Shawn Colacchio

The idea of Fantasia is enormous in conception and reality. Fantasia is a project that consumed over $22 million. It’s got all different forms of art in it, with music, animation, and dance all a part of the narrative. The idea behind Fantasia was to make classical music accessible to common people. It was supposed to help people who would just walk out on this stuff give it a try. Fantasia uses animation to show the feelings that music can evoke in people. It’s a concept that only Walt Disney could dream up, an enormous undertaking that only a company like his could create. From the creation of the Fantasound to the team of animators to the hiring of famous conductor Leopold Stokowski, of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the entire project was meant to be an incredible audiovisual experience the likes of which had never been seen before. No one had ever tried something on this scale before. The cost of it was astounding. It was for all the people who had never given classical music a chance. The art in the animation was incredibly planned, the music was top notch, and it all had that Disney touch that had made so many other movies successes. The movie is filled with wonderful pieces, but there are four I’d like to talk about. The first is the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. This piece is definitely a crowd favorite, but it only really became well known and talked about after its inclusion in Fantasia. It’s a good example of absolute music. I’ll talk more about absolute music later in this. The second is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. This piece, by Paul Dukas, is an example of really the opposite of the Bach. It's program music, with an emphasis on relating to a poem by Goethe, Der Zauberlehrling. It's based off an ancient Egyptian tale of a mischievous young apprentice sorcerer getting into trouble when he disobeys the instructions of his master. The third piece I'm going to talk about is the Rite of Spring. This piece is one of the most insanely controversial pieces in classical history. It has become a major fixture of classical music, but it has its detractors. The story of its premiere, and why it's such a controversial piece of music will be part of my story later. Finally, my fourth piece is one that I've personally played with Philharmonia. Night on Bald Mountain is one of the greats, a terrifying tale of a witch's Sabbath, told by Modest Mussorgsky.

Now, the first piece of art, the Bach Toccata and Fugue, is a piece of absolute music. In contrast to programmatic music, absolute music tells no story. It has no purpose other than being music for music's sake. Absolute music was especially relevant around the end of the 18th century. It was referenced in a lot of Early Romantic German writings. Absolute music is linked to the idea of spiritualism in the arts. Spiritualists believe that the arts possess the ability to link people to a higher realm of spirituality. The other sect of absolute music is the formalists. Formalists believe that music is the appreciation of the technique of the musician, the "formal" abilities of the master. So, how do these link with the Toccata and Fugue? Walt Disney decided that, with this piece, there would be no story being told like the other pieces.He made it into a piece of abstract art, which I think is very clever. It begins with the orchestra starting the Toccata. Gradually, the orchestra fades away, leaving silvery bows leaping across the screen and shadowy bridges with unattached strings flying across the screen. Finally, even these last recognizable shapes fade away. We're left with golden clouds falling across the screen, sparkles shooting up and down. You're allowed to sink into the music, to fade into the sounds and shapes of Fantasia. That's the idea of both absolute music and abstract art. When you look at a piece of abstract art, there's no story there to find. The enjoyment you take from looking at it is whatever you want to. The only point to the art is appreciating the art itself, just like with absolute music. That's why this is a really interesting way to start Fantasia, but I think it is very fitting. The two forms of art just go together, in my opinion.

Next up, the second piece I'd like to present is the Sorcerer's Apprentice, a piece by Paul Dukas. A little background on Paul Dukas is necessary, I think. Paul Dukas was a French composer living from 1865 to 1935. He was intensely critical of himself, destroying or abandoning many of his orchestral works. He was a perfectionist. His other works were eclipsed by the Sorcerer's Apprentice. So, the Sorcerer's Apprentice is a piece based off a poem by Goethe, Der Zauberlehrling. This makes it a programmatic piece of music, rather than a piece of absolute piece of music like the Bach. Programmatic music has a story that goes with it. It's created for the story, or, in reverse, a story is created to go along side it. Either way, there's a sort of plot to the piece. The Goethe poem is a beautiful ballad, created during the eighteenth century. It's centered around the activities of a mischievous young apprentice sorcerer who tries some magic while his master is away, and it goes a bit awry. I found a good translation of this work online. Der Zauberlehrling. Anyway, in Fantasia, this young sorcerer is portrayed by Mickey Mouse. Mickey, lately on the downturn in Disney, was meant to be revitalized by this portrayal in Fantasia. It completely worked, making Mickey Disney's poster child again. They had completely changed Mickey's image in Fantasia.
old mickey mouse.jpgnew mickey mouse.jpg
As you can see, the animation transformed completely, with pupils and gloves added, and a more complex scheme overall. In this short, Mickey attempts to cast a spell to help him do his chores, but it gets away from him and it goes horribly awry. The ever present theme starts as Mickey brings the first broom to life. The animation beautifully captures the essence of the poem and the piece, creating an engrossing story to go with this piece of music, now world renowned.

Another amazing piece portrayed by Disney in Fantasia is the Rite of Spring, by Igor Stravinsky. This piece has a very interesting history. It was controversial during its time, and incredibly revolutionary. It contains some of the very first examples of constant dissonance in classical music. Stravinsky wrote this piece to accompany a ballet performed by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes company, with choreography by Vassily Nijinsky, and costumes and stage design done by Nicholas Roerich. This music was extremely avant garde. At the beginning of the piece, it is fairly normal, for a ballet, with melodic lines in the bassoon at the beginning, and harmonic support from the rest of the orchestra. But it becomes far more later in the piece. Paul Rosenfeld described it as "pound[ing] with the rhythm of engines, whirls and spirals like screws and fly-wheels, grinds and shrieks like laboring metal", while New York Times critic Donal Henehan refers to "great crunching, snarling chords from the brass and thundering thumps from the timpani". Stravinsky had experimented with bitonality, the use of two completely different keys simultaneously, in Firebird, but reserved its full effect for the Rite. The Rite makes use of a lot of traditional Russian folk melodies. Stravinsky mashes these melodies up, and forces them into dissonant, cubist lines throughout the piece. When it was debuted in Paris's Theatre des Champs-Elysees, the reaction of the audience was completely unexpected by anyone. As it began, the audience became uncomfortable with the dissonant, modern sounds they had never heard before. As the piece ground on and on, the audience actually went into near riot state. It is rumored that Stravinsky was forced to climb out the bathroom window in tears. Anyway, in later revivals, the Rite of Spring won greater acclaim. In Fantasia, the music accompanies the history of our planet, from the hot and volcanic early years to the rise of dinosaurs. The clip I have provided is the most famous moment from the Rite of Spring presentation. In this clip, a Stegosaurus fights a Tyrannosaurus in the wild rain as the other dinosaurs watch with horror. It's accompanied by some of the most painful sounds from the Rite of Spring. It is truly a work of horror, rather than fantasy.

That's a good segue to my last work. Night on Bald Mountain is one of the great works of music from the nineteenth century. Modest Mussorgsky composed it on St. John's Eve, June 23rd. Its full, accurate name is St. John's Eve on Bare Mountain, but popular culture has turned it into Night on Bald Mountain. This piece is about a witches' sabbath on the night of St. John's Eve. It is terrifying, and contains huge moments of horror and suspense. Every moment is another moment of waiting for the final blow to drop. Although a failure when it was first published, NOBM became prominent when Rimsky-Korsakov republished it as a fantasy for orchestra. It achieved lasting fame through this and its inclusion in Fantasia. In Fantasia, the premise is the Czechoslovakian dark god Czernobog haunting a town at night. He calls up the dead from their rest and summons fire, goblins, and other fantastic demons to haunt the night. But as day approaches, their dark and joyous night comes to an end. The dead go back to their graves, and Czernobog falls into his dark slumber once more, as the bells toll and the flute leads the orchestra out.

So, that's the end of my talk about the artwork and music of Fantasia. But I felt like I should include some of the music I love most, some of the amazing stuff that has inspired me to make music my life's work. I think it makes a great ending to a project like this. First, I have here the world premiere of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, one of the most heart wrenching pieces out there. It was conducted by legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini. The story goes that when Barber sent in the score to Toscanini, he got it back in the mail within a week. He was very confused and saddened because he thought that Toscanini had just hated it so much he had sent it back without any comments. In fact, Toscanini loved it so much he had it memorized within a few days. Anyway, enjoy this fantastic piece of music. I recommend listening to it as loudly as possible without hurting your ears. The full effect is only felt when sitting in front of an orchestra, but you can get a lot out of this recording by the NBC Symphony orchestra, conducted by Toscanini.

Next up, I have here the Sweet Plantain String Quartet, who actually visit Arlington once a year to play for us, and coach our string quartets. I have this blurb here describing what they do from their website. "Artfully fusing the western classical traditions in which they were trained with the hip-hop, jazz improv, and Latin rhythms on which they were raised, their unique repertoire and live shows educate and entertain. Through original compositions and arrangements, and with their use of extended percussive techniques, Sweet Plantain awakens audiences to new possibilities in chamber music. Separately hailing from The Bronx, New Jersey, and Venezuela, together these musicians give voice to a sound that is contemporary, multicultural, and very New York." I don't think I have anything else to say about them except that you should remember that almost all of this music is improvised, or made up on the spot.

This piece is one of my absolute favorite pieces in the orchestra repertoire. The amount of sheer power, raw musicality embodied in this piece is astounding, This isn't a piece about a thunderstorm, or about a nutcracker. This is about the very cycle of life and death, the resurrection of the human soul, and the salvation of humanity. I'd tune in at four minutes in to this video. Leonard Bernstein creates an atmosphere where the air is electrified, the audience is enraptured. He throws his head back, singing, caught by the moment. The brass pounds out the huge melodies at a volume unseen, at a climax unforeseen. This piece captures the essence of the human spirit, of the ability of humans to make music that can capture life at a glimpse, of huge powerful forces churning the world this way and that. This is the universe. This is humanity.

This recording is one of the most important parts of my musical career. When I was in sixth grade, I was given the Goat Rodeo Sessions for Christmas. I quickly wore out the CD from playing it too much and had to burn another copy. These men are probably the four top musicians on their respective instruments in the world. Edgar Meyer is the bass teacher for Curtis Academy, the top music school in North America. Chris Thile plays over 44 different instruments, and hosts the Prairie Home Companion on WNYC, as well as having released his first solo album at the age of 12, and being the top mandolin player in the world. Stuart Duncan has starred in many different bluegrass bands, and won a Grammy. Yo Yo Ma.. well, he really speaks for himself. The top cellist in the world, perhaps of all time. When these four musicians came together to create the Goat Rodeo Sessions, magic was made. Music was born. And a new piece of art was added to the halls of musical fame.

Well, these were some of the amazing pieces that made me the musician I am today. I hope my presentation has changed you, and given a bit more respect for classical music if you thought it was boring. Because it's really just about the music you listen to.

Works Cited
Dirks, Tim. “Fantasia (1940).” Edited by Tim Dirks. AMC Filmsite, edited by Tim Dirks, Accessed 15 May 2017.
“Fantasia (1940 Film).” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, Accessed 17 May 2017.
Huffman, Larry. “The Stokowski Legacy.” Leopold Stokowski Legacy, Accessed 17 May 2017.
Susman, Gary. “’Fantasia’: 15 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know about This Disney Classic.” Movie Fone, 12 Nov. 2015, Accessed 16 May 2017.