‘Circus Polka’: Stravinsky’s ballet for elephants, 1942
09.16.2013
06:05 am

Topics:
Animals
Dance
Music

Tags:
Igor Stravinsky
George Balanchine

George Balanchine with elephant
George Balanchine mollifying a temperamental ballet dancer

If there’s one thing New York City lacks nowadays, it’s ballets by major composers with elephants in them….

Cast your mind back more than seventy years ago. It’s Thursday, April 9, 1942. The country is at war. You’re in New York, and you have a free evening at your disposal. What to do?

Here are a few suggestions. If you’d like to see a movie, there’s a brand new comedy called My Favorite Blonde starring that wonderful young comedian Bob Hope. But perhaps you’re in the mood for live performance. Let’s see…. At the Imperial Theatre on West 45th Street you can catch the new Cole Porter musical Let’s Face It! starring Danny Kaye and Eve Arden, or over at the Majestic Theatre a block down on 44th, there’s always George Gershwin’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess.

Or wait—what am I thinking!? There’s no way you’re not going to want to attend the world premiere of the elephant polka choreographed by George Balanchine and composed by Igor Stravinsky, right? That happens tonight at Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th, let’s get a move on before it sells out! (Yes, that’s where MSG was located between 1925 and 1968.)

This actually happened. The “father of American ballet” and arguably the most innovative composer of the pre-WW2 period really did partner up to write a performance for fifty elephants (with fifty ballerinas on top of them) for the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. The resultant work was called “Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant.” The elephants, all fifty of them, wore pink tutus.

Not too surprisingly, the crowd loved it.
 
Balanchine and Stravinsky, 1957
Balanchine and Stravinsky in 1957, possibly discussing a tarantella arranged for panda bears.

According to Stephen Walsh’s entertaining account in Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934-1971, here’s how it all went down:

[H]e was telephoned from New York by Balanchine, who had been approached by Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s Circus to choreograph a polka for the circus elephants, and wanted Stravinsky to compose the music. Stravinsky told him that he could not write even a short piece before March. . . . All the same he certainly tinkered with the idea long before that. He noticed that by an odd coincidence there were polka rhythms everywhere in the Danses concertantes, and at about Christmastime he started sketching ideas for the elephant piece while still working on the ending of the Danses. Then, as soon as that work was finished, he rapidly composed the Circus Polka as a piano solo and completed the draft score by the 5th of February. The point about this, for him, slightly unusual way of working was that Ringling would need a score for a circus band, and for the first time in his life Stravinsky did not feel equal to the task. So he approached the best-known Hollywood arranger of the day, Robert Russell Bennett, and Bennett recommended a young composer called David Raskin—a pupil of Schoenberg, as it turned out, and already an experienced filmwriter—who duly orchestrated the polka for the bizarre combination of wind and percussion instruments (including Hammond organ) that Ringling had assembled for their circus performances.

As a piece of barefaced opportunism, the Circus Polka was hard to beat. A few years later Stravinsky gratefully accepted a Canadian interviewer’s suggestion that the piece was a musical equivalent of the circus paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec, but at the time he was mainly concerned to write it as quickly as possible for the biggest fee Balanchine could get him. Later still, he reconstructed the original phone conversation in terms of an imaginary aesthetic discrimination. “I wonder if you’d like to do a little ballet with me, a polka perhaps,” Balanchine is supposed to have said. “For whom?” “For some elephants.” “How old?” “Very young.” (After a pause) “All right. If they are very young elephants, I will do it.” As for the music, the piece galumphs amusingly enough through vestiges of rhythmic ideas from the Danses concertantes reimagined for pachyderms, with an unexpected nod at one point toward Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and ending with a heavily underlined and quotation-marked parody of the same Schubert march that he had merely hinted at in the Janssen score.

In fact the ballet—which Stravinsky never saw—was danced, when the circus opened at New York’s Madison Square Garden on the 9th of April, by fifty elephants in pink tutus, all apparently of mature age, like the fifty girls who sat atop them. At their head, lovely Vera Zorina rode in on Old Modoc, the chief and oldest elephant.

As carefully as if La Zorina were spun glass—which she is!—
the giant deposited her in the center of the forest of elephants,
and when she had completed her exquisite pirouetting upon
the sawdust picked her up and carried her away. But not
before she had handed [Modoc] a huge bunch of American
Beauties, which he promptly coiled up in his trunk like
a commuter filing his copy of
The New York Sun under
his arm to read after dinner.

 
-snip-

Fortunately there was no stampede except at the box office, and though the Ringlings never revived the piece after the first season, the publicity it attracted served them well until, after less than two months, the band was paid off because of a pay dispute, and the circus continued with gramophone recordings, which of course precluded the Stravinsky ballet.

Here’s some of the music:

 
And here’s a brief documentary clip about the elephant ballet, which is still pretty diverting even though it’s entirely in Russian:

Written by Martin Schneider | Discussion
Musical universes collide: When Charlie Parker flipped Igor Stravinsky the (Fire)Bird
07.06.2013
12:22 pm

Topics:
History
Music

Tags:
Charlie Parker
Igor Stravinsky


 
A friend of mine once told me how, when Igor Stravinsky happened to wander, purely by accident, into a Charlie Parker set in New York with some friends, he was so shocked by what he was hearing that, in the midst of Parker’s set, he rose to his feet, clapped a hand on his brow, bellowed “OH MY GOD,” and ran out the establishment.

Only dared double-check this charming vignette today, and found that, though the historical record might not be quite as picturesque as my friend’s account (and nowhere near so happenstance), it ain’t too shabby neither—yes, scotch reportedly flew when these two musical universes happily collided at Birdland in 1951. The following excerpt is by Alfred Appel and is from Jazz Modernism (I found it here):

Charlie Parker enthusiasts circa 1950 often declared him the jazz equivalent of Stravinsky and Bartok, and asserted that he’d absorbed their music, though skeptics countered that there was no evidence he was even familiar with it. Parker himself clarified the issue for me one night in the winter of 1951, at New York’s premier modern jazz club, Birdland, at Broadway and Fifty-second Street. It was Saturday night, Parker’s quintet was the featured attraction, and he was in his prime, it seemed. I had a good table near the front, on the left side of the bandstand, below the piano. The house was almost full, even before the opening set — Billy Taylor’s piano trio — except for the conspicuous empty table to my right, which bore a RESERVED sign, unusual for Birdland. After the pianist finished his forty-five-minute set, a party of four men and a woman settled in at the table, rather clamorously, three waiters swooping in quickly to take their orders as a ripple of whispers and exclamations ran through Birdland at the sight of one of the men, Igor Stravinsky. He was a celebrity, and an icon to jazz fans because he sanctified modern jazz by composing Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman and his Orchestra (1946) — a Covarrubias “Impossible Interview” come true.

As Parker’s quintet walked onto the bandstand, trumpeter Red Rodney recognized Stravinsky, front and almost center. Rodney leaned over and told Parker, who did not look at Stravinsky. Parker immediately called the first number for his band, and, forgoing the customary greeting to the crowd, was off like a shot. At the sound of the opening notes, played in unison by trumpet and alto, a chill went up and down the back of my neck. They were playing “KoKo,” which, because of its epochal breakneck tempo — over three hundred beats per minute on the metronome — Parker never assayed before his second set, when he was sufficiently warmed up. Parker’s phrases were flying as fluently as ever on this particular daunting “Koko.” At the beginning of his second chorus he interpolated the opening of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite as though it had always been there, a perfect fit, and then sailed on with the rest of the number. Stravinsky roared with delight, pounding his glass on the table, the upward arc of the glass sending its liquor and ice cubes onto the people behind him, who threw up their hands or ducked. The hilarity of the audience didn’t distract Parker, who, playing with his eyes wide open and fixed on the middle distance, never once looked at Stravinsky. The loud applause at the conclusion of “Koko” stopped in mid-clap, so to speak, as Parker, again without a word, segued into his gentle version of “All the Things You Are.” Stravinsky was visibly moved. Did he know that Parker’s 1947 record of the song was issued under the title “Bird of Paradise?”

Sounds like quite a night! Here’s some fantastic Charlie Parker footage…
 

Written by Thomas McGrath | Discussion
Lost Stravinsky? ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’ to premiere in London
03.23.2011
10:37 am

Topics:
History
Music

Tags:
Igor Stravinsky
Song of the Volga Boatmen

image
 
On Thursday evening in London, there will be a premiere of what is thought by some to be a long-lost orchestration of “Song of the Volga Boatmen” by Igor Stravinsky. Joseph Landers, a music professor at the the University of Montevallo in Alabama, discovered a set of parts of the Stravinsky manuscript “in a pile of music destined for the rubbish heap.’ From Alabama.com:

A note attached to the parts, which he found while cleaning house at a New York library, read, “Parts orchestrated by Stravinsky especially for Mr. (Feodor) Chaliapin,” the famous bass singer. The complete score for the arrangement of the Russian folk song, “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” has never been found, so Landers assembled one for performance by the Orion Symphony in Cadogan Hall, in London’s Chelsea area.

Though doubt remains among some scholars concerning its authenticity, Orion conductor Toby Purser is convinced it is the real thing. He programmed the work as a result.

“There are moments of genius and originality in the orchestration which make its authenticity absolutely convincing to me,” he said in a written statement.

Landers was encouraged when he presented his findings last year to discerning scholars at Cambridge University, garnering support from musicologist Nicholas Cook and composer Robin Holloway. He hopes the London performance will help prove that the work is genuine, and perhaps yield the original score from a library, archive or attic.

“Stravinsky holographs show up every couple of years,” he told the Birmingham News last year. “I think it will be a point of debate in academic scholarship. I think it will get some legs as a controversy, probably after the premiere.”

Orion conductor Toby Purser is so sure the orchestration is Stravinsky’s that the audience will be asked to vote on its authenticity after the performance. Tickets can be purchased here.

“Song of the Volga Boatman, a traditional Russian folk song that dates back hundreds of years, was a #1 hit for the Glenn Miller Orchestra and is often heard in Bugs Bunny cartoons. Rocker Billy Squier inserted a bit of it into his biggest hit, “The Stroke.”

Below, Igor Stravinsky conducts “The Firebird” in Japan:
 

Written by Richard Metzger | Discussion