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Work of the week – Igor Stravinsky: Circus Polka

On 23 February 2018, Igor Stravinsky’s Circus Polka will be performed by the Orchestre National de Lorraine and conductor Jacques Mercier in the extraordinary venue of the Amnéville Zoo, not far from the French city of Metz.

Circus Polka was commissioned by choreographer George Balanchine from the Barnum & Bailey Circus, who asked Stravinsky to write a short ballet to accompany the circus’ baby-elephant act referenced in the work’s subtitle “For a Young Elephant”. Stravinsky initially composed the work for solo piano, which was then orchestrated for circus band by David Raksin and premiered in 1842 with fifty elephants in Madison Square Gardens, New York. Stravinsky subsequently orchestrated the work himself in a version premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra with the composer conducting at the Sanders Theater, Massachusetts.

Igor Stravinsky – Circus Polka: A Circus act with musical wit

Despite the title of Circus Polka, Stravinsky’s composition contains only two bars featuring a typical polka rhythm, and clearly demonstrates the composer’s penchant for extreme and frequent changes of rhythm. This presumably led to difficulties performing the work with elephants as originally intended, as the animals react sensitively to irregular rhythms. Stravinsky also makes reference to Schubert’s Marche militaire No. 1 in D major, a quotation Stravinsky always denied.

Having been performed more than 400 times since its composition, the Circus Polka is a delightful and extremely successful work for Stravinsky.

George Belanchine recounts first proposing the work:

Belanchine: “I want to ask you if would like to make a little ballet together with me.”

Stravinsky: “For whom?”

Belanchine: “For a few elephants.”

Stravinsky: “How old?”

Belanchine: “Very young.”

Stravinsky (after a short break with a serious voice): “Fine. If the elephants are pretty young, I will do this.”