“Perhaps Bach and Beethoven are strange bedfellows for Mickey Mouse,” he wrote, “but it’s all been a lot of fun, and I want to thank Leopold Stokowski, Deems Taylor, and all my coworkers for holding my head up when the water got too deep.”
The cultural waters were deepest in the short film animated to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. It was the most widely criticized selection on the Fantasia program, the consensus being that the visual complement was not worthy of the spirit of the music. An even more fundamental criticism, however, was that such music as The Pastoral Symphony should not have any visual complement at all. George Balanchine, the New York City Ballet’s longtime choreographer/artistic director, once told why some music is not co- expressible with visible action: “In listening to composers like Beethoven and Brahms, every listener has his own ideas, paints his own picture of what the music represents. How can I, a choreographer, try to squeeze a dancing body into a picture that already exists in somebody’s mind? It simply won’t work.” The ironic thing, however, is that the Disney artists did not originally plan Fantasia’s mythological segment with The Pastoral Symphony in mind. The music originally chosen to go with their animations of fauns and centaurs and flying horses was Pierne’s Cydalise. Walt loved the story continuity that was developing in the story sketches he saw at meetings with his artists, and particularly he admired the sketches of the flying horses. But the Pierne music didn’t seem to be working well with these images. And so, at the story meeting on November 2, 1938, we find Disney’s decision to abandon the Pierne piece and search for some other music.
“I think that is marvelous,” said Walt, looking at a sketch of Pegasus, “the way the horse comes down . . . with his feet out and lands in the water. When he lands, I would like to see those wings fold like a swan’s.” Walt had now found the reference point in reality that is behind all good animated fantasy: when the flying horses swim in the water, they will fold their wings like swans. As he so often did, Disney provided his artists with a visual clue — which they quickly proceeded to develop. Dick Huemer, one of Fantasia’s two story directors, who ultimately suggested using The Pastoral Symphony, was now following the line of Walt’s thinking: if a flying horse folds its wings like a swan, mightn’t it also put its head underwater like a swan?
“You mean the way the bird does with his beak?” asked Huemer, after consulting his visual memory. “They bite themselves, too, like they have fleas.” “Horses don’t have fleas,” said Walt flatly. “They bite at flies.” Whenever he was discussing the discussing the animation of animals, his mind went back to the farm animals he had observed in Marceline, and now Walt’s imagination was blossoming: “A very effective thing as they swim along is to keep the horse’s tail swimming. One tail floating on the water like hair.”
Suddenly, Walt thought that they had enough for this sequence: “I think that stuff is new enough, fresh enough to an audience that it would be good not to overcrowd it with business.” But Walt Disney had a far bigger problem with Fantasia’s venture into mythology, though he didn’t bring it up at that meeting until he had approved most of the action that had been designed for the sequence.
“The thing I keep thinking about, too — the material is so damn good in here — I wonder if we couldn’t make our own conglomeration.”
Realizing that Walt was dissatisfied with the music, Joe Grant admitted that it was hampering the development of the story. “Every time we get going with some ideas, we have to stop.” That was the cue for Walt to say flatly what he was thinking: “This music is not so hot to me. . . . We should find music to fit the things we have in mind here — but good music.” At that point Huemer suggested that Disney “hire Stravinsky or this man Pierne” to write some original music for the mythological section. “No, I don’t think that would work, Dick,” said Walt. “Those guys don’t work that way.”
“They don’t care about timing,” said Huemer, meaning, apparently, that composers with the background of a Stravinsky would not be aware of the timing problems that an animator faces in fitting visible action to music.
“They are of another school,” said Disney. “We are developing an entirely different school right here in this place. . . .”
By the close of the meeting, Walt Disney had definitely decided to use some music other than Pierne’s Cydalise for the Greek mythology number that he was beginning to like very much. “Let’s do some exploring first,” he said. “Let’s see if we can’t put together the right stuff”.
But he warned that if they couldn’t find music with “the right class,” he would have to delay work on the mythology section. By the following February, a storyman named George Stallings had typed up a brief continuity for the third, fourth, and fifth movements of The Pastoral Symphony. It contained suggestions for some of the most effective animated images in the finished work. There is the “thunderous dancing by Bacchus which stimulates the build-up into a flurry of wild frolicking. Centaurs and Girls [not yet “centaurettes”] dancing about with much vim and gusto.”
It seems a pity that Disney didn’t commission an original composition to accompany his mythological ballet, as Diaghilev would have. The picturization of characters and incidents from Greek mythology has attracted artists from Titian to Picasso, and includes many themes that are particularly well suited to animated drawing.
Walt Disney’s Fantasia – John Culhane
- Animation For Adults: Fantasia
- 24 Frames: The Rite of Spring (Fantasia, Bill Roberts / Paul Satterfield, 1940)
- 24 Frames: Dance of the Hours (Fantasia, Norman Ferguson / T. Hee, 1940)
- 24 Frames: Nutcracker Suite (Fantasia, Samuel Armstrong, 1940)
- 24 Frames: Night on Bald Mountain / Ave Maria (Wilfred Jackson, 1940)
- 24 Frames: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Fantasia, James Algar, 1940)
- 24 Frames: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Fantasia, Samuel Armstrong, 1940)
- 24 Frames: The Red Shoes Ballet