In September’s Passport to America: The Immigrant Story concert, we’re featuring four incredibly talented composers who brought their gifts with them to this country and gave new richness to American music.
Among them is Russian Igor Stravinsky, who emigrated to the United States from France, where he had been living since 1920, in September 1939, weeks after the start of World War II.
“Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant” was composed for a ballet George Balanchine created for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, featuring 50 elephants and 50 dancers. Apparently, the name came about because for some reason, Stravinsky particularly wanted to know how old the elephants would be before he agreed to do it. The piece was originally written for piano, and the ballet premiered at Madison Square Garden in 1942, with the elephants clad in pink tutus.
On Friday, January 14, 1944, Stravinsky conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a concert of his own works, including the premiere of “Circus Polka,” now arranged for orchestra. The program for the performance also notes that “Mr. Stravinsky will conduct his own arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner." While he did conduct his version of the national anthem at the Friday afternoon performance, Stravinsky did not perform it at the Saturday evening performance. The reason for that has been the subject of rumor and tall tales for many years.
The following inscription from Stravinsky appears on the printed orchestral score, "Searching about for a vehicle through which I might best express my gratitude at the prospect of becoming an American citizen, I chose to harmonize and orchestrate as a national choral the beautiful sacred anthem 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' It is a desire to do my bit in these grievous times toward fostering and preserving the spirit of patriotism in this country that inspires me to tender this my humble work to the American People."
Stravinsky intended to give the national anthem the feeling of a hymn; but a Massachusetts law dating back to World War I prohibited the performance of the song “with embellishment.” Publicity led police to stand by on Saturday night before the concert. Stravinsky bowed to pressure and played the traditional version of the "The Star-Spangled Banner." Had he played his arrangement, he would have been fined; contrary to popular belief, he was not jailed, and a famous photo that circulates on the Internet is not his mug shot.
Enjoy Stravinsky’s "The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant” at Passport to America: The Immigrant Story on September 22 and 23. To purchase tickets visit capesymphony.org or call 508-362-1111.