Music Hall

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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 in London had its beginnings in the entertainments provided at summer fairs such as the Bartholomew Fair from the 17th century onward. Many of these were suppressed under the strict puritan rule of the Commonwealth. Upon the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, restrictions on public entertainment were relieved by patents for play-acting granted to Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant by Charles II. The fairs, much cheaper entertainment within the reach of poor working people, were also tolerated again. The patentees had commodious new playhouses built at Drury Lane and Dorset Garden, well-equipped for specialty entertainment and offering music, dancing, and circus-type entr'actes from the first, as well as plays. By the early 18th century, Londoners' interest in music, dancing, singing, jugglers, rope-dancers, high-kickers, and fair-booth burlesque, had all but driven out legitimate drama.

Inns and taverns 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. The heyday of Music Hall lasted 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 1850s 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 appurtenances 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 1870s 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

Music hall comedy

The typical music hall comedian was a man (much less commonly a woman), dressed in a striped suit or other attention-attracting garb, perhaps in a double act and interrupted by another. The phrases 'I don't wish to know that!' and 'kindly leave the stage!' come from this period. Stand-up comedy started in this period, and many of today's habits such as heckling, finishing on a song, as well as character comedy, date back to music hall. Early radio programmes such as The Goons made extensive use of the tradition. The television variety show picked up some of the pieces, but at a time when music hall was already on its last legs.

Types of Music Hall Acts

A large range of acts eventually evolved in Music Halls:

  • Lions Comiques: essentially, men dressed as a 'toff', who sang songs about drinking champagne, going to the races, going to the ball, womanising and gambling, and living the life of an Aristocrat.
  • Other Comics: later comics evolved into three sorts
    • Men who dressed in smart suits and told smart jokes
    • Men who dressed in silly costumes and told daft jokes.
    • Double Acts: usually one who told the jokes and got the laughs, and one who was the butt of the jokes and provided the opportunities for laughs, known as the 'Comic' and the 'Feed'
  • Male and Female impersonators
  • Aerial Acts, of the sort usually seen at the Circus
  • Adagio: essentially a sort of cross between a dance act and a juggling act, consisting usually of a male dancer who threw a slim, pretty young girl around. A lot of the moves in modern choreography were evolved in Adagio acts
  • Magic Acts and Escapologists, such as Harry Houdini
  • Cycling Acts: again, a development of a Circus act, consisting of either a solo or a troupe of trick cyclists. There was even 7 piece a cycling band called Seven Musical Savonas, who played 50 instruments between them, and Kaufmann’s Cycling Beauties, a troupe of girls in Victorian swim wear.
  • Ventriloquists, or 'Vent' acts as they were called in the business.
  • Electric acts, using the newly discovered phenomena of static electricity to produce tricks such as lighting gas jets and setting fire to handkerchiefs through the performers fingertips.
  • Knife throwing and sword swallowing. The most spectacular of its time was the Victorina Troupe, who swallowed a sword fired from a rifle.
  • Jugglers and Plate Spinning Acts. Plate Spinners were a specialised form of juggler, who would spin a plate and balance it spinning flat on a wooden stick about 5 foot high. Good acts could get 20 or 30 plates balanced on sticks, having to rush round respinning the plates before they stopped spinning and fell down. Another variation was the Diablo, a wooden bobbin shaped object which was spun and juggled with two sticks with a length of string between the ends.
  • Fire Eaters and other eating acts, such as eating glass, razor blades, goldfish etc.
  • Mentalist/Telepathy acts. Usually a male mentalist and a pretty girl assistant, the assistant would collect objects from the audience, and the mentalist would guess what each concealed object was by 'reading' the assistants mind. Usually accomplished by a complex verbal and visual system of codes and clues from the assistant
  • Mimes and Impressionists
  • Balloon acts: creates various animals and objects using long thin balloons
  • Trampoline acts
  • Animal acts: Talking dogs, Flea circuses, and all manner of animals doing tricks
  • Stilt Walkers
  • Puppet acts, including human puppets and Living Doll acts
  • Comic Pianists
  • Cowboy/Wild West acts

Music Hall performers

Music Hall in literature, drama, and screen

The Victorian era was celebrated by the 1944 film Champagne Charlie while J. B. Priestley's 1965 novel Lost Empires evokes the world of Edwardian music hall just before the start of World War I; 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.

Existent Music Halls in London

An outstanding example of the late Music Hall period is the Hackney Empire. This has been restored to its moorish splendour and now provides an eclectic programme of events from opera to Black Variety Nights. A mile to the south is Hoxton Hall. An 1863 example of the saloon-style, unrestored but maintained in its original layout, and currently used as a community centre and theatre. Collins Music Hall still stands on the North side of Islington Green, sadly it currently forms part of a bookshop. The Grand, in Clapham, has been restored, and is used as a music venue. In the non-descript Grace's Alley, off Cable Street, Stepney survives Wilton's Music Hall. This 1858 building survived use as a church, fire, flood and war intact, but vitually derelict. It has been rescued by the Broomhill Opera and is used for opera and theatrical productions. Many of these buildings can be seen as part of the annual London Open House event. Outside London, there remains the Leeds City Varieties, The Gaiety Theatre (Isle of Man), and the Britannia Music Hall, Glasgow. The later is still standing, but there is a restoration appeal.

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.


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