The Philadelphia Orchestra’s lead role in Disney’s ‘Fantasia’ music history
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When Disney’s “Fantasia” was first released in 1940, it was a flop. More than 80 years later, it’s easy to forget, since the film has become a much-vaunted classic.
Conventional Disney stories attribute the film’s initial fortunes to the economic turmoil of World War II. A few decades after the Cold War, the movie got a revival which cemented the high regard in which he is currently held.
Another “Fantasia” fact that may go unnoticed? The Philadelphia Orchestra is credited with seven of the nine musical selections that make up the soundtrack of the animated shorts anthology – and the work was recorded at the Philadelphia Academy of Music on South Broad Street.
From the opening orchestration of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” to the instantly hummable translation of “Night on Bald Mountain”, Philadelphia artists have been instrumental in some of classical music’s shining moments on big screen.
And while the musicians had some serious credentials, the collaboration was driven by the reputation of the orchestra’s famed conductor and musical director, Leopold Stokowski.
British conductor Stokowski became a certified concert music celebrity before he met Mickey or the character’s inventor, and the initiatives he passed on made the Philadelphia Orchestra the ideal group to make the movie soundtrack.
When Walt Disney met Stokowski in a Hollywood bar in 1937, the story goes, the conductor was already responsible for the American premieres of works by the most prominent modern composers in the European canon: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel, Mahler.
Stokowski had honored the cover of Time magazine in 1930, accompanied by an article declaring him a kind of diva, but so respected that he was like the prima donna of the people. By 1937, Stokowski had also starred in two feature films – so not exactly a figure that Disney brought out of obscurity.
The involvement of the conductor in recording experimentationmade by Bell Laboratories, only spread his fame – and that of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Sergei Rachmaninoff had a series of concert premieres during Stokowski’s tenure with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the recordings won praise from the famous Russian composer and pianist, who in 1931 called the musicians and their leader “the most beautiful orchestral combination in the world”.
In Stokowski, Disney found a collaborator as interested as he was in the possibilities of breaking film boundaries. According to the Walt Disney Family Museum, they’ve talked about incorporating everything from big-screen images to pump perfumes in the theater to match the action on the screen.
The inventive impulse that generated the most support from the entire production team was linked to the sound of the film, embodied in the Fantasound project.
Fantasound was one of the first examples of stereophonic sound – projecting audio with multiple speakers to mimic the multi-directional and spatial aspect of how we hear things IRL – used in film, as part of the industry building immersive experiences common today today. There is a surprisingly technical article from a film industry journal that delves into the logistics of developing “Fantasia’s” sound profile.
At the Academy of Music, eight channels helped sound engineers capture the sound flowing through 33 microphones that circled the orchestra for seven weeks.
Post-recording sound production saw technicians tinkering with speaker rigs to give the soundtrack a sense of motion that attempted to approximate reality in a concert hall, while aligning with the story on screen.
Few orchestras in the world were as familiar with experimental recording as the Philadelphia Orchestra, already a suitable channel for bringing the strengths of Western musical tradition into the modern era – which was Walt’s vision. Disney for the movie.
On camera, the orchestra’s greatest asset was Stokowski’s expressive, stickless conducting for which he had become known in the mid-1930s, and the variable range of motion allowed for the players – he was not necessary to bow the same way all other violinists did, in Stokowski’s orchestra you were free to do what worked for you.
Enhanced by colorful lighting effects, this mesmerizing performance style memorably launched “Fantasia”. The orchestra’s screen time was capped off by the scene of the silhouette of Mickey Mouse jumping onto the stage to give the conductor a warm handshake.
In recounting the scene, Stokowski, the prima donna of the people, clarified who was the star of the show, saying, “No, no, no. He shook my hand. »
Interestingly, Warner Brothers, Disney’s main competitor, were also Stokowski savants. A 1949 short titled “Long-Haired Hare” featured a scene from Bugs Bunny Does His Best Composer Impression Ever live from the Hollywood Bowl – one of Stokowski’s next stops at the end of his tenure in Philadelphia in 1941.
The Philadelphia Orchestra may boast real success in the world of recorded concert music, but it’s hard to imagine that any work they’ve done before or since has been heard more than their “Fantasia” performances. “. Wherever this film has landed, no doubt around the world, a piece of Philly has been there too.