The Music of Fantasia: A Showcase of Classical Masterpieces

In today’s video, I want to take a closer look at the music of Fantasia. Fantasia is a very popular animated Disney film from 1940, and almost the entire score is famous Classical music.

There are seven main compositions in this film which we’ll talk about today. We’ll also talk a little about the film itself for a bit of background.

Basics of the movie

Fantasia debuted in 1940 and was the third-ever film released by Disney. The entire score was conducted by Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Reception

When Fantasia was released, it garnered significant critical acclaim. Some things that film critics had to say about it were:

“[Fantasia was] caviar to the general, ambrosia and nectar for the intelligentsia” and “courageous beyond belief”.

-Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times. He also noted the “rapturous applause” during the interludes.

“[Fantasia was a] dream of a symphony concert”, an “enormously varied concert of pictorial ideas, of abstract music by acknowledged composers, of performers Leopold Stokowski and orchestra players of Hollywood and Philadelphia, and, for the vast majority, new and wonderful sound effects”.

-Isabel Morse Jones of the Los Angeles Times

“…motion-picture history was made last night … Fantasia dumps conventional formulas overboard and reveals the scope of films for imaginative excursion … Fantasia … is simply terrific.”

-Bosley Crowther of the New York Times

On the music side of things, it was generally appreciated, but some had valid criticisms to share. Igor Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring was used in the film, and who was the only living composer from the soundtrack, complained how:

“…the order of the pieces had been shuffled, and the most difficult of them eliminated”. He criticized the orchestra’s performance, observing that the simplification of the score “did not save the musical performance, which was execrable”.

The music of Fantasia

Though Fantasia has been altered and re-released over the years (to improve upon the sound and remove racial prejudices, for example), the music of Fantasia has remained constant.

These are the compositions we’ll be looking at today:

  • Toccata and Fugue in D minor (Bach)
  • The Nutcracker Suite (Tchaikovsky)
  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Dukas)
  • Rite of Spring (Stravinsky)
  • Pastoral Symphony (Beethoven)
  • Dance of the Hours (Ponchielli)
  • Night on Bald Mountain (Mussorgsky)

The one note I want to make before we get into this is that there is one recording we won’t be sharing on the screen – an excerpt from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. The reason for this is that the composition isn’t in the public domain, since it’s the most recent of the seven.

Music of Fantasia: Toccata and fugue in D minor by Bach

What’s happening in the movie:

Live-action shots of the orchestra illuminated in blue and gold, backed by superimposed shadows, fade into abstract patterns. Animated lines, shapes and cloud formations reflect the sound and rhythms of the music. (Wikipedia)

You have surely heard this very famous organ piece by Bach before. It’s used all over pop culture (and I even featured it in Bach in the Movies).

There’s no consensus on when exactly Bach composed this piece, though it would have been in the early 1700s. The movie Fantasia played a huge role in making this piece popular in our modern world – it wasn’t as well-known before 1940.

Aside from just generally being popular in pop culture, this is one of those Classical tunes you’re especially likely to hear around Halloween. Let’s take a listen so you can see why.

Video credits:

Performer: Dorothy Young Riess (organ)

Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Music of Fantasia: Nutcracker suite

What’s happening in the movie:

Selections from the ballet suite underscore scenes depicting the changing of the seasons from summer to autumn to winter. A variety of dances are presented with fairies, fish, flowers, mushrooms, and leaves, including “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, “Chinese Dance”, “Dance of the Flutes”, “Arabian Dance”, “Russian Dance” and “Waltz of the Flowers”. (Wikipedia)

Tchaikovsky wrote the music for the Russian ballet The Nutcracker in 1892. The ballet itself was not successful at the time, but Tchaikovsky’s 20-minute musical suite based on this ballet was.

However, the ballet is very popular nowadays, being featured especially around Christmas in North America.

The music from The Nutcracker is among Tchaikovsky’s most well-known. Most of you have probably heard “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, as well as “Russian Dance” – we’ll be taking a listen to the exuberant  “Russian Dance” today.

Video credits:

Recorded by: European Archive

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

Music of Fantasia: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

What’s happening in the movie:

Mouse, the young apprentice of the sorcerer Yen Sid, attempts some of his master’s magic tricks but does not know how to control them. (Wikipedia)

Paul Dukas composed The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in 1897. It’s a symphonic poem, meaning he based the music off a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem of the same name.

This was a really common thing to do in the Romantic era – take a great poem, and try to tell the story through instrumental music alone. Other composers who wrote program music were Liszt, Schubert and others.

And like many other compositions we’re discussing today, Fantasia brought this symphonic poem wider popularity. Let’s take a listen!

Video credits:

Recorded by: European Archive

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

Music of Fantasia: Rite of Spring

What’s happening in the movie:

A visual history of the Earth’s beginnings is depicted to selected sections of the ballet score. The sequence progresses from the planet’s formation to the first living creatures, followed by the reign and extinction of the dinosaurs. (Wikipedia)

The Rite of Spring is a ballet with the music being composed by Igor Stravinsky in 1913. This ballet was so modern at the time that there was almost a riot in the audience during its premiere.

The Rite of Spring was Stravinsky’s third opera (after Firebird and Petrushka). Aside from the story and choreography being shocking for the time, so was Stravinsky’s music. He uses lots of dissonance and shifting tonalities, which gives the music a really uneasy sound.

This ballet is not public domain (life + 50 years), so I won’t be sharing a recording on the screen. However, this is one of the most recorded works in Classical repertoire, so I urge you to check out the music.

Music of Fantasia: Pastoral symphony

What’s happening in the movie:

A mythical Greco-Roman world of colorful centaurs and “centaurettes”, cupids, fauns and other figures from classical mythology is portrayed to Beethoven’s music. A gathering for a festival to honor Bacchus, the god of wine, is interrupted by Zeus, who creates a storm and directs Vulcan to forge lightning bolts for him to throw at the attendees. (Wikipedia)

Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (nicknamed the Pastoral Symphony) was written in 1808. This was one of Beethoven’s only attempts at program music (something that would become much more popular in later years).

Program music, as we discussed earlier, tries to musically depict a scene. For this symphony, Beethoven was inspired by his many nature walks outside of Vienna.

Let’s take a listen to a bit of the first movement.

Video credits:

Performed by: Skidmore College Orchestra

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

Music of Fantasia: Dance of the Hours

What’s happening in the movie:

A comic ballet in four sections: Madame Upanova and her ostriches (Morning); Hyacinth Hippo and her servants (Afternoon); Elephanchine and her bubble-blowing elephant troupe (Evening); and Ben Ali Gator and his troop of alligators (Night). The finale finds all of the characters dancing together until their palace collapses. (Wikipedia)

Dance of the Hours is the act 3 finale from the opera La Gioconda, which was composed by Amilcare Ponchielli. It made its original debut in 1876.

The Dance of the Hours portion of the opera, a ballet, has been famous since its first debut – however, Fantasia made it even more famous.

In this ballet, the music and dancing represents different time periods: dawn, day, twilight and night. It’s all about the struggle between light and dark – which Fantasia represents, albeit in a very bizarre way.

Video credits:

Source: SWINTI GmbH Moutier/Schweiz

Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Music of Fantasia: Night on Bald Mountain (and Ave Maria)

What’s happening in the movie:

At midnight the devil Chernabog awakes and summons evil spirits and restless souls from their graves to Bald Mountain. The spirits dance and fly through the air until driven back by the sound of an Angelus bell as night fades into dawn. A chorus is heard singing Ave Maria as a line of robed monks is depicted walking with lighted torches through a forest and into the ruins of a cathedral. (Wikipedia)

Note: Ave Maria by Schubert is also heard here. We’ve discussed Ave Maria in depth on this channel before if you want to check that tune out.

Modest Mussorgsky composed a series of tunes under the name “Night on Bald Mountain” in 1867. It’s all about a witches’ sabbath on St. John’s eve.

Mussorgsky enjoyed this set of compositions, but it seemed no one else at the time did – it was never performed during his lifetime.

The version published after Mussorgsky’s death was heavily altered and arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov, and this is the version that we know and love today. Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic version, which premiered in 1886, was immediately a public favorite.

Of course, Fantasia played a part in increasing its fame as well.

Mussorgsky’s original tone poem wasn’t published until 1968 and is still rarely performed.

Video credits:

Performed by: Skidmore College Orchestra

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed today’s tour through the music of Fantasia. It’s an iconic movie, and one of the few that feature Classical music so prominently.

xo,

Allysia

 

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.

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