Disney Renn Faire Part 6 – Of Symphonies and Sorcerers

We’re going to wrap up Disney Renn Faire with the last Disney film released in 1999. Some may not include it in the Disney Renaissance because of its anthology format, but they’re boring. I firmly believe that Fantasia 2000 is a worthy successor to its 1940 counterpart, and it’s just so gosh darn pretty. And so *orchestra tuning* I present *curtains open*

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Fantasia 2000 (1999)

This is an anthology, so we’ll go through each segment. Some will be longer than others. There are a few actual fairy tales with source material and the rest are artistic interpretations of pieces that were intended to present something different, so we’ll just go with it.

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, first movement

The famous first movement of Beethoven’s 5th is a sonata-form movement (which has two competing themes crashing against one another, leading to a sort of musical reconciliation at the end), but for the purposes of this sequence, the piece is shortened considerably, removing a lot of the repeats and development in the middle. So, what we get is a violent explosion of chaos that begins and ends pretty quickly, but it works for the purposes of this piece which has divine butterflies being attacked by demonic butterflies. As to the “meaning,” Beethoven wasn’t so much telling a story as exploring an idea. Beethoven noted that the four note intro could be Fate knocking on the door. Thus the movement was intended to be a person despairing at and ultimately rejoicing in the inevitability of Fate. Beethoven never liked to do anything small, after all.

Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” movements 1-4

This sequence’s intro by legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman gives us a clue as to the music’s original purpose. Respighi wanted to convey daily life in Rome by focusing on various locations such as the gardens of the Villa Borghese or the Appian Way. As an added twist, Respighi tells it all from the perspective of the pine trees (it was 1924, so avante garde was all the rage). He also wrote two other symphonic poem sequences, one looking at Roman fountains, and the other looking at Roman festivals. The Disney version has a supernova giving humpback whales the ability to fly and follows their journey into a new world where they can frolic in a stellar ocean. No pines, but MAN is it ever cool. One of my favorite sequences. It’s so bonkers that it works perfectly.

Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”

This piece of music came out the same year as “Pines of Rome,” incidentally enough. But the two pieces couldn’t be any more different. Gershwin got the idea for the piece (as the story goes) on a train and its rattle-y rhythms inspired him to the point where the whole piece just sort of hit him all at once. He saw the piece as encompassing American “metropolitan madness.” It was Ira Gershwin, his brother and longtime collaborator, who suggested the title. George wanted to call it “American Rhapsody.” The Disney version really captures this well, though they move the time period forward into the Depression, fixating on a number of characters who, unsatisfied with their lives, make a change for the better as they reinvent themselves.

Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto # 2, first movement

Here we have our first fairy tale (if you don’t include the promise of the American Dream from the previous segment). The story is Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” The music is the first movement of one of Shostakovich’s ONLY happy pieces of music, composed in 1957 to celebrate his son’s 19th birthday. Shostakovich’s other works are dark and deeply emotional and hold a lot of significance to the Russian people since he used music to undercut the rule of the Soviet Union and survive the Great Terror even when his friends and family were being killed for suspected subversion. His 5th symphony is probably his most subversive and, even though Stalin failed to catch its significance, it drove many in the audience to tears because it spoke to the Russian spirit that was being crushed under the dictatorial regime. Shostakovich is phenomenal, but his music can be difficult to listen to because it’s often so angry. But his 2nd Piano Concerto is proof that his ability to express joy was never destroyed.

As for the story, Hans Christian Anderson’s tale is about a one-legged toy soldier who falls in love with a delicate paper ballerina. After a goblin Jack-in-the-Box splits them up, the soldier finds his way back home with the ballerina. Then the HORRIBLE GOOD FOR NOTHING CHILD throws the soldier into the fire. The ballerina jumps in after him and is burned to a crisp. The next day when the maid is cleaning out the ashes, she finds the remains of the doomed couple: a tin heart (the remains of the soldier after he melted) and a small blackened jewel (which the paper ballerina wore around her neck). It’s SO SAD and I’m glad Disney changed the ending so that the goblin Jack-in-the-Box gets dropped into the fire (serves him right…) and the soldier and the ballerina (who’s porcelain in this version) end up together.

Saint-Saens’ “the Carnival of the Animals,” finale

Saint-Saens is one of my favorite composers (check out his “Organ Symphony” and his “Danse Macabre”). His “Carnival of the Animals” was sort of a fun thing he wrote while he was working on his third symphony (the organ symphony). Only a genius like Saint-Saens would procrastinate on a masterpiece by working on another masterpiece. The piece is 14 movements long and focuses on different animals in a zoo. My favorite piece is “Aquarium,” a haunting liquid piece that is so pretty it hurts. The “Swan” movement was later used as the score for the short ballet called “The Dying Swan” which choreographer Mikhail Fokine created for the dancer Anna Pavlova in 1905. She performed the piece a zillion times in her career and the ballet itself has become as important a work of art as the original composition.

Disney uses the opening notes of the Introduction movement and the entirety of the finale movement, which was meant to portray the animals all frolicking together. In Disney’s interpretation, a yo-yo-loving flamingo wants to be his own bird, but the Snotty Six all prefer that he fall in step and follow their rigid, predictable movements as they dance about. But try as they might, they can’t keep him down and individuality and fun wins out in the end.

Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

This is a piece from the initial Fantasia. Dukas used Goethe’s 18th century poem by the same name as the inspiration for his late 19th century symphonic poem which tells the story of a sorcerer’s apprentice who decides to use magic to make hauling water easier, but the enchanted brooms get away from him and things get crazy until the sorcerer returns and sets everything right.

Disney was very faithful to the original poem, except that they cast Mickey Mouse as the apprentice. There were some flourishes added for the Disney version such as Mickey falling into a dream state and imagining the limits of what he can do with his newly found power, but for the most part, Goethe’s poem is rendered very well. It’s become one of Disney’s most iconic animated moments.

Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” marches 1-4

The Pomp and Circumstance Marches were composed by Sir Edward Elgar in the early 20th century between 1901 and 1930. The first march, after a performance in 1905 at Yale’s graduation where Elgar was awarded an honorary doctorate of music, has become standard graduation ceremony fare every since.

Disney uses the first four marches (edited together into a cohesive whole) to tell the story of Noah’s Ark, starring Donald Duck as Noah’s assistant. In the chaos of loading the ark, Donald and Daisy are separated and think the other dead in the flood during the 40 days and nights they are drifting, but they are reunited when the ark lands at Ararat.

Disney plays it safe with this one, keeping the focus on the cutesy Sunday school version of the story, leaving out the wickedness of man and the angel/human hybrid giants who were wreaking havoc on the world according to the Christian Bible and various apocryphal accounts such as the Book of Enoch. It also glosses over the mass extinction of the human race, focusing instead on how dragons, unicorns, and griffins all died in the flood because they thought it was silly (which is still pretty sad…).

Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite – “Round dance of the Princesses,” “Infernal Dance,” and “Collapse of Kaschei’s Palace”

This is also a huge favorite of mine. “The Rite of Spring” is my favorite Stravinsky piece, but literally everything he ever composed was amazing, so this one is no different. “The Firebird” is a ballet that tells the story of Prince Ivan who stumbles into the kingdom of the evil prince Kaschei (also called Koschei or Kastchei) who is immortal because he keeps his soul hidden in a magical egg which he keeps secreted away (horcrux anyone?). It also turns out that Kaschei holds sway on everyone in his kingdom via enchantment, making them all slaves.

While there, Ivan sees the Firebird, a beneficent spirit. He tries to kill it but spares her when she begs for her life. She gives him a magical feather that he can use to summon her if he has need of it. Soon after, he meets Kaschei who sends his minions after him. He calls the Firebird and she enchants the minions and makes them dance the “infernal dance.” Soon after everyone falls asleep and the Firebird shows Ivan where Kaschei’s soul is hidden. He destroys the one ring in the fires of Mount Doom the enchanted egg, killing Kaschei and breaking his spell on everyone. The palace vanishes and everyone celebrates their new freedom.

In Disney’s version, a wood Sprite brings the land to life after winter with the help of her elk dude friend. While doing so, she awakens the Firebird, a HUGE destructive lava bird of death who wipes out the forest and the Sprite. But the elk is able to summon the weakened Sprite from the ashes and encourages her to rebuild following the destruction. Although she is initially overwhelmed by grief at the loss of her beautiful forest, she is able to regain her full strength and bring the forest back in a triumphant explosion of life!

My description doesn’t do it justice. It’s crazy pretty. They don’t use ALL of the “Firebird” suite (the suite is the concert version of the ballet score), focusing instead on three primary sections, but it works well.

Fun fact: Stravinsky is my favorite music to write to. It’s like it syncs with my brain and we just get along together well, so thank you, Stravinsky’s Ghost, wherever you are. You rock a whole bunch and your music feeds my soul.

Alright, that’s it for Disney Renn Faire! Thank you for putting up with my rambling. I will see you next week with…something else!

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