Julius Fučík: The Bohemian Sousa

July 18 was the birthday of Czech composer Julius Fučík (1872-1916).

Fučík wrote over 400 marches, waltzes and polkas, customarily played by military brass bands, earning him the nickname “the Bohemian Sousa“. One of these pieces is well known to you, though I’d bet large sums you don’t know its name or that of its composer. Fučík originally called the piece, which he composed in 1897, the “Grande Marche Chromatique” due to its aggressive employment of chromatic scales, but later settled on the more whimsical “Entrance of the Gladiators”. Circus bands, however, know it as “Thunder and Blazes”. That’s right — it’s that circus theme, that ONE piece of music that more than any other, summons images of the Big Top. Circuses have used this instrumental in their productions since around 1901. If it’s still not ringing a bell, just Google it and play whatever recordings you find, and a light will dawn. While Fučík usually composed for brass and woodwind, I normally associate “Thunder and Blazes” with instruments like organs and calliopes. It is the sound of the circus.

Lest there be any confusion: there is another famous Czech by the name of Julius Fučík (1903-1943) and he was a nephew of the composer. The nephew was an important member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. In 1942 he was captured, imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis, and finally executed in 1943. In the postwar period, when the Communists were in power, his prison writings were required reading in schools, some of the most widely disseminated propaganda in the country. Ironically, however, as Elia Kazan’s terrific Man on a Tightrope (1953) dramatized, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic was no Shangri La for circuses! From what we know of Fučík the Younger, a hard-core Stalinist, he probably would have been okay with that.

For more on show business history please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.