Maybe this seems obvious, but I can’t talk about classical music in films without talking about Fantasia. Within this film are all of my earliest memories of classical music. Fantasia was released in 1940. It began with the concept of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and, with help from Leopold Stokowski, grew into a full-length feature film. All the pieces are performed by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra except for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice which was played by a hand picked orchestra in Culver City, California. The film was the first to be released in Stereo.
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: It took me a little time to come to appreciate this segment. Bach’s piece, originally for organ, was set to abstract images. To be honest I used to fast forward through this piece to get to the good stuff.
The Nutcracker Suite: Excerpts of Tchaikovsky’s ballet suite were set to dancing fairies, flowers, and fish. As the segment progresses we see the changing of the seasons.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: The segment that started Fantasia began as a Silly Symphony, but the production costs were too high, and it was expanded. Dopey the Dwarf was originally considered for the part of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but Walt Disney insisted on Mickey in a desperate attempt to renew his popularity. At the time Mickey was being overshadowed by Goofy, Donald Duck, and even Popeye. Paul Dukas’s piece is based on a poem by Goethe in 1797.
The Rite of Spring: The segment was my absolute favorite. What 10 year old boy doesn’t love dinosaurs and Stravinsky? When Stravinsky was contacted about the rights to the piece he offered to write a whole new version for the film. Stokowski organized and orchestrated the music instead and it is rumored Stravinsky hated the new version.
The Pastoral Symphony: Thanks to Fantasia Beethoven’s 6th is the symphony I am most familiar with to this day. One negative (and not the only negative I am sure) of having no reference outside of this movie is the fact that many of the pieces are abridged. The first time I heard the full version of this and The Rite of Spring was a bit of a shock. Nonetheless I still love this piece and it is near the top of my favorite symphonies list. Adding to the list of embarrassing moments in Disney history, the original included some dark-skinned centaur girls that seemed to be servants of the light-skinned centaur girls.
Dance of the Hours: Amilcare Ponchielli’s piece is actually from his opera La Gioconda, which I have never seen, but I’m pretty sure it is not about ostriches and elephants.
This guy's name is Chernabog and was based on a mixture of Bela Lugosi and a shirtless Disney animator.
Night on Bald Mountain/ Ave Maria: Modest Mussorgsky’s music provides the backdrop for a little devil-worship to end the film. To this day, I’m not sure why my parents let me watch this segment as young as I was. (I believe there is even a bare-breasted devil/bat woman.) The only explanation I can come up with is the transition into Franz Schubert’s beautiful version of Ave Maria from his set of seven songs based on Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. I still love the way Stokowski blends these two pieces together, providing the classic Disney motif of good triumphing over evil. The filming of the monks walking with torches for Ave Maria was achieved by running the camera down 200 feet of painted glass. The filming had several set backs, including an earthquake, and was only spliced into the film four hours before the premiere.
Walt Disney had grand ideas for this film. Because of time he was forced to cut a segment set to Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune. He wanted to release different scents in the theater at particular moments of the film. He wanted to rerelease the film every year with a new segment replacing an old so no one ever saw the same version twice. He originally envisioned The Rite of Spring segment to run from the extinction of the dinosaurs, to the rise of mammals and the evolution of man. Maybe none of these came to fruition but Fantasia will always have a special place in the hearts of classical music dorks like me, not to mention all the teenagers who watched it tripping on acid and pot when it was rereleased in ’69.