Circus Polka

The Circus Polka has a rather amusing composition history. In 1942, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum&Bailey Circus commissioned George Balanchine to create a ballet for elephants. Balanchine turned to his friend Stravinsky to write some music. Their phone conversation is supposed to have run something like this:


            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.”


The completed polka – in the orchestrated version – was used more than 400 times at the circus, but it was reported that it was less than a success with the dancing pachyderms. In an article printed in the program book of the Boston Symphony Orchesta in January 1944, George Briton Beal had this to say:


In spite of some of the stunts which they are made to perform, elephants are dignified animals. They respond instantly to waltz tunes and soft, dreamy music, even to some military numbers of a particularly circusy tempo. The involved music of Stravinsky's “Elephant Ballet” was both confusing and frightening to them. It robbed them of their feeling of security and confidence in the world about them – so alien to their native condition of life. It would have taken very little at any time during the many performances of the ballet music to cause a stampede.


One has to admit, Stravinsky's music is rather involved. For a polka, it has quite a few changing meters and other irregularities that would make an elephant nervous. But it can be a lot of fun for human ears, especially if they recognize the quote from Schubert's Marche militaire and appreciate the many delicious jokes that Stravinsky plays with that familiar melody.