Composers Datebook

Stravinsky at the circus

Igor Stravinsky (1882 –1971) Circus Polka London Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas, cond. RCA 68865

Composers Datebook for January 13, 2021


January 13, 2021


Late in 1941, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky was living in Hollywood – at 1260 North Wetherly Drive, to be precise.

Notoriously unflappable, and eminently practical when it came to commissions, Stravinsky apparently did not even bat an eye when he received a phone call from the choreographer Georges Balanchine with an offer from Barnum’s Circus to write a short musical work for a ballet involving elephants. Again, to be precise, for Barnum’s star elephant ballerina named Modoc, who would be accompanied by fifty other elephants and dancers, all in tutus.

“For what?” Stravinsky asked.

“For elephants,” said Balanchine.

“How many?” countered Stravinsky.

“A lot,” replied Balanchine.

“How old?” asked Stravinsky.

“Young,” assured Balanchine.

”Well, if they’re young, I accept,” concluded Stravinsky.

Stravinsky’s work, entitled “Circus Polka,” had its debut at Madison Square Garden in New York by the Barnum Circus, and was performed by what Stravinsky once called their “respectable quadrupeds” some 400 times. Stravinsky then arranged his “Circus Polka” for symphony orchestra and conducted the premiere of that version (minus the elephants) with the Boston Symphony in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on today’s date in 1944.

Music Played in Today's Program

Igor Stravinsky (1882 –1971) Circus Polka London Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas, cond. RCA 68865

On This Day


  • 1690 - German composer Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel, in Grünstadtl;

  • 1866 - Russian composer Vassili Sergeievitch Kalinnikov, in Voin (Julian date: Jan 1.);

  • 1904 - British composer Richard Addinsell, in London;


  • 1864 - American composer Stephen Foster, age 37, in Bellevue Hospital, New York;

  • 1980 - Russian-born American conductor and arranger André Kostelanetz, age 78, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti;


  • 1726 - Bach: Sacred Cantata No. 32 ("Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen") performed on the 1st Sunday after Epiphany as part of Bach's third annual Sacred Cantata cycle in Leipzig (1725/27);

  • 1775 - Mozart: opera "La finta giardiniera" (The Feigned Gardener), in Munich at the Opernhaus St. Salvator;

  • 1873 - Rimsky-Korsakov: opera "The Maid of Pskov" (first version) in St. Petersburg, Napravnik conducting; This was Rimsky-Korsakov’s first opera (Julian date: Jan.1);

  • 1904 - Bartók: tone-poem “Kossuth,” in Budapest; Bartók’s parody of the German national hymn in this work caused an uproar at the work’s premiere;

  • 1944 - Stravinsky: "Circus Polka" (concert version) and "Four Norwegian Moods," in Cambridge at the Garden Theatre, with the Boston Symphony conducted by the composer;

  • 1945 - Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5, by the Moscow State Philharmonic, with the composer conducting;

  • 2000 - Danielpour: "Voices of Remembrance" for string quartet and orchestra, in Washington, D.C. with the Guarneri String Quartet and the National Symphony, Leonard Slatkin conducting.


  • 1910 - Lee De Forest relays experimental Met Opera performances via a radio transmitter (see also Jan. 12).