TERRY GROSS, host:
Just in time for the holidays, the classic animated Disney film "Fantasia" has been released in a new DVD Blu-ray edition. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.
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LLOYD SCHWARTZ: The visualization of music on film is an old impulse. During the 1930s, besides cartoons with classical music soundtracks, a number of short films, like one called "Optical Poem," had kaleidoscopic, completely abstract images of musical pieces.
But the most famous attempt to provide visual images for classical music was Walt Disney's "Fantasia." Released in 1940, after "Snow White" and "Pinocchio," it's really an anthology of short segments with very mixed results.
Composer and music critic Deems Taylor, who helped select the music, introduces each section, and the conductor is Leopold Stokowski. The best-known sequence, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," is quite faithful to the story by Goethe that's depicted in Dukas' music, only now it's Mickey Mouse who loses control of the magical broomsticks who flood the sorcerer's laboratory. So what you see on screen literally Mickey Mouses the music.
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SCHWARTZ: Some of the musical choices are quite ambitious. Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony" turns Beethoven's peaceful countryside images into a mythological Arcadia, with flying horses and their families and centaurs dating centaurettes, who look like 1930s starlets, only with four legs, and some of them decorously topless. It's definitely a kiddie version, but at least it keeps to the spirit of the music.
So does the even more surprising sequence based on Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," which changes Stravinsky's image of primitive Russia into an even more primitive depiction of prehistory, with erupting volcanoes, grazing brontosauri, a terrifying Tyrannosaurus Rex, and flying raptors, clearly an inspiration for "Avatar." Stravinsky actually liked the animation, though he rightly hated the abbreviation and restructuring of his great ballet score.
My favorite sequence is Ponchielli's familiar "Dance of the Hours." Here it's a parody of classical ballet, with ostriches and elephants as the corps de ballet. The male lead is a salacious alligator and the prima ballerina a demure hippo in a flimsy tutu. It's hilarious and suits the music perfectly.
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SCHWARTZ: Music composed for dancing was obviously intended to be seen and works especially well in "Fantasia," such as the passages from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite." It's amusing to hear Deems Taylor, in 1940, say that while the suite is famous, nobody performs the ballet. Times have changed.
This new set also includes a feature-length sequel called "Fantasia 2000." It's mostly awful: butterflies in the Beethoven Fifth and whales in Respighi's "Pines of Rome."
Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" has some amusing moments inspired by theatrical cartoonist Al Hirschfield. The best thing is a repeat of the original "Sorcerer's Apprentice."
The new Blu-ray also includes "Destino," a bizarre six-minute realization of an abandoned collaboration between Disney and Salvador Dali - a surrealist nightmare, in more ways than one, about a weird love affair. The music is a 1940s Mexican pop song, and the images include the hero's baseball bat slamming the heroine's severed head into space.
Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Dukas, even Stravinsky, intended some of their music to be visualized, either in the imagination or in an actual theater. I love Disney's project, and for kids it's a delightful introduction to classical music.
But both "Fantasia" and its sequel reveal how difficult it is to arrive at convincing images. Visual artists have to be deeply sensitive to music, not to oversimplify or betray what's so deeply in it.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He reviewed the new Blu-ray DVD edition of Walt Disney's "Fantasia." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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