The Entrance of the Gladiators
You probably don’t recognize the song by its name, but that’s completely understandable. After all, it’s usually used to introduce something a little less noble (and a lot more frightening) than gladiators – clowns. The song (which is probably more familiar as onomatopoeia: “Doot doot doodle-oodle oot doot do do”) was written by Czech composer and Ancient Rome-enthusiast Julius Fuik around 1897. And while it’s unknown what possessed Fuik to express his love of the gladiatorial arena through such a silly sounding chorus, today, even clowns know it by a different name (perhaps to protect their dignity). In the circus, it’s called “Screamer” or “Thunder and Blazes.”
This simple song is one of the world’s most frequently used – and frequently copyright infringed – melodies. It’s true: “Happy Birthday” is not in the public domain and won’t be for a good many years. Written in 1893, the music for the song was first paired with a different set of lyrics and used as a start-of-day classroom sing-along. Called “Good Morning to All,” it was the brainchild or Mildred and Patty Hill, a pair of sisters who ran an experimental kindergarten in Louisville, Kentucky. Sadly, the sisters failed to properly register their ownership of the song, so by the 1930s, not only was “Good Morning to All” being used in grade school songbooks around the country, it had also spawned the “Happy Birthday” spin-off, which was featured in innumerable films, musicals, and Western Union singing telegrams. Despite the song’s popularity, the spinster sisters didn’t see a thin dime. That is, until their younger sibling Jessica stepped in. Apparently a bit more business savvy than her sisters, Jessica Hill sued Irving Berlin for using the tune in his 1934 musical, As Thousands Cheer. And, after demonstrating that the “Happy Birthday” song was, without a doubt one and the same as “Good Morning to All,” the Hills won. According to Snopes.com, “Happy Birthday” still pulls in more than $2 million a year in royalties for its publisher and the Hill Foundation.
Here Comes the Bride
Although most widely recognized today as the wedding entrance ditty, the “Her Comes the Bride” song originally began life as a Wagnerian opera chorus – making it completely plausible that the “bride” in question was, in fact “big, fat, and wide.” (See, you really did learn everything you need to know in kindergarten!) Originally titled the “Bridal Chorus,” the song was written by Richard Wagner for his German fairy-tale epic Lohengrin in 1848. Perhaps because of the opera’s bombastic nature, or perhaps because of it was five hours long. Lohengrin wasn’t performed until 1850. But it did, eventually, find appreciative audiences. The “Bridal Chorus” in particular became immensely popular. It was written for a scene where the knight Lohengrin and his new bride Elsa retire to their honeymoon suite. As they sing, their clothes are stripped off in preparation for the wedding night and, well you can see how the scene might stick with audiences.
From its introduction, the song was quickly incorporated into matrimonial tradition. Partly, this had to do with the fact that, in 1858, the “Bridal Chorus” was featured in the royal wedding of Princess Victoria (the daughter of Queen Victoria) and Prince Frederick William of Prussia, touching off a fad among royals and commoners alike. Ironically, however, the song was never particularly well-received by opera fanatics. To this day, the “Bridal Chorus” is critically considered the weakest part of Lohengrin.
It’s amazing how many famous songs started without any lyrics at all. “Hava Nagila” was originally a folk tune, hummed wordlessly by Hassidic Jews in the Ukraine. Considering how the song has a tendency to get stuck in your head (and like a bad houseguest, never leave) it’s no wonder that, when they immigrated to Israel, they brought the tune with them. That’s where Abraham Zevi Idelsohn first heard it. Idelsohn, a Latvian immigrant and a cantor, opened a music school in his newly adopted homeland and begun collecting traditional songs from the other Jewish immigrants he met. In 1915, he transposed the unwritten tune into music. Later, he added lyrics. Modified from the text of Psalms 118:24, “Hava Nagila” as we now know it was first performed in 1918, at a celebration in honor of the British defeat of the Turks. Unsurprisingly, audience members are reported to have left the party still singing “Hava Nagila” under their breaths.
The Graduation Song
If you’re looking for someone to blame for that pompous and terribly circumstantial tune you simply can’t get out of your head after attending graduations, look no further than Edward Elgar. The British composer penned the tune (known as Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1) in 1901. To his surprise, the song was such a hit, that Elgar quickly churned out 5 sequels (a.k.a., marches 2-6). So, how exactly did the British song become an American staple? Well, you can blame Yale University for that one. Upon granting Edgar an honorary PhD in 1905, the school decided to use his numbers as part of the graduation day festivities, and the tune’s become a fixture ever since.