Stravinsky's Circus Polka is not one of his most well-known pieces for winds, but it is certainly a fun and interesting piece to listen to. You won't find a lot of the intellectual stimulation that is in the rest of his music, but the piece certainly gives a window into his compositional mindset. Program notes are below.
Program Notes from the Redwood Symphony by Barbara Heninger, edited, amended, and otherwise improved by Eric Kujawsky, Peter Stahl, and Doug Wyatt.
It was early 1942, and George Balanchine had a commission from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus for a ballet. Balanchine quickly contacted his friend and fellow Russian expatriate, Igor Stravinsky, and told him he needed a polka. "For whom?" Stravinsky asked. "Elephants," came the answer. "How old?" "Young." "If they are very young, I will do it," Stravinsky declared.
Perhaps Stravinsky wanted young elephants because he thought the older ones wouldn’t take kindly to the often unpredictable rhythms and surprising harmonies in his music. After all, he’d made his name 30 years earlier as the shockingly modern composer of ballets such as The Firebird (1910) and The Rite of Spring (1913) for the Ballet Russes, where the Rite’s premiere had nearly caused a riot, and he’d hardly slowed down since then. From jazz to serialism, Stravinsky was always in the forefront of musical experimentation. And now, elephants. Why not?
Stravinsky quickly completed a piano version of the polka in February. Robert Russell Bennett was too busy to orchestrate, so at Bennett’s suggestion Stravinsky hired film composer David Raksin (Laura, Forever Amber, The Bad and the Beautiful) to score it for wind band. The Circus Polka premiered at Madison Square Garden in the spring of 1942, performed by the Ringling Circus Band and starring, according to the program, "Fifty Elephants and Fifty Beautiful Girls in an Original Choreographic Tour de Force, Featuring Modoc, premiere ballerina." Modoc, of course, was an elephant, and the New York Times reported that "Modoc the Elephant danced with amazing grace, and in time to the tune, closing in perfect cadence with the crashing finale." Although contemporary accounts claim the other elephants were not quite as adept at following Stravinsky’s rhythmic quirks, the act was a success and ran for 425 performances.
Stravinsky later adapted the work for full orchestra and premiered that version with the Boston Symphony in 1944. At least one of the corps de ballet -- or her keeper -- remembered her earlier experience with the polka, as Stravinsky writes:
"After conducting my orchestral original on radio from Boston in 1944, I received a congratulatory telegram from Bessie, a young pachyderm who had carried a ballerina and who had heard that broadcast in the winter headquarters of the Circus in Sarasota. I never saw the circus ballet, but I met Bessie in Los Angeles once and shook her foot."
Befitting its subject, the Circus Polka is brisk and bright. Though it maintains a 2/4 meter throughout, the music often moves in bursts and jerks within that meter, like a dancer going in and out of step. Stravinsky makes use of typical circus music sounds, such as thumping bass drum with cymbal or fleet piccolo lines, and frequently features the low brass, evoking images of ponderous elephants prancing. The work includes an enthusiastic quotation from Franz Schubert’s Marche militaire, which Stravinsky insisted was not used at all ironically. A series of off-beat "stamps" bring the piece to a rousing close.
Wikipedia article on Circus Polka
Igor Stravinsky, Circus Polka
Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Avi Ostrowsky, conductor