After the outbreak of "World War II and his emigration to "Los Angeles, California, in 1939, Stravinsky continued to work within the neo-classical framework, but beginning in the early 1950s turned to various "serial techniques, which he used until his death in 1971.
Elegy for J. F. K. is scored for baritone or mezzo-soprano accompanied by three clarinets (two "B♭ clarinets and an "alto clarinet in E♭), and is a "twelve-tone serial composition. The text, in four "haiku stanzas each of 17 syllables, was written at Stravinsky's request by "W. H. Auden in memory of assassinated President "John F. Kennedy, and Stravinsky chose to repeat the opening stanza at the end (White 1979, 533–34). Elegy makes use of various textural changes to accommodate the changes in vocal register. The piece is in ternary form, just like the poem, meaning that material is repeated in the first and last nine measures. Various compositional elements suggest the severity of the topic such as the frequent use of da capo, the perfect fifth D♯–A♯ in the clarinets from mm. 7–8, and the repeated tritone G♯–D throughout.
Stravinsky composed the vocal line first, only adding the accompaniment afterward—a working method he likened to "Schoenberg's in the Phantasie for violin and piano (Stravinsky and Craft 1966, 58). The row Stravinsky uses for the Elegy,
is remarkable for the three "tritones that occur in the first half (White 1979, 533). This row is related to the two rows Stravinsky previously used in the Bransles movement of "Agon and at the words "Te Deum" in "The Flood, by reordering the six "pitch-class "dyads in each row (Smyth 1999, 133–34).
A twelve-tone analysis of this piece shows some patterns of the style. As in all twelve-tone music, there is a mathematical relationship between the prime, inverted, and retrograde series. For example, the melody pitches in mm. 1–8 are P0, and the harmonic pitches that the clarinets play are RI0 (D♯, C♯, A♯, A, G, F, B, C, F♯, E, D, and G♯), with some repeated pitches and the perfect fifth of D♯ and A♯ played in mm. 7 and 8. Stravinsky uses the P0 form in all of the measure rows except mm. 9–13 which uses RI0. The words for these measures have the lyrics “'Why then? Why there? Why thus,' We cry, 'did he die?'”