Stravinsky and Elephants

November 28, 2007

From Daniel J. Boorstin, ‘Composing for the Community’, in The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination (New York, 1992)

He was not averse to bizarre experiments in his own name. When George Balanchine was asked by Ringling Brothers of the Barnum and Bailey Circus to commission a ballet for young elephants in 1942, he passed on the request to Stravinsky. “If they are very young,” Stravinsky agreed, “I’ll do it.” And he produced his Circus Polka in two versions. Stravinsky’s music for The Firebird had made Pavlova so uneasy in 1910 that she refused the title role. Now Stravinsky’s rhythms made the young elephants uneasy. Elephants, their trainer explained, were dignified animals who preferred waltzes and soft, dreamy tunes, but they finally gave in, and, costumed in tutus, performed Stravinsky’s Polka 425 times. The symphonic version was performed by the Boston Symphony in 1944.