My Favorite Pieces of Classical Music Monday: My Favorite Pieces of Classical Music: Part 4: Walt Disney’s Fantasia

Hello, All.

Happy Monday.

This is a special day for me because it is my 23rd birthday.

To that end, I will do special blog post, and I will talk about some of my favorite pieces of classical in my absolute favorite film: Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

In the late 1930’s Walt Disney planned to make a special Mickey Mouse cartoon accompanied by the the musical piece, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, composed by Paul Dukas.  The intention was to increase the popularity of Mickey Mouse who was beginning to lose fame to other cartoon characters of the time.  One night at restaurant called Chasen’s Southern Pit, Disney had a chance encounter with Leopold Stokowski, the most famous conductor of the time.  Both men were fans of the other, and Disney asked him to conduct the music for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, to which Stokowski agreed.  However, as production began, Disney realized that the expenses of the short film were growing too much.  He and Stokowski decided to make entire feature based around animated images accompanied by classical music pieces.  They hired Deems Taylor, a composer and music critic, to act as the film’s host, and they created a film version of a classical music concert.

I first discovered the film in late 1999 when I began seeing previews of Fantasia 2000, the sequel to the original film.  I would see that film at the IMAX theater (Fantasia 2000 was screened exclusively in IMAX theaters from January 1, 2000 until April 30, 2000, and it opened in standard theaters on June 16 of that year.) the following February 2000, and I enjoyed it.  Later that summer, I rented the original Fantasia on VHS from Blockbuster, and I greatly enjoyed that as well.

To me, Fantasia is very mystical, mysterious, rich, diverse, and complex.  It has 8 different segments, each dedicated to a specific classical piece.

The first is the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach, though in recent years, many music scholars and musicologists have questioned whether or not he actually wrote it, since the styles and techniques within it are atypical of him and more consistent with music composed after the Baroque era.  It was originally composed for organ, but Stokowski created an orchestra arrangement for it.  Since the piece was aboslute muisc, music that is not meant to tell a story or depict something concrete, Disney and his animators decided to use abstract animation to go with the music.  Taylor states in his introduction that if one were to go to a concert all and hear this piece, abstract images might go through one’s head.

Second, the The Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky.  Rather than retell the story of the Nutcracker, Disney interpreted the music as a ballet of the personification of nature.  Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is about sprites and fairies putting dew all over a forest during the nighttime.  The Chinese Dance shows a group of mushrroms, made to look Chinese, doing a Chince dance.  Dance of the Reed Flutes depicts ballerina flowers dancing.  The Arab Dance, depicts sexy, sultry goldfish dancing.  The Russian Dance shows lilies and thistles doing a Russian folk dance.  And finally, the Waltz of the Flowers shows fairies changing the seasons from summer to fall and from fall to winter.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice features Mickey Mouse as the apprentice of a sorcerer.  He decides, without permission of supervision, to use the Sorcerer’s magic hat to bring a broomstick to life to fill a cauldron with water.  However, Mickey could not get the broomstick to stop…

The Rite of Spring is different from the first three pieces in that its story is from science rather than fantasy.  It shows the history of the world from when the world was nothing but volcanoes to the evolution of life to the age of the dinosaurs and their extinction.  The composer, Igor Stravinksy was the only Fantasia composer alive at the time.  He enjoyed a work in progress version of the segment, and after the final film was released, he gave the studio the rights to use three of his other works in future films; however, Stravinsky later went on record saying that he hated that a third of the music was omitted and that much of what was kept was reordered.

Next, is “Meet the Soundtrack” where an animated line demonstrates the sounds that the orchestra is capable of making.  The animators certainly embued a lot of personality into the line, making it seem as real  and as memorable as any human or animal character they have created.

Next, is the Pastoral Symphony.  Disney chose to depict the music as depicting Greek mythological creatures including, flying horses, centaurs, fauns, and unicorns.  They originally chose the piece Cydalise by Gabriel Pierne, but the music was not complementary enough to the animation, and so they chose Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. In three sections, the segments depicts, the creatures living around Mount Olympus, the centaurs and centaurettes near a river, a huge party interrupted by Zeus and Vulcan creating a thunderstorm, and then the end of the storm and nightfall.

Then, the film moves on to Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, depicting ostriches hippos, elephants, and alligators doing ballet.  The film was meant as a parody of ballet, but it still pays tribute to ballet at the same time.

Finally, is a double segment, Modest Mussorgsky A Night on Bald Mountain and Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria.  This was designed as a battle of the profane and the sacred.  The first shows the black god, Chernabog coming to life and summoning all sorts of evil beings.  However, when church bells ring, all the evil goes back into hiding and we see a group of the faithful walking through the woods carrying torches as the sun rises.

So diverse, yet so cohesive, Fantasia is a wonderful cinematic journey.  While it was not appreciated much when it was first released, it eventually got its due, and is heralded as a classic.  And now many people around the world appreciate for the work of art that it is.

 

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TV Tropes: Non-Singing Voice

This is not a trope, but rather trivia that is on the website of TV Tropes.  The reason that it’s not a trope is because it is not a narrative device.  It’s absence or presence has nothing to do with the story at hand.

Non-Singing Voice refers to the phenomena where an actor is cast in a musical film.  However, the actor does not sing his or her character’s songs in the movie; somebody else does.  The reasons are that the actor cannot sing or that he or she simply does not have the right voice for the material at hand.

This was most common during the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Rather than cast actors who could sing, studios would cast whomever they felt was best for the role or whomever was a bankable actor.  If the actor could not sing the songs in the film, then the studio would hire someone who could.  This was done in secret because it was felt that it would ruin the film for viewers if they knew that actors were not really singing the musical numbers.  Usually an attempt was made to make sure the singer could sound the way the actors might if the actors could actually sing; so in a way these singers were also acting the roles at hand.  Such singers were known as playback singers and their actions for the films were known as dubbing; they would often sign contracts promising to keep their roles in the films secret.  Eventually, the fact that the singers would dub famous actors became common knowledge, but there does not seem to be any backlash against the films themselves.

Now here are some noteworthy cases of the Non-Singing Voice.

Marni Nixon was one of the most common playback singers; she might as well be called the “Queen of the Playback Singers/Dubbers”.  She dubbed for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story, and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.

Natalie Wood appeared in several musical films and was dubbed in most of them.  The most noteworthy is her role as Maria in West Side Story.  She recorded her songs for the film, but her voice was considered sub-par because the songs were written for a higher vocal range than she was capable of.  She was given the impression at least some of her voice would be used in the final film, but after shooting completed, she was informed that all of her singing would be thrown out, and that Marni Nixon would re-record her musical numbers.  She felt betrayed.  On YouTube there are clips comparing Wood’s voice to Nixon’s voice; it’s clear that Nixon has the more refined voice, and Wood simply lacked the range to adequately sing the songs. In 1962, a year later, Wood appeared in the adaptation of the musical Gypsy as the title character, and did sing her parts; it helped that the score of Gypsy was not as demanding as West Side Story.  Wood would be dubbed two more times.  In 1965 she appeared in the film The Great Race; Jackie Ward recorded the song “The Sweetheart Tree” which Wood’s character sings.  Later that year Wood appeared in Inside Daisy Clover; she had three numbers, A slow and fast version of “You’re Gonna Hear from Me” and “The Circus Is a Wacky World.”  Once again, Wood recorded all of those songs, but only her recording of the first four lines of the slow version of “You’re Gonna Hear from Me” appeared in the final film.  The rest was dubbed by Jackie Ward.  Ward later remarked that after she recorded the songs in the studio with the orchestra, the orchestra erupted into a standing ovation; when she asked why, they said that they were happy that there was finally someone who could sing the songs; Wood’s performances of the songs were apparently sub-par.  Wood later stated that she was not against filming another musical, but only if she could guarantee that all of her songs would be recorded by her and appear in the final film.

In 1990’s several animated films featured voice actors who did not sing their musical numbers, and who instead had other people provide the singing voices of their characters.  This included the Disney films, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Mulan.  Other non-Disney animated films that did this included Anastasia, The Swan Princess, Quest for Camelot, and The Prince of Egypt.

Audrey Hepburn appeared in the 1964 adaptation of the hit Broadway musical  My Fair Lady as Eliza Doolittle.  Julie Andrews, who originated the role on stage, was considered, but was rejected as she had never shot a movie before.  The role called for a soprano vocal range, that Hepburn simply did not have.  She recorded all of her songs, but all of them were re-recorded, except for the majority of “Just You Wait” which was in a lower range than the rest, and one line of “I Could Have Danced All Night,” by Marni Nixon.  Audrey Hepburn stormed out the studio when she learned that her singing would be replaced, but she shortly afterwards apologized her behaving so childishly.  When it was somehow revealed that Hepburn was dubbed by Nixon, Nixon gained infamy, and it is rumored that this revelation is why Hepburn was not even nominated for her role in the film which won several Oscars, including Best Picture.  Ironically, Julie Andrews made her film debut in Mary Poppins that same year and won the Oscar for Best Actress.  There are clips available of YouTube comparing Hepburn’s voice to that of Nixon’s.  Once again, Nixon is clearly more skilled for the material at hand.

In film version of Carmen Jones, much  of the cast could sing, including Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, and Diahann Carroll, but they could not sing opera.  So, opera singers dubbed their voices. The exceptions included Pearl Bailey and Olga James; interestingly, Bailey’s voice did not sound operatic at all, and therefore, does not fit in the rest of the voices in the film (supposedly she refused to be dubbed) and James did have the ability to same opera.  Similarly in the film version of Porgy and Bess most of the cast (some of them had appeared in Carmen Jones) was dubbed, but some were not including Pearl Bailey.

Interestingly, it seems rare nowadays for modern musical films to use playback singers.  I think the reason might be because most actors nowadays have the clout to be able to sing their songs.  Also and perhaps, audiences would not accept the fact that their favorite actors in the film are not really singing.  Modern examples in musical live-action films inlucde George Clooney being dubbed in O Brother Where Art Thou by Dan Tyminski, Zac Efron being dubbed by Drew Seeley in the first High School Musical film (the others in the series had the songs written to fit within Efron’s vocal range) and Minnie Driver being dubbed by Margaret Preece in the film version of The Phantom of the Opera.