Circus Polka (Stravinsky)

…polite as elephants always are…Stravinsky’s elephant ballet was both confusing and frightening to them. It would have taken very little at any time during the performance of the ballet music to cause a stampede…

Program note
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Circus Polka

In Stravinsky: The Composer and his Works, Eric Walter White tells how George Balanchine was approached by the Ringling Brothers (of the Barnum and Bailey Circus) to choreograph a new ballet to music of his choice.

Balanchine, so the story goes, phoned Stravinsky:

STRAVINSKY: What kind of music?

BALANCHINE: A polka.

S: For whom?

B: Elephants.

S: How old?

B: Young.

S: If they are very young, I’ll do it.

They were, and he did, completing the orchestral version of the score (there are also versions for piano and wind band) in October 1942.

The first performance, featuring ‘Fifty Elephants and Fifty Beautiful Girls in an Original Choreographic Tour de Force’ was at Madison Square Garden, New York in the spring of that year. Apparently the elephants didn’t take to wearing ballet skirts, or to the music. As one commentator noted, ‘polite as elephants always are…they listened, but with growing distaste and uneasiness…Stravinsky’s elephant ballet was both confusing and frightening to them. It would have taken very little at any time during the performance of the ballet music to cause a stampede.’

It may be that the elephants were indignant on behalf of Schubert, whose Marche militaire makes an appearance in this short piece. Nonetheless, the act was repeated 425 times.

Symphony Australia © 2001
Reprinted by permission of Symphony Services Australia

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