Circus Polka

From Wind Repertory Project
Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky (orch. David Raksin)

Subtitle: Composed for a Young Elephant

General Info

Year: 1942 / 1948
Duration: c. 3:35
Difficulty: V (see Ratings for explanation)
Publisher: Schott Music Distribution
Cost: Score and Parts - $250.00   |   Score Only - $34.95


Full Score
Flute I-II (I doubling Piccolo)
B-flat Soprano Clarinet Solo-I-II-III
E-flat Alto Clarinet
B-flat Bass Clarinet
E-flat Alto Saxophone I-II
B-flat Tenor Saxophone
E-flat Baritone Saxophone
B-flat Cornet Solo-I-II-III
Horn in F I-II-III
Trombone I-II-III-IV
B-flat Tenor Horn
Euphonium I-II
Tuba I-II
Percussion, including:

  • Bass Drum
  • Cymbals
  • Side Drum
  • Xylophone


See: Topolewski in Resources, below.

Program Notes

This is one of the works written soon after Stravinsky's arrival in the United States. Composed in 1942 for the Ringling Brothers Circus at the request of the choreographer George Balanchine, the polka was to accompany a ballet of elephants and was so first performed in an anonymous instrumentation for circus band.

The piece is brief, light and charming, but at the same time full of the kind of harmonic language (simple chord progressions with "one note too many" added) which gives it a piquancy identifying it unmistakably with the composer. During the simple polka tune in the woodwinds, horns and cornet, the trombones and tubas occasionally interject a few notes. At the beginning and every so often thereafter, an inexplicable rhythmic dislocation occurs, for which, somehow, the regular 2/4 meter flow emerges. The piece culminates with an extended quotation from Schubert's March Militaire -- "an absolutely natural thing," according to Stravinsky. The difficulty of the writing and the need to make the piece sound lyrical and effortless combine to maintain the flavor of this unique mixture of the graceful and the grotesque; the dancing of elephants.

While Stravinsky never saw the actual ballet, he once met Bessie, the young elephant for whom the polka was written, and he shook her foot.

- Program Note from Program Notes for Band

In 1941, Stravinsky was commissioned by his friend George Balanchine to compose a “short ballet piece” for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Balanchine desired a piece to accompany 50 trained elephants, including a large elephant named Modoc, with 50 dancers featuring his wife, Vera Zorina.

Although not indicated on the score, Circus Polka was actually orchestrated for band by David Raksin, a television and film composer, under Stravinsky’s guidance, producing a well-crafted yet difficult work. When premiered, Circus Polka, subtitled For a Young Elephant, received mixed reviews such as “musical lunacy” and “commercially inspired twaddle." However, it has since been recognized as an entertaining work from one of history’s most significant composers.

The instrumentation of Circus Polka was defined by the traveling band of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. This is a distinct feature of this lesser known wind band piece including a reduced woodwind section and the distinct sound of the Hammond organ. The original band version, premiered on April 9, 1942, in Madison Square Garden, was subsequently re-scored by Stravinsky for symphony orchestra.

- Program note by Christopher Schletter for American Chamber Winds concert program, 18 July 2017

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 and hired film composer David Raksin 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.

Program Note by Barbara Heninger for the San Francisco Wind Ensemble concert program, 26 August 2017


State Ratings

  • Kansas: VI
  • Louisiana: V


To submit a performance please join The Wind Repertory Project

Works for Winds by This Composer


  • Circus Polka, Wikipedia Accessed 26 July 2017
  • Lourens, Alan. "Frank Ticheli's List: Part 4. Circus Polka." [review] MBM Times, Issue 6, 2012, p. 62.
  • Miles, Richard, compiler and editor. Teaching Music Through Performance in Band, Volume 2. GIA Publications, 1998, pp. 555-558.
  • Smith, Norman E. Program Notes for Band. GIA Publications, 2002, p. 571
  • Stravinsky, Igor. Circus Polka: (Composed for a Young Elephant) [score]. B. Schott: 1948.
  • Topolewski, Timothy. Errata Studies for the Wind Band Conductor, Vol. 1. Topolewski, 1990.