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Igor Stravinsky

Most music lovers know that Igor Stravinsky was a talented composer of dance music -- so talented, in fact, that he was once asked to compose music to be danced by an elephant. In 1942, Stravinsky was in America and struggling financially when the great choreographer George Balanchine came to him with such an offer. The Barnum & Bailey Circus had commissioned from Balanchine a ballet for Modoc, an elephant with outstanding talent, and gave the choreographer carte blanche in his choice of music. Balanchine knew he had his man.

Stravinsky, after verifying for some reason that the elephants in question were very young, set about composing a polka. He completed a version for piano in 1942; film composer David Raksin transcribed it for wind band so it could be played at the circus, and Stravinsky himself made a full orchestration in 1944. The polka was premiered at Madison Square Garden in the spring of 1942 in a production involving, according to the circus program, "50 Elephants and 50 Beautiful Girls in an Original Choreographic Tour de Force, Featuring MODOC, premiere ballerina." As one might expect, the Circus Polka is short, sweet, and playful, with bright melodies and bouncy rhythms. Stravinsky being Stravinsky, however, the work is far from a straightforward polka; there is only a single instance of the classic oom-pah polka rhythm in the work, and the tune it accompanies is not an original one, but rather, Schubert's Marche militaire. There are a number of little rhythmic twists and turns throughout the work; according to contemporary accounts, these posed no problems for Modoc, but baffled the remaining elephants at the premiere. Humans will no doubt find the music charming and carefree.