Friday, August 20, 2021

A Fantasia Tribute

And no, I don't mean that deplorable digital dung heap released in 2000.  That should have been a warning sign about how far we had fallen as a civilization.  Though, in fairness, in 1941, many in the upper class of the day no doubt thought the same thing when they viewed Disney's attempt to elevate animated film to both a sophisticated art form as well as an art form for the masses.  

Upon its initial release, he failed on both counts.  Those in 'Society' scoffed at the cheap and disrespectful approach to the lofty heights of classical music that his animated film demonstrated.  More damming for Walt Disney, however, was the fact that the public also turned their backs on the work.  What were lines dancing about next to hippos and dinosaurs behind a type of music with which many were unfamiliar? 

That ended Disney's attempts to elevate animated film.  Though he would dabble with this or that artistic spin on a cartoon - most notably his 1959 film Sleeping Beauty - he resigned himself mostly to producing fun but fluffy cartoons of roughly 3/4 movie length.  Many became classics of course, only to fall on the PC chopping block in our time.  But none tried to reach the artistic heights he was grasping for in 1941 with Pinocchio and Fantasia.

In our house, Fantasia is a sort of 'semi-viewing' pre-autumnal tradition.  My love for autumn is well know to anyone who has spent more than a few years following my blog.  As the boys grow and move on in life and the traditions fade, it might not have the same punch that it used to have.  Likewise, in an odd twist, I find myself less nostalgic now than I used to be in my younger years.  I'll have to think on that strange development some day.

But not today.  Instead, I just want to post a shout out to what I consider one of Disney's best ever attempts at anything, and that's the original 1941 Fantasia.  I'm no film critic, so I'm not giving a point by point review.  I merely point out that it's been a sort of pre-game warm up for our Fall festivities over the years.  It's not an every year thing, but I find it fits nicely into what I said some years ago about fantasy and Fall appearing to go hand in hand. 

In keeping with Disney's serious Anglophilia and love of old European folklore, there is plenty of 'fantasy' in the mix.  Though I never cared for fantasy growing up, I've warmed to the genre over the years.  This was helped by my sons being into it, having come of age in the 2000s when The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and all things wizardry and mythical monsters were the name of the game. 

Fantasia manages, in small doses, a mixture of classical fantasy and classical music.  The rebellious Leopold Stokowski provides the soundtrack, and his interpretation of the scores in question is still the measuring rod I use when I hear the various pieces in other outlets. 

Deems Taylor, a music critic of the time, provides the narration.  Like all things that tout the latest tech or science, it can seem dated if he dwells too long on the latest, greatest breakthroughs of the day.  Likewise, in an age of Google, many of the things he mentions about the musical pieces are old hat and well known, though in the day it was likely assumed that Mr. Everyman wouldn't have known some of the basic bits of trivia about this or that composer or composition.

The real stars are the Disney artists.  In each case, they were given more or less a blank check to envision different interpretations of the music, and then set them onto celluloid.  For the sequence of Beethoven's 6th "Pastoral" Symphony, they literally invented colors, as Disney gave the artists an open invitation to mix the pallets any way they wanted, and come up with anything the could for the coloring.  It was a bit like The Beatles' recording sessions during the Sgt. Pepper album: the sky was the limit. 

There are plenty of things to like about this film, but overall it grasps a certain 'here's the thinking in 1941', as much of the world was already plunged into war, and Americans were holding onto the last desperate - and likely futile - hope for innocence and peace of bygone days.  Much of high culture was still separated from the masses, thus it remained 'high culture.'  Likewise, appeals to faerie or myth or supernatural evil could be presented, knowing we were already secularizing our understanding of reality, while those old tales were not entirely lost on those same masses. 

But it's a fine 'fantasy lite' prelude to the coming fall season.  The Sorcerer's  Apprentice, initially the only piece Disney envisioned, is as fantasy as you get.  Complete with conical hats and wizard's laboratories in old castles, it's straight out of a European Fantasy primer.  The Nutcracker Suite ditches nutcrackers and Christmas trees and rather envisions a fairyland nature spirit dance of animated plants, ballet fish and elemental sprites bringing about spring and winter. The aforesaid Pastoral Symphony is one of the fantasy high points, taking us back to classical Greek mythology filled with a drunken (but not nasty) Dionysus who bounces about surrounded by pegasi, centaurs and cupids.  Zeus and Hephaestus and various Olympus companions even make an appearance.  

Compared to these, my least favorite segments are the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (sorry, but that's an organ piece - by BACH!* - and strings don't quite do it for me), and The Rite of Spring.  As much as it may have looked cutting edge at the time, it seems a bit dated and I've never been a Stravinsky fan anyway.  We won't discuss the dancing hippos and alligators in the Dance of the Hours.  I either hate it or find it charming and sometimes both and neither at the same time.  I'll have to get back to that some other day. 

The creme de la creme, of course, is the dueling pieces at the end, Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain transitioning into Schubert's Ave Maria.  Now, the Ave is, if you can grasp it, a somewhat secularized version.  Clear and obvious religious accoutrements have been removed from the scene.  While we hear the music, all we see is a candlelight procession by hooded sojourners through a stunning use of camera work, c. 1941 (and completed only moments before its world premier).  

But even if Chernabog strikes an eerie similarity to Bela Lugosi, and the pilgrims could be of any faith or tradition, the segment works.  It's an apt ending to a film chockablock full of old world images, ancient myths and supernatural assumptions.  No matter how things are going, and how various pieces in the film sit with me on a given viewing, the final segments never cease to inspire me and remind me of what our modern tech/STEM world seems desperate to forget:  In the end, we're always about the battle between good and evil, whether in the ancient world, the medieval, or the modern STEM obsessed world in which we live.

And no, I won't get into the usual spiel about the old racist images that had to be removed and are no longer found on copies produced in the last several generations.  A reminder that what we're seeing today about changing and editing offensive art has been going on for decades, even while the ones doing it were insisting there is nothing more heinous or unacceptable that censoring or editing offensive material from art. 

Oh, and one more thing.  To be exact, it's the soundtrack that really marks the beginning of the pre-season anticipation in our house.  When I was in college and 'collector's sets' were all the rage in the exploding VHS days, I received a few such packages for Christmas.  They often had booklets and some extra bits and pieces, a lithograph perhaps, an old promotional poster, and some such.  The Fantasia Set, which I still have, came with two CDs (again, new tech back then) of the entire soundtrack.  Round about August, I slip those into our old multi-CD player and let Stokowski herald the coming fun.  

Like the Carpenter's A Christmas Portrait begins the seasonal anticipation once Santa rides down in front of Macey's in the minds of my sons, so they say hearing the opening notes of Fantasia's version of Toccata and Fugue to this day sets their minds to looking toward fall,.  It's almost a Pavlovian response. 

If nothing else, we've managed to instill in our sons a love of traditions, even if certain popes may not care for such things.  Though traditions invariably rise and fall, and eventually fade away, I find they're also a nice binding glue for the family.  A binding, I might add, that even if crazy bad like 2020 Covid era torpedoes almost everything, we can still cling to a few signposts out of all the traditional signposts we've built.  And one of those, easily kept no matter what is happening in the wide world, is a walk through Disney's master achievement that spirits us away for a time to a land of good and evil, dinosaurs and wizards, and even dancing hippos from a world ready to put all hopes of clinging to the good old days to rest on the battlefields of WWII.

I thought of that as we had our annual Harvest Feast and, you just know it, I made sure the two Fantasia CDs were front and center in the music score in the background.  Again, that's the cue to get ready, because the fun it about to begin. 


  1. What a lovely tradition!

    The bit about not being as nostalgic as you used to be struck me somewhat. I happen to love the old crooners with a particular fondness for Dean Martin whose music I've been playing a lot recently. Occasionally I even watch clips of his show or from Johnny Carson episodes when I'm folding laundry or something. I enjoy the easy banter without all the politics that saturate today's comedic encounters and make them forgettable. (Whereas, for instance, I've watched the Johnny Carson clip with Bob Hope, Dean Martin, and George Gobel from 1969 more than a handful of times. And it's funny EVERY time! But I digress...)
    Recently I was thinking how listening to the old crooners used to make me feel nostalgic, but now they just made me feel a bit melancholic even though I still enjoy them. The WWII generation and experience was still living history for much of my childhood and even into my young adult life. There was a certainty in that history and experience even though there had been years of turmoil subsequently. My classmates' grandfathers led all the parades as flag honor guards and spoke at school functions about their experiences. (Now we have school administrators who won't confirm the Holocaust was "factual." Where did THAT come from??) Even in the Church, JPII was part of that generation that overcame great evil culminating in the fall of Soviet Communism. At the time I assumed that should be the end of serious Communist threats, but here we are staring at it in our own homeland and it's been homegrown over many years finally coming into fruition aided by so.many.willing.participants. (Many of them who should know better, IMHO, which is THE WORST.)
    Little did we know though, what kind of rot was eating away at the insides of the Church while our post modern culture openly embraced disintegration. So I suppose I'm less nostalgic now because I know what was actually happening at that time alongside that which I enjoy and remember as "good."

    1. I think melancholic is a good description. Part of it must be the relentless assault on - everything. Everything from before about 1993. At this point, even the old heroes of the 1960s aren't immune. It's the difficulty of looking at anything in the past without the question of how long it will last before being condemned and eliminated tends to cloud the happy remembrances. Plus, I think there is something where nostalgia is something you have at a younger age, with memories becoming different as you get older. At least that's my experience. Even before the crazy of the Obama era, I could tell my memories and nostalgia was shifting a bit. Getting older, settling, life happening, kids and family, all seemed to shift how I saw and remembered the past.

    2. I agree about the memories as we age thing. I've noticed it too partially I've lived long enough to have my own memories of actual historic events and times now. Nothing really changes, in a certain sense. Things happen day by day and then you get a cumulative overview later on. If you have no experience of the day by day you can just accept that general overview as true and that seems it can inspire nostalgia.
      Anyway, there's a bluegrass song with a great stanza I find apropos here:
      "Daddy played the banjo, 'neath the yellow tree,
      It rang across the backyard and wove a spell on me,
      Now the banjo takes me back, through the foggy haze,
      With memories of what never was, become the good old days."

  2. If the Fantasia "Ave Maria" is secularized, let's go through the steps. You know the Latin prayer. This is alluded to in the relevant "Hymn to the Virgin" in Sir Walter Scott's THE LADY OF THE LAKE, which is the inspiration for Schubert's work. Here's Scott's hymn.

    Hymn to the Virgin.

    Ave. Maria! maiden mild!
    Listen to a maiden's prayer!
    Thou canst hear though from the wild,
    Thou canst save amid despair.
    Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
    Though banished, outcast, and reviled—
    Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer;
    Mother, hear a suppliant child!
    Ave Maria!

    Ave Maria! undefiled!
    The flinty couch we now must share
    Shall seem with down of eider piled,
    If thy protection hover there.
    The murky cavern's heavy air
    Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled;
    Then, Maiden! hear a maiden's prayer,
    Mother, list a suppliant child!
    Ave Maria!

    Ave. Maria! stainless styled!
    Foul demons of the earth and air,
    From this their wonted haunt exiled,
    Shall flee before thy presence fair.
    We bow us to our lot of care,
    Beneath thy guidance reconciled:
    Hear for a maid a maiden's prayer,
    And for a father hear a child!

    Here is Schubert's version. It is in German, and it is a version of Scott's hymn; it is neither the Latin nor the German version of the original prayer.

    Finally, here are the Disney lyrics:

    Ave Maria,
    Heaven's bride!
    The bells ring out in solemn praise
    For you, the anguish and the pride
    The living glory of our nights
    Of our nights and days.
    The prince of peace your arms embrace,
    While hosts of darkness fade and cower.
    Oh save us, Mother full of grace
    In life and in our dying hour:
    Ave Maria!

    1. The version you have probably sung at Mass is not the Latin prayer, either: because the words do not fit music that was never written for them, they are just crammed in, and "Mater Dei" is left out altogether. I actually find that far more offensive than writing a new song from scratch, as was done in all three versions above. After all, it's not as though other "Ave Maria" songs are unknown even from the medieval era:

      "... the pilgrims could be of any faith or tradition ...." Yeah, who knows what they were? Muslims? Buddhists? Primitive Baptists? Sorry, but they couldn't even be Eastern Orthodox, given the prominence of the Latin. *MAYBE* they could be high-church Anglicans; that is the only real alternative to being Latin-rite Catholics, and it only works because high-church Anglicans tried to be as Catholic as they could get away with.

      This is no more secularized than "The King of Love My Shepherd Is" is a secularized version of Psalm 23.

    2. Sorry, I meant the fact that there were no particular religious images, no Virgin, Church, cross. Some could argue that the last shot with the multiple layers unfolding is a bit stained glass windowy, but that's about it. I believe there was initially a plan to have an image of Mary in the sky at the end, but that was dropped. Rather it was left to something that could be anything from monks to druids in a lantern processional. That sort of secular 'vague religion' despite the music accompaniment was my point. A foretaste of things to come no doubt.

    3. Except for the WORDS! Seriously, that song is more Catholic than at least 75% of what gets sung nationwide in Catholic parishes. If you want to say that "Gather Us In" or "Sing a New Church" might have been written by druids, or Freemasons, or the "spiritual but not religious", it would be hard to argue.

      Let's concentrate on what is really bad. We don't need to invent new problems.

    4. Well, again the point is the film, visuals mean as much as the music. I would have preferred something more uniquely Christian in the imagery that would drive home the point. Especially since it isn't easy hearing the words (I had to look up the lyrics). What is missing is that punch, that distinctively Christian, versus vaguely 'religious stuff', symbolism that could have worked wonders. And I can't help but think that's the shame. Don't get me wrong, I love the film. Overall a masterpiece. But I can still wish for what wasn't.

    5. We're going to have to disagree on this one.

      In order to counter NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN, which takes place in the open, the AVE MARIA really did need to be outside, fearlessly dispersing the evil spirits and putting an end to their obscene revelry and transforming all of creation into a temple of God. This is exactly what is shown. The Gothic arches that are seen throughout are no coincidence. Evening came, and morning followed -- just as in Genesis. "In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it."

      I love the whole movie much more than you do, but if you must find something to criticize, it can be the depiction of dimetrodons, stegosaurs, and triceratops -- among others -- as contemporaries. Even at the time, that would have been known to be wrong. It's still VASTLY better than the heathen scene Stravinsky intended, though. I like the music largely because of the depiction here, but it could have been more scientifically accurate.

    6. I love the movie, too. As I said, it's a quasi-tradition for us to watch it around this time of year. And I said the last two are stand out high points of a movie filled to the brim. I just wish it would have been - more. I get the gothic arches and the light driving out the darkness. The tolling of the church bells. I love all that. I just wish, given where we are now, and how we can see it was already taking hold then, that the Christian imagery would have been more explicit. That's always been my wish since I became a Christian and watched it for the first time through those eyes. I also get that, despite not being all I would have wished, it was still showing an outlook that is long lost in our modern age. Perhaps that's the saddest part.


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