Friday, May 22, 2015 10:52 AM
When I was a boy, I liked to lie on the floor of a dark room and listen to classical music. My closed eyes became an IMAX screen for Rorschach-fueled fantasies—vague daydreams of struggle, passion, voyaging, and victory. Back then, I didn’t listen to music the way I do now—I simply heard a soundtrack to an invisible movie. Dvorak’s New World, Tchaikovsky’s 1812, Smetana’s Moldau, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter—they all suggested vague plotlines of grand adventures, terrific battles, and transporting joys—and Beethoven’s symphonies were right up there in my ‘top hits’ list. Classical music has always been the soundtrack to my daydreams.
Because I felt that classical music (mostly Romantic, and symphonic, at that time) was a ‘drug’ that would take me on a ‘trip’, I preferred listening to it on my bedroom record-player to sitting in the audience at Lincoln Center—a privilege that my public school provided as often as twice a year, thanks to the wonderful Mr. Freeman, our music teacher. Young people, and non-musicians of any age, I suppose, can hear music without truly appreciating that musicians have to make it. In a sense, music, to me, came from a flat, round piece of vinyl.
Walt Disney and I had that in common, sort of—but he was not a lifelong music-lover—he didn’t come to appreciate Classical Music until he had already become a successful filmmaker. But upon discovering these treasures, they became his passion. He began to use it in his “Silly Symphonies” animated shorts. While working on an extended Silly Symphony of Dumas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (a comeback role for Mickey Mouse, who was slipping in popularity) Disney determined to make it part of the full-length feature that came to be known as “Fantasia”, a set of eight animated classical works performed by Leopold Stokowski (the premiere conductor of the times).
I was in my late teens by the time I saw a reissue screening of what, by then, had become a classic film. The original 1940 release of “Fantasia” was marred by the start of World War II—the lack of European market revenue, and the mixed critical response, made the film seem a failure upon its opening. Plus, there were high costs involved in making an animated feature film—even more so in the case of “Fantasia”, as it was the first film shown in stereophonic sound, and ‘Fantasound’ equipment had to be installed in every theater that screened the film!
“Fantasia” is a treat—a celebration of both music and art, created by the world’s most beloved and successful commercial artist. Every musical piece in the film brings out special features of the individual pieces—and of music itself. For someone familiar with the music, the animation ‘accompaniment’ brought a whole new dimension to the works—and for those hearing them for the first time, it was an indelible, endearing introduction. The skill and effort of the creative teams, the innovations of artistry and technology used to achieve the film, gave the final collection of flickering images and sounds substance to rival the great pyramids of Egypt.
Now, having said all that, it’s not hard to imagine that today’s musicians could find “Fantasia” to be dated and superficial. It may be difficult for any of us today to appreciate the technical challenges of 1940—with the debut of “Beauty and the Beast” in 1991, we experienced the first CGI-generated animation (and the first animated film to be nominated for a “Best Picture” Oscar). Yet, to me, the old Disney animated classics are still marvels of effort and organization—and the proof is in the enduring value of the surviving individual cels, as collectors’ items and as works of art suitable for framing and hanging on the wall. That’s what those old films were—a sequence of hundreds of thousands of hand-painted artistic masterpieces! In comparison, CGI animations are akin to pyramids built with modern construction vehicles—still impressive, but hardly the same effort.
More importantly, serious musicians focus on the pure sound—what else is there, in music? Music videos have been a part of our culture since the 1980s—with their tendency to push more-pedestrian music’s popularity using provocative visual accompaniment, they can make ‘adding visuals’ seem overly manipulative. Plus, there are now many serious composers who are known for their soundtrack compositions made specifically for film, such as Richard Stephen Robbins’ score to “The Remains of the Day” (1993)—or even Karl Jenkin’s score for the DeBeers diamonds ad (1994). It is understandable that today’s musician might see “Fantasia” as opportunistic or exploitative of the great composers. But that would be overlooking the educational and popularizing effect of those times.
It was only the previous decade, the 1930s, that public radio broadcasts of classical music had allowed the masses to hear concert music—prior to radio, classical music had remained as much a privilege of the ‘upper class’ as it had been in the days of noble patronage, centuries before. And Leopold Stokowski, José Iturbi and Arturo Toscanini were still freshly-minted radio stars—the NBC Symphony Orchestra gave its premiere broadcast in 1937. Classical music, in 1940, was in a certain sense, the ‘latest thing’.
Plus, Disney’s animations ‘closed the distance’ for new fans of classical—instead of seeing the mechanics—a film of the orchestra itself, playing—we see the kinds of fantasies that listening to such music can inspire. Disney’s “Fantasia” showed music from the listener’s perspective, not the performer’s.
So when we are tempted to dismiss the film as trite or silly, we ignore its historical context. I’m reminded of Owen Wister, the author of “The Virginian” in 1902. Today we laugh at the clichés of Westerns—the shootouts at high noon, the schoolmarm sweethearts, the strong, silent gunslingers—yet all of these memes were original ideas when Wister first penned them. They only became clichés because these images were so powerful that they were copied and varied ad infinitum, for a century. In the same way, Disney’s enormous influence on our modern viewpoint blinds us to the originality and impact of his work when it was first created. Respect must be shown.
Not that I don’t respect Beethoven. I loved his Sixth Symphony long before I saw “Fantasia” and I love it still, in spite of the fleeting mental image of bare-breasted, gamboling centaur-nymphs imprinted by the film. I also see dancing mushrooms whenever I hear Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and feel the urge to belly-laugh whenever I hear Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours—but I’m sure the composers themselves, if we could ask them, would be flattered to have received the loving attention of Walt Disney.