be published and sold in the United States.  In 1910 the Canadian composer Louis-Philippe Laurendeau arranged the march for concert bands.  Laurendeau’s new arrangement was published under the title “Thunder and Blazes”, and it would soon enjoy a popularity that neither Fučik nor Laurendeau could likely have envisioned.

“Thunder and Blazes” was mostly used as what was called a screamer march.  Screamer marches were fast-paced, light, driving music designed to get circus audiences worked up and excited.  Most screamer marches were composed from the 1890s to the 1950s.  Their quick tempos accompanied the calls of the ringmasters as the circus tents filled with animals, acrobats, stunt performers, and of course clowns.  There were many screamer marches used in circuses, but “Thunder and Blazes” somehow became a favorite for the entry of clowns.  Specifically it was the second movement of the piece that came to be thought of as “circus music”, and specifically clown music.

André Rieu & his Johann Strauss Orchestra make a grand entrance to "Thunder and Blazes".  Give it a listen and try not to think of clowns!

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