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Music Hall

Music Hall is a form of British theatrical entertainment which reached its peak of popularity between 1850 and 1960. The term can refer to 1) A particular form of variety entertainment involving a mixture of popular song, comedy and speciality acts. 2) The theatre or other venue in which such entertainment takes place. 3) The type of popular music normally associated with such performances.



Music Hall as an art form had its beginings in the entertainments provided in public venues and alehouses from the 17th century onward. Many of these were suppressed under the strict puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell. Following the restoration of the monarchy restrictions on public entertainment were relieved by the grant known as the "Killigrew and Davenant patent" made to Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant by King Charles the Second. The Killigrew and Davenant patent in the course of time led to the setting up of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and Drury Lane.

Other, minor, playhouses were soon licensed by local magistrates. Inns and taverns then developed into independent places of amusement and laid the foundations of the middle-class and lower middle-class institution of the music hall, originally evolving from the "song and supper" rooms of the 1850s. It flourished, in its heyday, from the 1850s to the Second World War, when other forms of popular music evolved and Music Hall began to be replaced by films as the most popular form of entertainment.

British Music Hall was similar to American vaudeville, featuring rousing songs and comic acts, while in the United Kingdom the term vaudeville referred to more lowbrow entertainment that would have been termed burlesque in the United States.

History of the songs

The musical forms most associated with Music Hall evolved from traditional folk song, becoming by the 1850's a distinct musical style. Subject matter became more contemporary and humorous, and accompaniment was provided by larger house-orchestras as increasing affluence gave the lower classes more access to commercial entertainment and to a wider range of musical instruments, including the piano. The consequent change in musical taste from traditional to more professional forms of entertainment arose in response to the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of previously rural populations during the industrial revolution. The newly created urban communities, cut off from their cultural roots, required new and readily accessible forms of entertainment.

Music Halls were originally bar rooms which provided entertainment, in the form of music and speciality acts, for their patrons. By the middle years of the nineteenth century the first purpose-built music halls were being built in London. The halls created a demand for new and catchy popular songs that could no longer be met from the traditional folk song repertoire. Professional songwriters were enlisted to fill the gap.

The emergence of a distinct music hall style can be credited to a fusion of musical influences. Music hall songs needed to gain and hold the attention of an often jaded and unruly urban audience. In America from the 1840s Stephen Foster had reinvigorated folk song with the admixture of negro spiritual to produce a new and vibrant form of popular song. Songs like Golden Slippers and The Old Folks at Home spread round the globe, taking with them the idiom and appertenances of the minstrel song. Other influences on the rapidly-developing music hall idiom were Irish and European music, particularly the jig, polka and waltz.

Typically a music hall song consists of a series of verses sung by the performer alone, and a repeated chorus which carries the principal melody, and in which the audience is encouraged to join.

In Britain, the first music hall songs often promoted the alcoholic wares of the owners of the halls in which they were performed. Songs like Glorious Beer, and the first major music hall success, Champagne Charlie, in 1854, had a major influence in establishing the new art form. Champagne Charlie is often credited with inspiring an exasperated William Booth to form the Salvation Army, eliciting his famous quotation: "Why should the devil have all the good tunes?"

By the 1870's the songs had cut themselves free from their folk music roots, and particular songs also started to become associated with particular singers, often with exclusive contracts with the songwriter, just as many pop songs are today.

Towards the end of the style the music became influenced by ragtime and jazz, before being overtaken by them.

Music Hall songs were often unashamedly aimed at their working class audiences, reflecting the experiences and humour in their daily lives. Songs like My Old Man (said Follow the Van), Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road and Waiting at the Church, expressed in melodic form situations that the urban poor were very familiar with. Music Hall songs could be romantic, patriotic, humorous or sentimental, as the need arose. The most popular Music Hall songs became the basis for the Pub songs of the typical Cockney "knees up ".

The two eras

Music Hall entertainment is sometimes divided by era into Victorian Music Hall and Edwardian Music Hall. Toward the end of its heyday the terms theatrical variety or revue began to be used.

Music Hall began as a largely working class entertainment, and its association with beer halls and gin palaces led to it being initially shunned by polite society. As Music Hall grew in popularity and respectability, the original arrangement of a large hall with tables at which drink was served, changed to that of a drink-free auditorium. The acceptance of Music Hall as a legitimate cultural form was sealed by the first Royal Variety Performance before King George V in 1912.

The pressure for greater rewards for music hall songwriters led to the application of copyright law to musical compositions. This in turn boosted the music publication industry, and the sale of music in printed form. The term Tin Pan Alley, for the music publication industry gained currency from the practice of rival publishers of banging together pots and pans in order to disrupt their competitors' musical auditions.

World War I is considered by many to have been the high-water-mark of Music Hall popularity. Music Hall artists and composers threw themselves into rallying public support and enthusiasm for the war effort. Patriotic Music Hall compositions like Keep the Home Fires Burning, Pack up Your Troubles, It's a Long Way to Tipperary and We Don't Want to Lose You (but we think you ought to Go), were sung by the soldiers in the trenches and by audiences at home. After the war, Music Hall suffered in the reaction against the high casualties and apparent pointlessness of the conflict. To some, Music Hall seemed tainted by the way in which it had been used to encourage recruitment and bolster the war.

Music Hall continued through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, but no longer as the single dominant form of popular entertainment in Britain. It now had to compete with Jazz, Swing and Big Band dance music, as well as with cinema. Even so, it gave rise to such major stars as George Formby, Gracie Fields, Max Miller and Flanagan and Allen during this period.

After World War II, competition from Television and other musical idioms, including Rock and Roll, led to the slow demise of the British music halls. The final blow came when Moss Empires, the largest British Music Hall chain, closed the majority of its theatres in 1960. Stage and Film musicals, however, continued to be influenced by the music hall idiom. Oliver!, Dr Dolittle, My Fair Lady, and many other musicals continued to retain strong roots in music hall. The BBC series The Good Old Days, which ran for thirty years, recreated the Music Hall for the modern audience.

Music Hall songwriters

  • George Le Brunn , writer of Oh! Mr Porter!
  • Noel Gay, writer of Lambeth Walk, There's Something About a Soldier, Leaning on a Lamppost.
  • Harry Lauder, writer of Stop your Tickling Jock, I Love A Lassie.
  • Fred W Leigh , composer of Don't Dilly Dally and The Army of Today.
  • Arthur Lloyd, over 100 songs.
  • Felix Powell , writer of Pack up Your Troubles
  • Joseph Tabrar, writer of Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow Wow

Music Hall comedy

The typical Music Hall comedian is a bloke (women weren't all that common in comedy in these days!) dressed in a stripped suit who usually interrupts another bloke. The phrases 'I don't wish to know that!' and Kindly leave the stage refer to this period. In fact most of stand up comedy started in this period, and many of today's traditions such as heckling, finishing on a song as well as character comedy dates from this period. Programmes such as The Goons were based on the Music Hall Tradition.

Music Hall performers

Music Hall in literature, drama, and screen

J. B. Priestley's 1965 novel Lost Empires evokes the world of Edwardian music hall just prior to the start of the First World War; the title is a reference to the Empire theatres (as well as foreshadowing the decline of the British Empire itself). It was recently adapted as a television miniseries, shown in both the UK and in the U.S. as a PBS presentation. Priestley's 1929 novel The Good Companions , set in the same period, follows the lives of the members of a "concert party" or touring "Pierrot troupe."

John Osborne's play The Entertainer portrays the life and work of a second-rate music hall comedian.

See also

The term Music Hall is also used to describe some large musical venues, such as the Paris Olympia and Radio City Music Hall.

Last updated: 11-10-2004 16:07:47