The greatest show on earth

What do Bristol, Blackpool, Norwich & Great Yarmouth, Newcastle-under-Lyme, London, and Belfast & Derry have in common? They will be the focus throughout 2018 of Circus 250. It’s 250 years this year since the modern circus was born, when Newcastle-under-Lyme horseman, Philip Astley, set up the very first modern circus. Come with MusiCB3 to celebrate “the greatest show on earth”.

Initially Astley’s Circus showcased horsemanship, but music was quickly added, closely followed by jugglers, acrobats and clowns. Astley had competition in the form of Richard Hughes, who with his business partner, the immensely popular composer, Charles Dibdin, set up the Royal Circus, Equestrian, and Philharmonic Academy. Astley’s “New Amphitheatre of the Arts” outlived the Hughes / Dibdin partnership, which was riven with in-fighting from the beginning. He went on to open another Circus in Dublin, which seems to have been most notable for its satirical songs, before dying in Paris, where he was in the process of resurrecting his amphitheatre on the Rue du Faubourg du Temple, which had been badly damaged during the Revolution. He is buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery, though the location of his grave is unknown.

So, what do we have here in the UL’s Music Collections to celebrate all things circus? Astley’s hornpipe [MR290.a.80.107] dates from the early days of his circus. We don’t know for sure if this was composed by Astley, or (more likely) composed for use during the displays of horse showmanship. This is a slightly later edition, published in Dublin, shortly before Astley set up his circus there. Astley was adept at mixing old and new music in his shows, appealing to a variety of musical tastes.

Astley’s Hornpipe.
Item no. 44 in volume MR290.a.80.107.

MR463.d.75.6 is a fascinating volume, a collection of libretti of spectacles performed at Hughes’ (later Jones’) Royal Circus, and Astley’s New Amphitheatre of the Arts near Westminster Bridge.

Visiting Astley’s Royal Saloon theatre in 1793, there was fun for all the family, as “now performing with unbounded applause” you could have seen a re-enactment of the Siege of Valenciennes, complete with cannon, choreographed skirmishes, bona fide soldiers, music, comedy moments, and “an exact view of the city of Valenciennes,” created as a stunning backdrop. In fact what sounds like a thrilling mixture of the Royal Tournament, a Hollywood action blockbuster, and the best of Music Hall.

The interior of Astley’s New Ampitheatre.
Published in Old and New London : Part 65 / Thornbury and Walford.
London : Cassel; 1893.

In 1795, however, tragedy would strike, as A new Prelude, founded on a late calamitous event, entitled The Manager in Affliction; as performed at the opening of the New Amphitheatre of the Arts explains. The Royal Saloon had been destroyed by fire, hence the “afflicted” manager. As Astley mentions in the preface to the libretto “[there was] a space of only thirty weeks, for the erection of a building [the New Amphitheatre of the Arts] …and for the preparation of scenery, machinery, painting, music, dresses, &c, &c; the flames of the late conflagration being such as to consume every iota of every matter whatever attached to the late building.”

Equine fans must have been anxious, as in an afterword giving a precise description of the new look of the theatre, Astley reveals: “The dresses, as well as everything within and without the building, are entirely new, the late dreadful conflagration having totally destroyed every iota in that department, as well as in every other, the horses only excepted.” [my italics].

An 1843 playbill from Rochdale advertising Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal.
Public domain.

The circus city of Norwich will be celebrating the life of the city’s own Pablo Fanque for Circus 250. Born in Norwich as William Darby, Fanque became the first black circus owner in the country (possibly in the world). There was to be an unexpected musical connection to Fanque, whose shows were principally seen in the north of England. A circus poster advertising Fanque’s Circus Royal performing in Rochdale in 1843, would inspire John Lennon over a century later, when he came across it in an antique shop in Sevenoaks, Kent, during a break from filming the promo video for Strawberry Fields Forever, to compose Being for the benefit of Mr. Kitewhich became part of the Sgt. Pepper album. “Mr. Kite” was William Kite. Born into a circus family, he was a horseman and tightrope walker.

There’s more on the process behind Sgt. Pepper in The Beatles : Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by Allan F. Moore [M950.c.95.238], the Pendlebury has a copy of the CD [CD.B.32], and you can admire Sir Arthur Bliss’ American issue, personalised copy, here at the UL.

Title page of James Coward’s ‘Romah Waltz’ UL classmark: A1876.312

Finally, we mustn’t forget Senor Romah, who along with his fellow trapeze-artist Senor Gonza, advertised as “the Mexican Athletes of the Golden Wings” arrived in England in 1870, and gave a series of performances at the Crystal Palace. In fact it was less an arrival than a return, as Senor Gonza was in truth English by birth, so it’s likely that his fellow trapeze-flyer, Romah, was also from the UK originally. What is known is that Romah performed at the grand commemoration fete held to celebrate 19 years of the Crystal Palace in 1873. “At 7 o’clock Senor Romah performed some wonderful feats on the flying trapeze and at 8 the Crystal Palace Choir sang a number of glees and choruses in the grounds.”

Romah’s part in the celebrations was to be immortalized by James Coward, grandfather of Noel, in his Romah waltz [A1876.312] published as a memento of the fete.

If the illustration to Coward’s waltz is to be believed it was indeed the greatest show on earth, as Romah seems to fly through the air with the greatest of ease sans even a trapeze – a true illusionist of the air – and one of the nicest Victorian music covers in the UL’s collections.




About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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