Stravinsky at the circus

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Saturday, January 13, 2018

Late in 1941, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky was living in Hollywood—at 1260 North Wetherly Drive, to be precise.

Notoriously unflappable, and eminently practical when it came to commissions, Stravinsky apparently did not even bat an eye when he received a phone call from the choreographer Georges Balanchine with an offer from Barnum’s Circus to write a short musical work for a ballet involving elephants. Again, to be precise, for Barnum’s star elephant ballerina named Modoc, who would be accompanied by fifty other elephants and dancers, all in tutus.

“For what?” Stravinsky asked.
“For elephants,” said Balanchine.
“How many?” countered Stravinsky.
“A lot,” replied Balanchine.
“How old?” asked Stravinsky.
“Young,” assured Balanchine.
”Well, if they’re young, I accept,” concluded Stravinsky.

Stravinsky’s work, entitled “Circus Polka,” had its debut at Madison Square Garden in New York by the Barnum Circus, and was performed by what Stravinsky once called their “respectable quadrupeds” some 400 times. Stravinsky then arranged his “Circus Polka” for symphony orchestra, and conducted the premiere of that version (minus the elephants) with the Boston Symphony in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on today’s date in 1944.