Cirque des Oreilles

There’s nothing worse for digestion than unshackled youngsters disturbing a restaurant’s oasis of calm. So there I was the other day, taking lunch in a restaurant I hadn’t tried before, appreciating its rather rare quietude, trying to think of a focus for this blog. And then all became clear; both the reason behind the peaceful atmosphere, and a path for this week’s musical excursion. A sign on the wall proclaimed: “WARNING: CHILDREN LEFT UNATTENDED WILL BE SOLD TO THE CIRCUS.” So, that’s where we’ll go. That mention of a circus instantly put me in mind of my own early childhood, growing up in a town in northern England which boasted a grand resident circus during the summer months starring the legendary clown, Charlie Cairoli. A clown. Not to be confused with a comic actor. More of that later.

Heads tilted back now; oohs and aahs encouraged. We’ll start with Sidney Torch’s high-flying character piece, Trapeze Waltz (8.223443). Born in London to Russian parents, Sidney Torch (1908–1990) began his career as a highly successful cinema organist and was a real star in those pre-World War II days. When the end of that era approached, Torch turned to composing, arranging and conducting light orchestral music. He maintained a sizeable output of new works, both under his own name and that of Denis Rycoth (an anagram). Those of you who today enjoy listening to the BBC’s Friday Night is Music Night (the world’s longest-running live orchestral music programme on radio) have Sidney Torch to thank: he was instrumental in devising the programme “to help people relax after a week’s hard work and put them in the right mood for a happy weekend.” With that goal in mind, I hope you’ll enjoy Torch’s triple-time take on the trapeze.

Peter Maxwell Davies’ Cross Lane Fair (8.572350) may not represent a full-blown circus but it does feature a juggler, a mainstay of the circus ring. The work’s nine continuous sections were inspired by memories of a fairground near Salford in the north of England which Davies visited several times with his parents during the 1930s. It evokes the sights and sounds he encountered there before, in his own words ‘‘I, as a small child, fell asleep in my father’s arms, to be carried home, down Cross Lane, to 55 Trafford Road.” If you want to experience the bustle of the fairground, the spooks of the ghost train and the wonderment of the bearded lady and the five-legged sheep, you’ll have to consult the whole recording. Meanwhile, here’s The Juggler, which features animated woodwind accompanied by appropriately dexterous percussion, taking in a lively solo from the bodhran (Irish drum), to the appreciation of the audience.

Some circus acts require an adornment for the main performer; they’re usually ladies with a perma-smile and a stoic resignation to forever playing second fiddle to the main action. Ever wondered what’s going through their minds? The British entertainer Joyce Grenfell (1910–1979) can help you out. A comedienne, singer and actress, she was in her time one of Britain’s best loved entertainers. Here she is in her familiar role as a musical raconteuse in an extract from Noel Coward’s I’m the wife of an acrobat (8.120860):



I’m the wife of an Acrobat,
When our kids are in their cots
It’s kind of sad
To realise their Dad
Is tying himself in knots.
Now the wife of an Acrobat
Is the ‘Dead Pan’ of the troupe,
I’ve stood about for twenty years,
My hair is turning grey,
I hear my old man gasping as I watch him swing and sway,
And if he broke his bloomin’ neck I know I’d only say
“Allez Oop – Allez Oop – Allez Oop!”

And so to clowns, happy and sad, starting with a short piano piece by Ernest Bloch that almost remained unpublished. Bloch wrote his Four Circus pieces for piano (8.223288) as a diversion during a quiet period in the summer of 1922. The composer had no intention of including the piece in his catalogue; his publisher subsequently saw to it that it did get added. The Clown is dedicated to “the sad and ever comprehending Charlie Chaplin”, but although a copy of the music was sent to Chaplin, he never replied. Possibly the title “Clown” seemed insulting; if so, it was misunderstood. Bloch appreciated Chaplin’s ability to achieve the pathos of loneliness. His music here switches between light- and heavy-heartedness, with a final somersault, loud and fast, that closes his act as he leaves the stage, as light as a feather.

Life would be all the poorer if we didn’t have real-life clowns, friends who have the knack of brightening up the occasionally dark day with bon mots and a touch of buffoonery, and so we turn to Cole Porter’s soundtrack for the 1948 movie, The Pirate (8.120845). A legendary pirate, a travelling singer and a beautiful girl in the Caribbean become suitably entangled, complete with charades and fisticuffs, before the action ends with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly exhorting people to chill out with a bit of motherly advice in Cole Porter’s Be a Clown.

We can’t end without a musical rendition of the custard pie (a Charlie Cairoli speciality), so I’m turning again to Sidney Torch’s deft composing style to send us away with a smile. Here’s the concluding tableau in his Comic Cuts (8.223443) titled, what else, Custard Pie.


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