Conversation: Leon Botstein on How Circus Music Helped Shape American Pop Culture

BY Jeffrey Brown  October 26, 2012 at 10:23 AM EST

Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1899; U.S. Library of Congress

Barnum & Bailey Circus, 1899; U.S. Library of Congress.

“Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010″ is an exhibition now showing at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery. It is, as it sounds, a big look at the development and pageantry of the circus over time through many different angles. One of those is through music.

Leon Botstein, conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College, wrote about that part of the story in a catalog essay, “Circus Music in America.” In it, Botstein discusses the composers behind the music of the circus, from Igor Stravinsky to Charles Ives, and the surprising influence their compositions had on modern American popular culture, from radio dramas to motion pictures to TV shows.

“In small-town America, particularly, audiences got their first taste of classical music from these circus bands,” Botstein said. “The unintended consequence of the circus was it created an audience for music and it also created a way by which music told a story.”

I talked to Botstein by phone earlier this week:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. “Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010″ is an exhibition now showing at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York. It is, as it sounds, a big look at the development and pageantry of the circus over time through many different angles, and one of those is through music. Leon Botstein wrote about that part of the story in a catalog essay. Botstein is conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College, and he joins me now. And I have to say first, I’ve never understood how you pull off both of those things, as well as all the scholarly work, but welcome to you.

LEON BOTSTEIN: Oh, well, that’s a pleasure. It’s a pleasure. It’s not the subject that I ever thought I’d worry a lot about, but it turns out to be a fascinating subject.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell me about it. Circus music: What does that mean and why did it interest you?

LEON BOTSTEIN: When Bard Graduate Center decided they were going to do an exhibition on the American circus, they said, who can write about circus music? It turns out that music was a constant element in the America circus. Now, we know it mostly through the music of Charles Ives. When Ives was growing up in Danbury obviously there was a traveling circus, and he remembers the marching bands and the bands coming into town. When you think about a circus, even the modern circus, there’s constant music, and music also fills the gaps, it’s outside of the show, before the show begins, it draws you into the show, it accompanies the show — the snare drum roll in the high wire act — we don’t often think of that, but … there isn’t such a thing as a silent circus.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

LEON BOTSTEIN: There is always something going on. And then, of course, all of us knew there was this fantastic piece that Stravinsky wrote in 1942 called the “Circus Polka,” and this was a wild affair that Balanchine choreographed.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is the beginning of your essay, right? It’s a fascinating story. But you said all of us know, but tell people who don’t know this –

LEON BOTSTEIN: So Stravinsky came to America and he had this collaboration with Balanchine and they were friends. Balanchine called Stravinsky up in ’42 and said, Listen, how would you like to write a piece for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus? The money was pretty good and Stravinsky said, what the hell. So he writes this thing called the “Circus Polka,” which is a polka and it also quotes from Schubert and it’s very funny and Stravinskian — the rhythms are a little bit offbeat. Merle Evans, the band leader for the circus, the most famous circus band leader, never liked this piece, and he said the elephants never liked it either. Balanchine’s wife was perched on the lead baby elephant. I think there were some 200 elephants who danced around to this thing, and went it on. They almost 300 performances. They finally ended up doing the recorded music. It was really a huge hit. And then Stravinsky made a lot of money from it because he arranged it for every possible group of instruments. It’s a short piece and it’s been played a lot. But what’s interesting is it made you think, Well, what is this circus music and there is a specific music for the circus? A lot of the rhetoric about tension — you know, you get scared, you know, and all these kinds of sound effects, radio sound effects of radio drama — a lot of them were developed in the circus.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you went back to look at earlier circus music, it’s coming out of popular music of the time? Classical music?

LEON BOTSTEIN: A mixture. So you have everything from songs and spirituals, especially when you had exotic acts. The old circuses had mummies from Egypt, they had Buffalo Bill, and then they had, of course, the Native American Indians, and so they invented music to go along with this. So they had war music for the circus acts having to do with the American conquest of the West, they had these exotica music. There were a lot of European immigrants who came into the circus business from Germany and also from Italy, and so a lot of operatic music made its way into it, and light classical music, operetta music, various kinds of pop tunes. What I discovered doing research for the thing, which I knew nothing about, was that a lot in small-town American, particularly, audiences got their first taste of classical music from these circus bands. So they played tunes from this and tunes from that, tunes from operas and tunes from various kinds of classical pieces. Also, the origin of some of the Broadway music from the minstrel bands that were involved in the circus, too, before the actual main event. And, of course, a lot of this bugle and brass band kind of stuff was the dominant circus ensemble. The unintended consequence of the circus was that it created an audience for music and also created a way by which music told a story. We don’t think music tells a story. Well, one way it tells a story, of course, is we know it in a movie and we know it from opera, but in the circus it turns out it tells a story, too. And people got used to hearing music to accompany a story. So it becomes one of the background elements of popular culture that eventually go into the way we conceive of the sound film, of the TV show, of the radio drama and our whole sense of how music narrates.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the composers? Was there a subset of professional circus music compose? Or were they more like Stravinsky, although at a lesser end of people dipping in and out of different modes?

LEON BOTSTEIN: There are a host of tune writers, sort of a minor Tin Pan Alley operation of people none of us remember. But, for example, in 1927 the big Madison Square Garden Circus — this is in the ’20s — they had selections from Rossini, Liszt, Goldmark, Wagner, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Verdi, Massenet, Schubert, they had the entire catalog of what we call classical music in these truncated versions as a kind of potpourri entertain accompanying the events. So I think most of the really successful guys in this business took from other places, but they also wrote their own and none of it has actually made it into the repertoire. So you don’t have a kind of Gershwin figure, you don’t have a Cole Porter figure, you don’t have a kind of person who dominated the genre of circus music. It was very eclectic. It was pieced together from everything from Stephen Foster to Stravinsky.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was just thinking to myself, just to bring it up to date at the end here, the role of the circus in American culture, which was very strong at one time, as you are saying, going town to town and bringing a kind of culture and music to people, much less so now with new technology and the way the media has changed.

LEON BOTSTEIN: Totally, and it’s canned. It’s all canned. The great thing about the circus, it thrived in its heyday when Ives writes his piece called “The Circus Band.” He remembers the sound, like the marching band. So we forget that if we wanted sound in our ears, we had to make ourselves and it was acoustic. Now, there is so much as in the Olympics or any kind of, you know, Ice Capades, there is canned music, there is no live music. The whole role of the musician in the circus got altered dramatically. But it was definitely a hugely significant way in which a large democratic public got access to a whole tradition of music that they otherwise would never have had any chance to hear.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well the music of the circus is part of the exhibition, “Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010″ at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery. Leon Botstein, it’s nice to talk to you. Thanks so much.

LEON BOTSTEIN: It’s a pleasure. People can listen to circus music — it’s brief, both the “Circus Polka” and “The Circus Band” of Stravinsky and Ives are short and delightful works.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s great. Well, thank you all for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.