At first, you’re more or less conscious of the orchestra. So our picture opens with a series of impressions of the conductor and the players. Then the music begins to suggest other things to your imagination. They might be, oh, just masses of color or they may be cloud forms or great landscapes or vague shadows or geometrical objects floating in space.
-Narrator, Disney’s Fantasia (1940), Introduction of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”
Music from Walt Disney’s Fantasia (London, 1972)
Side 1: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor – Bach, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – Dukas
Side 2: Night on Bald Mountain – Mussorgsky/Stokowski, Dance of the Hours -Poncielli
It reflects on the trends in music that I found this gem in the clearance bin of a record store, and that I paid only $1.00 for classical compositions that meant so much to me growing up. The dollar purchase was a no-brainer for me, since I’ve always had an appreciation for classical music as well as a nostalgic love for Fantasia; I was happy to give the record a home.
When I was in Middle School, my music teacher asked my class what our favorite type of music was. We were to separate ourselves into groups and come up with a list of reasons we liked that music and share them with the class. Those who liked pop explained that they liked the catchy beats, fans of rap emphasized the clever word-play and rhythm, and my class mates who favored country spoke about story telling and acoustic guitar.
The lesson was that everybody likes different kinds of music and that it’s okay because we all have our reasons.
While I almost found myself with the group of country-listeners (as that is the music I was most accustomed to), I ended up on my own, making a list on why I liked classical music. When it came time to share with the class, I changed my favorite genre to “soundtracks” because it was a lot easier to justify liking music that could take me back to my favorite movie than it was to simply say “I like strings and horns and pianos and the sounds they can make together.”
So, I blushed my way through explaining how Howard Shore’s “Lord of the Rings” score was the most epic, exciting composition that I’d ever heard, all the while trying to describe why I liked classical music in a way that didn’t sound pompous.
What allowed me to unify “classical” and “soundtracks” was the idea that the music could lead my imagination to pictures and sensations that were powered by the sounds alone – that in the same way I could picture the Fellowship of the Ring trekking between two boulders upon hearing “The Ring Goes South” I could also see a story unfolding in classical pieces.
At a later time in the class, we did another exercise in which we tried to guess what stories were being told just from hearing the compositions. In one, the echoing tip toe of string basses and cellos reminded me of descending dangerously into a cave long before the teacher revealed the title of the piece: “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” I was so proud of myself for guessing almost correctly – I thought it was the coolest thing that something like that could be done.
Although I am not an expert on classical music, I do give Disney’s Fantasia full credit for my ability to connect with it. It’s exactly that kind of vivid imagery that the movie exemplifies. While some could argue that Disney’s Fantasia quells a child’s imagination in that it provides the story for them, doing the work so to speak, I actually believe the program does more to cultivate our imaginations. Although, yeah, part of me will always picture dancing mushrooms when I hear the “Chinese Dance” of the Nutcracker Suite, it’s more important to recognize that the combination of moving pictures set to a classical soundtrack generates an understanding of how narrative or emotive classical music can be. Someone only exposed to contemporary music, which evokes emotion through lyricism and delivery, could have difficulty reaching this understanding.
Fantasia offers an opening for classical music in today’s culture, even as classical-crossover and instrumental cover acts, like BOND and Vitamin String Quartet respectively, strive to bring instrumental arts to the modern audience. Although it’s an old movie, it’s an effective one.
Out of the selections included on the 1972 London recording, my favorite remains “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” bu Paul Dukas, which I love for purely sentimental reasons. Mickey will always be my kryptonite, and marching brooms always makes me smile whether I am at home watching the film or in Disney World awaiting their arrival in the parade. The music is particularly narrative, which makes sense since the story (from a Goethe poem) came before the composition!
In addition to their scope on a narrative spectrum, abstract on one end and plot-driven story on the other (this is something Fantasia particularly emphasizes about the selections), what I like about this combination of compositions is their diversity.
“Classical Music” is actually a confusing term because we use it generally to describe any Western music before the 1900s. But there’s also a “Classical period” in music, roughly from the mid 18th century to early 19th century. It was followed by the Romantic period and prefaced by Baroque. We hear both in this collection.
“Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by Johann Sebastian Bach comes from the Baroque period, which emphasized the heavy ornamentation and decoration in the music. It is the most abstract of the compositions in this collection, and this is reflected in the Fantasia sequence.
In comparison, the flowing ”Dance of the Hours” by Amilcare Ponchielli comes to us from the Romantic Era. It was written for Act III finale of the opera La Gioconda, and the ballet details the hours of the day. This is the dancing hippos portion of Fantasia. Another composition from the Romantic period, ”Night On Bald Mountain” by Modest Mussorgsky was heavily influenced by the myths and folklore of Russia. As a tone poem it tells the story of a witches’ sabbath taking place on St. John’s Night near “Bald Mountain.” In Fantasia with Stokowski’s famous arrangement, which was inspired by the Rimsy-Korsokov interpretation, the piece illustrates the Slavic deity, Chernabog, summoning ghosts and demons. In contrast to “Dance of the Hours”, “Night on Bald Mountain” is constantly dark, booming and chaotic.
Works missing from the record include the Nutcracker Suite, Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (Pastoral), The Rite of Spring, and “Ave Maria” which immediately follows “Night on Bald Mountain” in the program. The four included in the collection, however, are brilliant representations of the themes inherent in Fantasia and of classical music as a whole.