Composers Datebook®

Stravinsky at the circus

Composers Datebook - Jan. 13, 2024


Late in 1941, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky was living in Hollywood — at 1260 N. 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 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, Modoc, who would be accompanied by 50 other elephants and dancers, all in tutus.

“For what?” Stravinsky said.

“For elephants,” Balanchine said.

“How many?” Stravinsky countered.

“A lot,” Balanchine replied.

“How old?” Stravinsky asked.

“Young,” Balanchine assured.

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

Stravinsky’s work, Circus Polka, had its debut at Madison Square Garden in New York by the Barnum Circus and was performed by what Stravinsky once called Barnum’s “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).

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®