Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971), Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant, for solo piano (1942)
Performed by Victor Sangiorgio
Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine first met in 1925, as Balanchine, who just had started working for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, choreographed the ballet version of Stravinsky's Le chant du rossignol. This was the start of a long friendship and many years of collaboration, which continued after both emigrated to the United States in the 1930s.
In late 1941, the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus made Balanchine the unusual proposal to do the choreography for a ballet involving the circus's famous elephant group in the spring of the following year in New York. Balanchine immediately suggested bringing in Stravinsky, much to the delight of the circus company. However, Stravinsky was only contacted by phone on January 12, 1942. Balanchine would later recount the conversation as follows: Balanchine: \"I wonder if you'd like to do a little ballet with me.\" Stravinsky: \"For whom?\" Balanchine: \"For some elephants.\" Stravinsky: \"How old?\" Balanchine: \"Very young.\" Stravinsky: \"All right. If they are very young elephants, I will do it.\"
Although Stravinsky was busy with other projects at the time, he negotiated a high fee with the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus for a short instrumental, which he composed within a few days. The piano version of Circus Polka, subtitled \"For a Young Elephant\" as an allusion to the phone conversation with Balanchine, was finished on February 5, 1942.
Although the piece is, according to its name, a polka, it does contain a number of changes in rhythm. It only sounds like a polka towards the end, but this part is actually a borrowing from Franz Schubert's Marche militaire No. 1 in D major, D. 733. Stravinsky always denied that this was a parody of the Marche militaire. He later called the whole piece a satire, the musical equivalent to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's drawings, but his notes do not reflect this.
By the time the ballet was performed, Stravinsky was no longer involved with the project. The arrangement of the piece for an organ and a concert band was done by David Raksin. Balanchine choreographed the Circus Polka for fifty elephants and fifty human dancers, led by the cow elephant Modoc and by Balanchine's wife and principal ballerina Vera Zorina respectively. The elephants, including the bulls, were decked out in pink ballet tutus. Reporters were at first concerned that Stravinsky's music might cause the elephants to panic. Balanchine was eventually able to teach Modoc the choreography.
The show, advertised as a \"choreographic Tour de Force,\" premiered at Madison Square Garden on 9 April 1942. The performance was successful and the crowd was particularly enthusiastic about Balanchine's extraordinary ballet. After this debut, Ringling Brothers performed the ballet another forty-two times, but Stravinsky did not attend any of the shows.
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