Music Hall - History of The Songs

History of The Songs

The musical forms most associated with music hall evolved in part from traditional folk song and songs written for popular drama, 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 tavern 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 type of popular song. Songs like Old Folks at Home (1851) and Oh, Dem Golden Slippers (James Bland, 1879) 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 (1867) had a major influence in establishing the new art form. The tune of Champagne Charlie became used for the Salvation Army hymn Bless His Name, He Sets Me Free (1881). When asked why the tune should be used like this, William Booth is said to have replied, Why should the devil have all the good tunes?. The people the Army sought to save, knew nothing of the hymn tunes or gospel melodies used in the churches, but "the music hall had been their melody school".

By the 1870s the songs were free of their folk music origins, 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 composed with their working class audiences in mind. 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 with which the urban poor were very familiar. 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".

Although a number of songs show a sharply ironic and knowing view of working class life, no doubt a larger number were repetitive, derivative, written quickly and sung to make a living rather than a work of art.

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