Classical Masterpieces Turn Up in Cartoons Music historian Robert Greenberg talks about classical music in cartoons, from Elmer Fudd in a spoof on Wagner and Tom and Jerry playing Liszt to Disney's Fantasia.

Classical Masterpieces Turn Up in Cartoons

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Bugs Bunny cartoons often spoofed classical music.

(Soundbite of cartoon "What's Opera, Doc?")

Mr. MEL BLANC (Actor): (As Bugs Bunny) (Singing) Oh, mighty warrior of great fighting stock, might I inquire to ask if what's up, doc?

Mr. ARTHUR BRYAN (Actor): (As Elmer Fudd) (Singing) I'm going to kill the wabbit.

HANSEN: The 1957 satirical take on composer Richard Wagner "What's Opera, Doc?" is just one example. Here with more is music historian Robert Greenberg.

Welcome.

Mr. ROBERT GREENBERG (Music Historian): Thank you so much, Liane.

HANSEN: I had this image of Bugs Bunny wearing a white tie and tails. He was quite the concert musician. Tell us a little bit about the other composer's music that performed or attempted to perform.

Mr. GREENBERG: I think attempted to perform is probably a better way of putting it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GREENBERG: You know, it's always interesting how this concert music was actually employed in these cartoons because, you know, Bugs is your every person. So when he deals with this high-end Euro music - at least how it might have been perceived back when these cartoons were made - there was always a bit of satire involved - a bit of mocking. So, yeah, kind of spoofs more than actually performs. But there's lots of music that was used - "Tales from the Vienna Woods," "The Rabbit of Seville" features that, we would guess, Rossini's "Barber of Seville" opera.

Oh, is there any composer that's more fun to poke fun at than Wagner?

HANSEN: What composer? How about Franz Liszt.

Mr. GREENBERG: Well, you know, the Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody Number Two" - Liszt with his wild hair and his mannerisms and his shamanistic attitude towards performance. And perhaps his most popular - if not his best - piano pieces, this "Hungarian Rhapsody Number Two," which Bugs uses.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GREENBERG: This is "Rhapsody Rabbit" from '46. And it's one of my very favorites because there is an audience member that coughs. So Bugs stops playing for just a moment, resumes playing; the audience member coughs again. Without missing a beat, Bugs pulls out a revolver and shoots the audience member. It is the fantasy dream come true of every musician. Overly violent, admittedly, but very satisfying.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: These are examples from the '40s and the '50s. And classical music -did it get popularized through the cartoons? I mean, didn't it get hurt at all - all those parody?

Mr. GREENBERG: I wish - it was being parodied more today. AT least, it's out there in the tunes that were used, the pieces that were used, were tuneful enough to be memorable and folks could seek them out should they choose to. Also, in these days, folks were hearing a lot more so-called classical music on their radios. I think it was more intrinsic to the culture, and the pieces that tended to appear in these cartoons were pieces that people were, at least, vaguely familiar with already.

HANSEN: There is one movie that I think has stayed with people - certainly people of my generation and my children's generation. This is Disney's "Fantasia." It was released in 1940. And I believe it was rereleased in the '70s, rereleased in the '80s. And I have to tell you, "Night on Bald Mountain" scared me to death when they did that movie. So much so that when I took my children to see it later, we left before the last act.

Mr. GREENBERG: Before the ending begins.

HANSEN: Because I was so traumatized. But describe what happens in the part. It's really the last act of "Fantasia."

Mr. GREENBERG: It is. What you have is this extraordinary piece of music by Modest Mussorgsky, a Russian composer. And it was orchestrated after his death by his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. And that's the version that we are usually hearing - the Korsakov version. In any case, we have this devil-like shadow monster emerge from this mountain.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GREENBERG: And gathers about him all of these ghouls and ghosts and other assembled nasties.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GREENBERG: And he starts playing with them and killing them off any way he wants.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GREENBERG: and it isn't until the townspeople gather with their torches and ringing church bells in the background to the music of Schubert's "Ave Maria," that he is forces this evil creature back into the bowels of the mountain.

(Soundbite of song "Ave Maria")

Mr. GREENBERG: The animation is amazing - very expressionistic. And for kids watching this, yeah, it is very dramatic. And it's like watching, I guess, "The Wizard of Oz" when you're a small kid. That wicked witch might not seem so scary to adults. But if you're a kid, that's hardcore stuff.

HANSEN: What was Disney trying to do with this project, because there are, of course, other moments in the film beforehand - "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," of course, with Mickey Mouse - in the title role.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GREENBERG: I think the intent was to create an all-inclusive art form as it could have been achieved back in 1940, using animation, using music, using the environment of the theater. This was the first commercially released film to use stereo sound, for example.

HANSEN: You remember the "Dance of the Hours" - with the hippos doing ballet? I mean, who can forget that, right?

Mr. GREENBERG: Yeah.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GREENBERG: That whole scene with the various animals trying to dance the ballet is hysterical.

HANSEN: Children became familiar with classical music to, say, through these cartoons. Do you think that happens anymore? Is this generation losing now?

Mr. GREENBERG: Yup. No doubt about it. And it's our job as parents and as educators to just play as much and as wide a variety of music to them in the car, at home, wherever we are, as we can. Another problem with this generation - because it's so easy to say the problem with this generation - but our media has become so visually oriented that sometimes it's nice to break away from the video stuff - even something like "Fantasia" - and just play music. Ask your kids what does this music describing to you? What does the sound like to you? If this was a sound track, what kind of visual imagery might you attach to it? But ask them to use their imaginations when they listen. That's a job that we have that perhaps our parents didn't have to do themselves.

HANSEN: Music historian Robert Greenberg. He is with San Francisco Performances and The Teaching Company, which markets recorded lectures in the arts and sciences. And he spoke to us from member station KQED in San Francisco.

Thanks a lot.

Mr. GREENBERG: My pleasure.

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