Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



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beethoven's disney moment

November 10, 2013

beethoven's disney moment

image courtesy The Walt Disney Company

LACO’s upcoming concert features a landmark of the Romantic symphony: Beethoven’s Sixth — known as the “Pastoral.” For many music lovers, it is a gorgeous five-movement piece that suggests scenes in the countryside and provides evidence of Beethoven’s burgeoning embrace of programmatic music. For some in the audience, however, it will conjure up images of fauns, unicorns and the gods on Mount Olympus. This is the influence of Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

When Walt Disney’s Fantasia was released in 1940, it was certainly a landmark for the Disney company, but it was not the studio’s first foray into matching musical ideas with animation; from 1929 to 1939, Disney produced seventy-five short films that did just that called Silly Symphonies. Walt Disney had the idea of producing a Silly Symphony featuring Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice set to the eponymous piece by Paul Dukas.

When the production ran far over-budget, the Disney brothers (Walt and Roy, who handled the finances) decided to make the Sorcerer’s Apprentice part of a feature film alongside other selections of music and animation.

For a while they called it The Concert Feature, and Leopold Stokowski — who had conducted the Sorcerer’s Apprentice— agreed to lead the rest of the musical choices. Deems Taylor, a composer and critic, was chosen to introduce and provide commentary on-screen for the selections, and he came aboard during the development phase. In the fall of 1938, the creative team settled on the following program for The Concert Feature: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement), Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Cydalise et le Chèvre-pied by Gabriel Pierné, among others.

If you remember the film, you might recall that Debussy’s Clair de Lune did not make the final cut, and you might wonder why Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is missing from the list. Pierné’s ballet Cydalise, which opens with a march called, “The Entry of the Little Fauns,” had inspired the mythological frolicking that is now associated with the Pastoral segment. And, in fact, it was a few months into production that Cydalise was replaced with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. It’s hard to imagine the film any other way at this point, but it could have gone much differently. The decision to use Beethoven’s Sixth instead of Pierné’s ballet was not universally accepted. Leopold Stokowski raised the objection that perhaps they were moving too far away from Beethoven’s original intent (although he seemed to have little to no objection to dancing mushrooms in the Nutcracker or dinosaurs in the Rite of Spring). Walt Disney, however, pushed hard for the piece’s inclusion in the film famously saying of its appearance in Fantasia, “This will make Beethoven!” Stokowski supposedly replied, “That’s true . . . some who have never heard his name will see this.”

I listened to Fantasia’s double album growing up. It provided my first exposure to Stravinsky and Mussorgsky, and I was a very receptive audience. Music was always endlessly fascinating to me, and the animation was something of an afterthought. Imagine my consternation, then, when I was twenty-three years old, facing down a classroom full of middle school students who did not stay rapt with attention when I played Mozart or Beethoven.

I turned to Fantasia for help.

I needed some multi-media activities for my sixth-graders that allowed them to get past their own musical prejudices and really hear different kinds of classical music. They had been mostly resistant to music with violins and flutes, but I figured that cartoons would help the music go down easier. We watched one segment of Fantasia every couple of classes, and they ate it up. They loved the dinosaurs of Rite of Spring. They adored the autumn fairies of the Nutcracker. They laughed with the dancing hippos of Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours. And they loved the centaurs and unicorns of Beethoven’s Pastoral. It’s amazing how easily they accepted the music when it was accompanied by adorable creatures, beautiful landscapes and comedic slapstick characters (like drunk Bacchus).

Fantasia was a grand undertaking that employed more than a thousand people, and at first it was a loss. There were a few reasons for this, among them the limitations on foreign markets because of World War II, the complex new sound system required for stereo showings of the film — Fantasound – and a running time just a shade over two hours. Since RKO Radio pictures had the distribution deal for the film, they exerted some pressure on Disney to cut the film down to a shorter running time, eliminating Deems Taylor’s commentary and the abstract opener of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. In January 1942, RKO made these changes and released the film in a mono print (without Fantasound). Four years later, RKO brought back the commentary and restored Bach’s piece, but managed to trim about ten minutes off the running time. The film’s complicated history after that is filled with re-releases, re-cuts, re-recordings and transfers to different formats and aspect ratios. Deems Taylor’s commentary was replaced with voice over narration by at least two other people, one in the 1982 version and one in the 1985 version.

An especially notable change: in 1960 a black female centaur from the Pastoral segment — a racially insensitive depiction — was removed from the film. The scenes of “Sunflower,” as she was named, were at first crude cuts that took out both her scenes and the music that accompanied them (I imagine this was quite jarring). Later versions crop her out, allowing the music to remain intact.

Fantasia finally turned a profit after its 1969 theatrical re-release, but unfortunately Walt Disney did not live to see that happen. Part of the film’s popularity at this time was linked to the counter-culture. The 1969 poster advertising the film is almost like a Peter Max-inspired psychedelic painting featuring mushrooms, Pegasus and the demon from Night on Bald Mountain. Think Yellow Submarine meets Disney.

In 1990, Fantasia celebrated its fiftieth anniversary by releasing the 1946 version processed from the original negatives. It had been painstakingly restored over two years, and Stokowski’s score (which had been re-recorded in the 1980s) was digitally remastered. It’s hard to believe that Beethoven’s music originally was not part of this feature, although it would have been impossible to include every “great” composer. (It would also likely be impossible to get a consensus on how to define “great.”) After all, Mozart’s music did not make it into Fantasia or its sequel. Yes, despite all of the difficulty and time-consuming work of the original, the Disney company decided to put out a sequel in 1999.

The brainchild of Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt and son of Roy, Fantasia 2000 featured Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and — my personal favorite — an Al Hirschfeld-inspired romp through New York City set to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. And, of course, Beethoven starts the show this time with the first movement of the Fifth Symphony (cut down considerably, but still effective).

I took my sixth-graders on a field trip to see Fantasia 2000 in New York City. It was a memorable outing for both the students and for me. Some of those students might have children of their own by now, and I wonder if they will watch Fantasia or Fantasia 2000 with their kids and remember seeing it in music class at PS 220 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Perhaps they will tell their children whatever bits and pieces they remember about this Beethoven guy. Their music teacher seemed to think he was a pretty big deal, and Walt Disney himself did not disagree.

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