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Fantasia, Disney’s 1940 animated feature film, is unlike almost all other films.  It consists of a series of animated images set to music.  While between these selections there is spoken commentary there are no spoken words during the musical numbers.  In that sense it is like a “silent” movie with music.  It is my favorite film of all time.  In two ways this film involves ballet.  First, of the eight musical sections, three are from ballets and a fourth has been used in a ballet.  Second, this film is what got me interested in ballet.  I looked for other performances where moving images were associated with music and where there were no spoken words and realized that dance and in particular ballet was such a case.  

Symphony No. 6, in F major, the Pastoral was composed by Ludwig van Beethoven and premiered in 1808.  In Fantasia the piece lasts 22 minutes and 13 seconds, but the symphony itself is just under 43 minutes long.  This is the only one of Beethoven’s nine completed symphonies that has five movements.  It is also the most descriptive of these symphonies.  Each of the five movements are named.  The first is called “Awakening of Cheerful Feeling on Arriving in the Country” and is 4 minutes and 40 seconds long in the film and ends with the views of waterfalls.  The second movement is referred to as   “Scene by a Brook” and in Fantasia is 6 minutes and 36 seconds long.  It ends with the cupids (putti) closing curtains on two lovers.  Next is “Merry Gathering of County Folk,” 2 minutes and 51 seconds, which is followed by the Thunderstorm 3 minutes and 27 seconds.  Finally there is the “Shepherd’s Song - Happy, Thankful Feelings after the Storm, 4 minutes and 44 seconds.  

As with The Nutcracker Suite, this selection focuses on nature - a day in the country.  There is no particular story to it, but on the other hand it is not abstract.  It presents a series of occurrences.  This is one of the things I like about this piece, as well as the worst that happens is a thunderstorm.  The film was released in 1940 and in some ways it is reflective of the social norms of that time, such as some racism in the original, the worst of which has since been removed and the coy centaurettes presenting themselves to the eager centaurs.  However the mythological characters presented are generally much nicer than in most myths, particularly the centaurs.  This is also something that I like.  By the way in Greek myth the centaurettes were called kentaurides or centauresses. 

The next movement is “Merry Gathering of County Folk” which shows a tame Bacchanal, but the merriment of the centaurettes and centaurs and other mythical beings is interrupted by Hephaestus (Vulcan) forging lighting bolts that are thrown by Zeus.  Up until this point the story has been generally happy, but the storm is soon over and everyone rejoices.  The thunderstorm hurts no one, but does show female characters protecting younger ones.  

As the various characters venture out after the storm we first see Iris the Greek Goddess of the Rainbow, then according to the narrator, Apollo drives the setting sun across the sky, however in Greek myth it was Helios who drove the sun in his chariot.  Again, according to the narrator, Morphus the “Greek god of Sleep blankets the sky with darkness.”  But, actually Morphus is the god of Dreams.  Also based on the look of the deity it could be either male or female, it seems to make more sense for it to be Nyx the Greek goddess of night.  Then, as the putti fall asleep on clouds, “Diana, using the crescent of the moon, shoots off an arrow that spangles the sky with stars,” although it was the goddess Selene who was the Greek personification of the moon.  The final scene shows the crescent of the moon over a darkened Mount Olympus and all is well.  This section starts with the sun rising on Mount Olympus and ends with night and the sun setting over the mountain. 

Skipping ahead we first see and hear A Night on Bald Mountain (there is a Bald Mountain in Ukraine, which was part of the Russian Empire when the music was composed).  Modest Mussorgsky wrote the music between 1860 and 1867 and it was redone by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1886.  The top of the mountain then turns into Chernabog (the god of evil) who then casts a shadow over the village below to attract evil sprites.  He is unsuccessful when a church steeple resists his power, but is more successful with the ghosts of executed criminals who fly through a hangman’s noose, he then turns to a ruined fortress and attracts the ghosts of those who had tried to invade the town pulling them from the moat, lastly he goes to the graves of the wealthy citizens of the village and selects the evil among them, these phantoms are joined by witches on broomsticks.  Next Chernabog reaches into the earth to pull out the demons of the underworld.  They celebrate until stopped by the sound of church bells heralding the coming of the dawn, then all the evil beings slink back from where they had come and Chernabog becomes the top of the mountain again.  

With this the music and the feeling of the images completely changes and we hear Ave Maria and see a religious procession of people holding candles, I feel they are nuns, slowly and calmly moving through the countryside.  They cross a bridge supported by gothic arches then turn to head into a forest.  The trees are all straight.  We see a hill with rays of the morning sun as we come out of the forest.  The scene ends with the rising of the sun.  Ave Maria is latin for Hail Mary and was composed by Franz Schubert in 1825, with its lyrics taken from Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lady of the Lake.”  The music was originally entitled “Ellens dritter Gesang” (Ellen’s third Song).  In the poem Ellen Douglas is in danger and prays to the Virgin Mary to protect her and her father.  

The lyrics start:

Ave Maria! Maiden mild!

Listen to a maiden's prayer!

However, in the film the lyrics are different.  They were written by Rachel Field and sung by Julietta Novis and are as follows:

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 night 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!

Despite the references to the Catholic Religion it appears that the worshipers are Nature or Sun worshipers.  Their Cathedral is the forest and at their altar is the Rising Sun.

These three musical sections cover a period of 24 hours from the rising sun over mount olympus at the start of Pastoral, to the falling of night at its end, then midnight at the start of Bald Mountain and the rising of the sun the next day, over a hill, at the end of Ave Maria. Events start calmly and hopefully then end in the same manner.  


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The original Fantasia starts with what is described as a piece of “absolute music” in that it does not tell a story nor does it portray any particular scene.  This piece Toccata and Fugue in D minor was most likely composed by Johann Sebastian Bach during the first decade of the 1700s.   When I first saw the film I didn’t realize the music was originally composed for organ, but was only orchestrated by the conductor Leopold Strokowski for the movie.  As suggested by the title Toccata and Fugue, the music is in two parts, the first being the Toccata, Italian for Touched indicating a musical composition in a freestyle, characterized by full chords, rapid runs and high harmonies, with the following part being the Fugue, a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitation  by successively entering voices.  The visuals are also in two parts, with the first part being “live action” showing the conductor and orchestrator members in silhouette with colored lights, indicating the music, shining on or around them or on their instruments.  This is a very effective treatment and shows what can be done without computers.  With the start of the animation portion, one sees a mass of clouds highlighted with flashing lights then images representing the bows of violins and the strings of a bass interspersed with abstract forms flying disks and so forth.  Eventually the images become more abstract.  Just before the end we are returned to reality and see Leopold Strokowski conducting.  By the way the musicians shown in the film are not ones that actually performed the music, but hired extras.  Even as a child I remember noticing that both harp players were women and that they were the only women in the supposed orchestra.   

Next up is the Nutcracker Suite, composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and premiered in 1892 the same year as the ballet.  Originally the suite had eight pieces, but only six were used in the film.  The first is the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, featuring Fairies who, early in the morning, sprinkle Dew on flowers and cobwebs.  All of the fairies are enigmatic and eager to work except for one, the sleepy fairy, who yawns as she is late to wake up.  This scene then leads into Tea, Chinese Dance, with mushrooms.  Then comes the Arabian Dance, with goldfishes and the Dance of the Reed-Flutes with flowers “dancing” on a stream, followed by the Trepek with flowers.  Lastly we return to the nature fairies with the Waltz of the Flowers.  For this piece there are three types of fairies, the autumn fairies who cause the leaves to fall and the seeds to spread, the frost fairies or perhaps they are Jack Frosts who freeze the water and the snowflake fairies who bring the snow.

A Sugar Plum is not a fruit, but a ball of hard candy surrounding a seed or nut.  The small mushroom in the Tea Chinese dance was named Hop Low by the animators.  Tchaikovsky used a Georgian Lullaby for the Coffee Arabian dance, not any music from Arabia.  While the Trepek dance is generally referred to as the Russian Dance, according to Merrian-Webster a Trepek dance is not Russian but “a fiery Ukrainian folk dance performed by men and featuring the leg-flinging prisiadka” however at the time of the composition Ukraine was part of the Russian empire.  In the film The Nutcracker Suite piece is 14 minutes long and portrays nature, with flowers, mushrooms, goldfish and the change in seasons.  

Unlike the other musical sections, which were based on simple occurrences or complete abstraction, the third section of Fantasia, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a story.  Its music, L’Apprenti sorcier, was composed in 1897 by Paul Dukas, which in turn was inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1797 poem Der Zauberlehrling.  The earliest version of this story that I know of is The Egyptian Miracle Worker written by Lucian of Samosata during the Second Century of the Common Era.  Its plot is close to the one in Fantasia except that it is a wooden pestle that is brought to life and that the “apprentice” only breaks it in half so that there were only two magical water carriers.  There is also a live action film from 1930 entitled the Wizard's Apprentice that includes a young woman, but which has multiple broom sticks, more than two, carrying water and even has scenes showing water flowing out of castle-like towers.  The part where Mickey Mouse, the apprentice, dreams that he is the master of the elements of nature is my favorite part.   The Sorcerer's Apprentice section of Fantasia is nine minutes long.  

Originally Fantasia had a 15 minute intermission.  Shortly after that was a humorous scene (a bit more than 3 minutes long) entitled “Meet the Soundtrack” during which the narrator Dean Taylor “introduced” the soundtrack (an animated image) as a “screen personality.”   This short section illustrates the fundamental idea behind Fantasia, that  is using visuals, colors and shapes and action to highlight music and other sounds.  However, Fantasia was not the first film to do this.  In 1921 Walther Ruttmann released his Lichtspiel Opus I, a complete abstract film to music, see here (12 minutes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHZdDmYFZN0.  Another pioneer in abstract film was Oskar Fischinger, who worked for a time on the Toccata and Fugue piece of Fantasia until he left over an artistic disagreement with Disney.  Then there were Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” starting in 1929 which were set to images although, as far as I can tell, not abstract images.

Dirac, thank you for your positive comment, I like to read how people feel about what I wrote.  One person I spoke to hated Fantasia and I expect that in general people found it boring, so I encourage readers to comment on how they feel, positively or negatively about Fantasia.  


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The Two remaining musical selections in Fantasia are The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky (1913) and Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchiclli (1876).  I have mixed feelings about The Rite of Spring, liking very much the beginning as the scene moves through space heading to Earth.  Then there is the section showing the evolution of “tiny little white or green blobs of nothing in particular” to “certain fish more ambitious than the rest crawled up on land and became the first amphibians.”  Basically I prefer the quieter parts of the music which would include the scenes where the sun is being eclipsed near the end.  

I also have mixed feelings about Dance of the Hours.  The music is nice, but the visuals are for the most part insulting to the art of ballet and since I enjoy ballet and see beauty in it I do not like that.  Further the ending is somewhat confusing.  Do the alligators want to abduct the ballerinas to eat them or are they lusting after them?  In either case it is disturbing.  However, I tried to find something that I liked other than the music and there are two things.  First is the backgrounds.  When I watch animation many times I find the backgrounds interesting and in this case I like that the courtyard extends to the horizon, as well as the columns.  Further, there is the effect of these heavy animals being treated as if they were as light as a feather, with the elephants and hippos being lifted by the bubbles and being blown away by a slight breeze.  

My history with Fantasia goes back to when I was a child, seeing bits of it, in black and white, on the Disney TV show.  Later I saw it at least twice in the theater and before home video had a vinyl record of the score.  Then my wife gave me a VCR tape of it and then a DVD set including the original film as well as the 2000 version.  I was excited when I learned that Fantasia 2000 was coming out, but was somewhat disappointed when I saw it.  As with the first Fantasia it has eight musical sections, seven new ones and one, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  The animation was good, but my problem was that unlike the 1940 version all of the stories of the 2000 version are based on stories.  While some people might prefer that I don’t.  Even the first selection, Symphony No. 5, which had abstract images still had a story.  Further while some of the stories are highly imaginative there is little that could be considered mythological or fairylike.  My feelings about ballet are similar in that I generally don’t care much for the stories, particularly tragic stories.  I prefer to watch scenes from ballet that don’t advance the plot, such as the swans in the first half of Swan Lake.  Enjoyment from stories becomes old with repeated watchings unlike emotion provoking images.  That being said “Rhapsody in Blue” from Fantasia 2000, has an interesting story line with four protagonists.  The Firebird Suite has some elements of fantasy and after the story part Pines Of Rome becomes very imaginative.  I also prefer the narrator for the first Fantasia, Dean Talyor and find Steve Martin’s humor to be too heavy handed.  

In this thread I have shared my thoughts while watching Fantasia and I would like to read others' thoughts and opinions.  Particularly what do people think about emotional images vs. stories.  


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