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The English Music Hall

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A Brief History of the Music Hall

Music Hall and Edwardian Variety

music hall

Comedy, novelty acts and musical performance had been a feature of the saloons, taverns and fairgrounds of Britain since medieval times, and playhouses had been established at Drury Lane and Dorset Garden in London for this kind of entertainment as far back as the 17th century. But in 1843 an attempt was made to regulate an all-too-often riotous mixture of alcohol and not-so-innocent amusement in the form of the Theatre Act, which stated that licences would only be granted if such establisments were run primarily as a theatre.
This set the scene for the rise of the Music Hall tradition, and in 1852 the first purpose-built Music Hall was built at the Canterbury Tavern in Lambeth. By 1875 there were 375 Music Halls in London and it's suburbs.
Early Music Hall songs were drawn largely from the folk tradition, but as the movement grew rapidly in popularity, particularly with the working classes, the demand was for catchier melodies - often with bawdy lyrics - which the audience could easily singing along with. Perhaps the first Music Hall song to achieve nationwide popularity was "Champagne Charlie" in 1854, a song probably written to promote the alcoholic wares of the owner of the hall in which it was originally sung.
As polite Victorian society began to take more of an interest the entertainers were forced to clean up their act, although one of the great early performers, Marie Lloyd, remained fairly risque, as in "Oh! Mr.Porter". On the other hand her other really big success, "The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery", is innocence itself.
One important aspect of the Music Hall era is that for the first time songs became associated with performers - the "signature tune" . And such was the demand for new songs that it gave rise to the first professional songwriters, often with exclusive contracts to write for particular performers.
Music Hall continued to grow in popularity throughout the second half of the 19th century and by 1900 it was in it's heyday. It's stars, people like Harry Champion, Albert Chevalier, Florrie Ford, George Robey, Vesta Tilley, Vesta Victoria and Harry Lauder were entertainers of national standing, and the songs they sang were popular songs in the truest sense.
Many music hall songs formed the backdrop to the trench warfare of the Western Front. Songs like "Pack Up Your Troubles", "Good-Bye-Eee", and Harry Lauder's "Keep Right On To The End Of The Road" did much to maintain the morale of the Tommy soldier in that terrible war.
After 1918, as it grew in respectability in Edwardian England, Music Hall became more akin to variety, a drink-free version held in an auditorium rather than a theatre, and began to feel the competition from an increasingly popular musical theatre and an emerging film industry. In fact many future film stars had a grounding in Music Hall, among them Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin.
The advent of television and rock & roll after the Second World War effectively saw the end of Music Hall as entertainment for the masses, and by 1960, with the virtual closure of the Moss Empires chain, the tradition was dead.

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Prominent songwriters

George Ware
Arthur Lloyd
George Le Brunn
Henry E. Pether
Fred W. Leigh
Harry Lauder
George & Felix Powell
Noel Gay

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audio : Music Hall

books : on Victorian Music Hall

at amazon.co.uk

audio : Music Hall

books : on Victorian Music Hall