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Length: c. 4 minutes

About this Piece

In 1941, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus commissioned the esteemed choreographer George Balanchine to create a ballet as one of its acts. In response, Balanchine proposed a polka of 50 trained elephants paired with 50 dancers, and he asked his friend Igor Stravinsky to compose the accompanying music. Having recently arrived in America and ever a fan of breaking molds, Stravinsky agreed to his friend’s assignment and wholeheartedly indulged in the juvenilia.

He quickly composed Circus Polka for piano and hired film composer David Raksin to orchestrate the piece, which seems to pirouette, bounce, trip, and begin again. The strings create the comedic tension, the horns and bassoons posture some austerity, while the tubas and trombones voice the swagger of the elephant ballerinas. With six changes in time signature within the first 30 seconds, we might wonder if Stravinsky delighted in chaos. If not, he had an enormous amount of faith in the elephants’ rhythmic sensibilities. The tempo disturbances jolt like a music box, shut and opened quickly to begin the polka anew; a solitary elephant spins and spins until the inevitable boom occurs. Reports from the over 400 performances praised lead ballelephanterina Modoc for her grace and suggested other elephants were not so suave.

Culminating with a nod to Schubert’s Marche Militaire, Circus Polka has all the grace, buffoonery, and sweetness of an elephant dancing the polka, with all the pomp and circus-ness you’d expect from its author. —Tess Carges