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.