Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #21/50: Entrance of the Gladiators by Julius Fucik

Photo of Czech composer Julius Fucik in military uniform.
Composer of the Entrance of the Gladiators, Julius Fucik.

Julius Fučik was born in Prague in the Czech Republic in 1876 when that part of the world was still considered part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was born into a creative family. His brother was a musician and an opera singer and his nephew was a journalist and author who, as it turned out, was killed by order of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s when he was consolidating power and eliminating his political opponents. Julius Fučik grew up to be a composer who specialized in military marches. But, more specifically than that, Fučik was someone who helped revolutionize the very idea of orchestral compositions because he was enamoured with brass and woodwind instruments.

Sheet music for the composition: "Entrance of the Gladiators" by Julius Fucik

At the turn of the century, the vast majority of classical compositions were written for piano or strings or softer woodwind instruments such as the flute or the oboe. Fučik believed in the power and vibrancy of brass. Thus, he wrote many of his earliest compositions for trumpet, trombone and tuba. When he first debuted his brass-oriented works, audiences were taken aback at the forcefulness of it all! His compositions were loud and to some, even strident in tone. After his initial works were aired, it was suggested to Fučik that instead of performing for seated audiences, his compositions were better suited for military marches. With that in mind, Fučik joined the Austro-Hungarian military and soon rose through the ranks and became a military composer. From that point onward, his compositions were all written with the idea that they would be played during military parades (when the soldiers would exhibit their marching skills in a series of highly choreographed marching routines) or else as a way of inspiring troops before entering into actual battle. Of all the military marches that Julius Fučik composed during his lifetime, none was more famous or popular than the march entitled, “Entrance of the Gladiators”.

“Entrance of the Gladiators” has gone on to become one of the most recognizable tunes ever written in the history of recorded music. Even most children today know this song when it is played. However, the reason that “Entrance of the Gladiators” became so popular differs from the reason for its initial composition in a way that would horrify Julius Fučik if he were alive today. Over a century ago, making brass instruments the centrepiece of a classical composition was a novel idea. As mentioned already, Julius Fučik was one of the earliest composers to go this route. So, when he created “Entrance of the Gladiators”, he wanted to show off his skills a little, thus he incorporated a section within the piece that allowed him to demonstrate the capability of brass instruments to navigate the chromatic scales in music. Chromatic scales are musical notes that are situated at regular, consistent intervals from each other. An example would be when you sing do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do…the notes rise at regular intervals and fall back at those same intervals if you reverse the scales. Anyway, Julius Fučik decided to demonstrate how flexible brass instruments could be by having them play the chromatic scales forward and backward as the core component of “Entrance of the Gladiators”. When he debuted this composition, it was very well received and Fučik was rewarded with a military promotion as a result of his creative thinking.

Three people in the circus ring: the ringmaster in a red coat and top hat, a man in a checker box suit doin a somersault and a lady in a yellow dress with black folks dots.
Thunder and Blazes is typically played as a way of introducing clowns when it is their turn to enter the centre circus ring.

However, not long after Fučik debuted his march, a Canadian composer named Louis-Philippe Laurendeau took the composition, increased its tempo slightly and created an altered version called “Thunder and Blazes” that has gone on to become popular the world over. Laurendeau’s version of “Entrance of the Gladiators” is the standard tune that is played at circuses, especially when the clowns are set to arrive in the centre ring. Whether or not Laurendeau intended to make a political statement by comparing soldiers and war to clowns and a circus is something that has never been made clear. But, the truth of the matter is that he took a military march and turned it into a child’s delight. “Entrance of the Gladiators” is a piece of music that you will know immediately when it starts to play. Chances are great that by the time you are finished listening to it, you will not be thinking of war and of conquest, but instead will be smiling and thinking of clowns. I don’t know about you but I prefer my music to inspire happy thoughts as opposed to hurtful, hateful ones, so from my perspective, Laurendeau has done a good thing here. Do you agree? Let me know in the comments below.

The link to the video for the composition “Entrance of the Gladiators” by Julius Fučik can be found here.

The link to the official website for Julius Fučik can be found here.

The link to the official website for Louis-Philippe Laurendeau can be found here.

The link to classical music station, Classical 103.1, located in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario can be found here.

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