Before Music Hall was given its name, similar types of entertainment would have been going on for many centuries. In essence, Music Hall brought together a variety of different acts which together formed an evening of light hearted entertainment.
The origins of Music Hall are found in a number of institutions which provided entertainment in the populous towns and cities of Britain in the 1830s. These were:
- The backroom of the pub, where simple sing-songs gave way to the singing saloon concert.
- Popular theatre, sometimes in pub saloons but mainly at travelling fairs.
- Song & Supper Rooms, where more affluent middle class men would enjoy a night out on the town.
- The Pleasure Gardens, where entertainment became more low brow as the years passed.
By the 1850s, the tavern landlords had moved the entertainment function of pubs into purpose built halls; these new premises still retaining the traditional ambience of the inn. The format of the evening was unchanged: a chairman would introduce song and dance acts onto a simple stage, whilst trying to keep order with a gavel. In all cases, eating, drinking and smoking continued throughout the performances. The audience, often exuberant with alcohol, both heckled and joined in with their favourite songs and performers.
The growth of the Halls was rapid and spread across Britain with the first great boom in the 1860s, so that by 1870, 31 large halls were listed in London and 384 in the rest of the country. This growth was not only in the number of halls, but also in the amenities and catering facilities. In addition, performers now became a professional workforce, appearing in London at several Halls each night and making frequent provincial tours. At its peak, music hall was the television of its day. Its stars were enormously popular in a way it is hard to believe nowadays. They had their songs specially written for them, and permission would have to be sought if other performers wanted to sing them in public.
After consolidation during the 1870s, music hall then started another period of expansion. The London Pavilion was restyled in 1885 and incorporated much from traditional theatre's ideas of house and stage design. This lead to the era of the de-luxe hall or Variety theatre. Now there was fixed seating in the stalls and the performer was more distant from the audience. With the increase in costs from the introduction of safety regulations and the inflation of the star's fees, the music hall industry began to combine into a number of Syndicates. A number of nationwide chains such as Moss, Stoll and Thornton with their "Empires" and "Palaces" started to dominate the business.
Changes to licensing laws made a music and dancing licence a requirement. This allowed moral and social reformers the opportunity to challenge the style and operation of the halls; most notable in this respect was Mrs Ormiston Chant who campaigned against lax morals in the Empire, Leicester Square. Later, there was the prohibition of drink in all new halls such that by 1909, of the 29 halls belonging to Stoll, only 8 held a drinks licence.
With just a few proprietors controlling the majority of the halls, the owners attempted to extract the maximum work for minimum pay from the performers. This lead to the formation of the Variety Artists' Federation, which in 1907 organised the first music hall strike. In 1912, music hall gained a level of respectability with the first Royal Command Performance.
The London County Council, after a series of fires in theatres and music halls finally banned eating and drinking in the auditorium in 1914. From that time, the music halls simply had to be run on the same lines as theatres. After this, music hall became known by its earlier name of Variety and, with the coming of cinema and later radio, became extinct by the time of World War II.
As far as sound recording goes, a convenient watershed is the year 1925 when the electrical recording process was first commercially introduced, making obsolete the previous mechanical "acoustic" recordings. In W. Macqueen-Pope's book The Melody lingers on he attempts to give the difference between Music Hall and Variety. "Music Hall", he states, "was Variety (although Variety is not Music Hall)." This shows the difficulty of any definition, although one can understand what he means. On this site, we have used the term "Variety" for recordings made after 1925, and Music Hall where Artists bridged both methods of recording.
Although generally regarded as a particularly British institution, two other countries, namely France and the USA, also have a music hall tradition. In France this was of a more sophisticated middle class nature, whilst in America vaudeville developed on parallel lines to music hall in Britain.
Attempts have been made at revival in Britain, both in the 1930s and more recently with "The Good Old Days" which has been something of a pastiche. Unfortunately, sound recording came too late for most of very first generation of artists, for example George Leybourne. However, at the turn of the 19th/20th century a number of survivors such as Dan Leno, as well as younger artists, started to make recordings. Initially these were very expensive (typically you could buy twelve of the best seats in the house for the price of one record), but with time, prices fell and these records eventually became more affordable by typical music hall clientele. Over the first three decades of the 20th century many artists committed their songs and performance to record, and these can still be heard and enjoyed today.