Wednesday, 5 February 2020

The Musical, Aesthetic, and Mythic Roots of Disney's Fantasia

For whatever my opinion is worth, I think Fantasia could qualify not only as Disney's greatest film, and not only as the greatest animated film ever made, and not only as the greatest motion picture ever made, but even as the greatest single work of art of the 20th century. It is a bold claim, perhaps ridiculous on the face of it, but if we first accept that film was the artform of the 20th century - the artform that, despite being invented at the end of the 19th century, was refined in the 20th and which became its most popular and accessible type - then animation would be the artform of cinema. It is one thing to point a camera in the direction of a play and film it. It is another to understand and manipulate the very fabric of the medium itself. The first animators had the presence of mind to realize that each frame was a tiny picture that could be altered to produce the illusion of life. The film that could best exemplify animation would earn the title of the greatest artistic work of the 20th century, and I firmly believe that Fantasia fits that accolade.

Fantasia, released in 1940 as Disney's third animated feature, demonstrates everything an animated film can be. Across its seven distinct pieces, it proves that animation can be abstract (as in its Toccata and Fugue in D Minor segment) or narrative (as in The Sorcerer's Apprentice), mythological (Pastoral Symphony) or visualizations of scientific theories (Rite of Spring), comedy (Dance of the Hours) or horror (Night on Bald Mountain), anthropomorphism (Nutcracker Suite) or symbolism (Ave Maria). Married to the great compositions of classical music, it could also aspire to be high art. It is an incredibly rich, nuanced, and rewarding work, deeply rooted in the traditional fine arts... Far more than many would expect from a Disney film.

The physical storytelling in Fantasia is so accomplished that words were entirely unnecessary. No narrator was required to tell us that The Nutcracker Suite transitions through the seasons, and Mickey Mouse has no need to crack wise. What could Chernabog possibly say to make him more frightening? What could a David Attenborough add to Rite of Spring that we could not see for ourselves in all its violence and terror and power? Wisely, music scholar and radio personality Deems Taylor reserved his live-action annotations for between the animated sequences. His sonorous voice (now lost behind a dubbing over by Corey Burton) only gives us a few notes in the way of introduction to add to our enjoyment of the piece, like one may find in the program of an evening at the local philharmonic. Fantasia is a tour de force of pantomime, a lasting tribute to the skill of the animator who must draw every glance and gesture.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: Liminality and Transcendence

Concept painting for the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Image: Disney.

Fantasia is artistically advanced but, structurally, comprised of short subjects recalling the "Silly Symphony" cartoons of Disney's past. A whole is affected, not through a coherent plot, but through the virtual experience of a concert performance. The opening piece, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, calls attention to the orchestra and the instruments (through some brilliant lighting and editing). It also lulls viewers into a near meditative state. Fantasia's beginning is a liminal space, drawing the viewer out of the regular concerns of the world and beyond the mental space of seeking mere entertainment. That's one of the funny things about Fantasia: it's not really entertaining. At least not in the sense of being merely sensational or comedic or "fun" per se. It's much more than that. It is a film demanding attention in exchange for deep artistic gratification.

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor also introduces the viewer to Fantasia's distinctive but hard to trace visual style. It is painterly, yet lends itself so well to the sleek affectations of contemporaneous Art Deco and Streamline style. For many it seems to stand on its own, but its roots can be found deep within a short-lived artistic movement of the early 20th century, known as Transcendental Art.

Concept painting for the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Image: Disney.

Born in 1872 in St. Petersburg, Russian painter and spiritualist Nicholas Roerich graduated from both St. Petersburg University and the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1893, with degrees in both art and law. From 1906 to 1917 he served as the director of the school of the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. As many fashionable people of his time did, Roerich's attentions in the 1910's turned towards spiritualism, occultism, archaeology, Eastern mysticism, and the new religious movement called Theosophy. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Roerich family migrated from Russia to Finland, then England, then the United States, and finally to India. An expedition spanning 1925 to 1929 took him and his family through India, the Punjab, Mongolia, Siberia, and Tibet.

Theosophy, an amalgamation of esoteric thought coalesced in 1875 with the founding of The Theosophical Society by Helena Blavatsky, holds to certain key principles about the nature of existence and human life in it. According to Blavatsky, it is "The substratum and basis of all the world-religions and philosophies, taught and practised since man became a thinking being. In its practical bearing, Theosophy is purely divine ethics." Which to more practical effect has three chief aims: "(1.) To form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, colour, or creed. (2.) To promote the study of Aryan and other Scriptures, of the World's religion and sciences, and to vindicate the importance of old Asiatic literature, namely, of the Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian philosophies. (3.) To investigate the hidden mysteries of Nature under every aspect possible, and the psychic and spiritual powers latent in man especially." By the last point, what is meant is that "We assert that the divine spark in man being one and identical in its essence with the Universal Spirit, our 'spiritual Self' is practically omniscient, but that it cannot manifest its knowledge owing to the impediments of matter."

For Theosophists and other esotericists, the imagination acted a crucial faculty in drawing mythic connections that excavated this deeper spiritual self. For Transcendental artists, that imagination manifested itself in a genre of painting that reached from stylized landscapes to pure abstraction, based in the worldview, symbolism, and numerology of Theosophy. Roerich's work is more literal in its depiction of places and people, but the simplification of detail in them hints to deeper underlying spiritual principles. Their simplicity leaves blank canvas for contemplation.

Bridge of Glory. 1923.
Elijah the Prophet. 1931.
Hermitage of St. Sergius. 1933.
Himalayas. 1933.
Mohammed the Prophet. 1932.
Palden Lhamo. 1931.
Repentence. 1917.
Star of the Hero. 1936.
Star of the Morning. 1932.

The banner of Transcendental Art was picked up in the United States by the Transcendental Painters Group, which formed in Taos, New Mexico in 1938. The goal of group founders Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson, as well as later joiners like Agnes Pelton and the Canadian expatriate and former landscape painter Lawren Harris, was "to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world... through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative worlds that are idealistic and spiritual." The Roerich gallery established in the Thirties in Santa Fe served as a regular gathering place for these artists dedicated to Theosophical ideas and artistic abstraction.

Emil Bisttram, Oversoul. 1941.
Raymond Jonson, Watercolor No. 23. 1940.
Agnes Pelton, Spring Moon. 1942.

Lawren Harris, Lake Superior. 1923.
This landscape painting exemplifies his early work in Canada with
the seminal national modern art collective called the Group of Seven.

Lawren Harris, Abstraction 30. 1955.
Concept painting for the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Image: Disney.
Concept painting for the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Image: Disney.
Concept painting for the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Image: Disney.

Just as it is not overly difficult, I think, to catch similarities between Roerich (and Harris') landscape paintings to the landscapes of Fantasia's Rite of Spring, Sorcerer's Apprentice, Pastoral Symphony and Night on Bald Mountain, I also don't think it is difficult to see the trajectory from the Transcendental Painters Group to the animations of pioneer Oskar Fischinger. A presentation of Walther Ruttmann's Light-Play Opus No. 1 - an abstract animation set to live musical accompaniment - set Fischinger's brain ablaze with creative ideas. Like the Transcendentalists, Fischinger found inspiration in Buddhism, and particularly, spiritually rich and geometrically intricate mandalas. After fleeing Nazi Germany, Fischinger's experimental films landed him a position at Walt Disney Studios, where he worked on the original ideas for Fantasia's Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor. Unfortunately his ideas were too abstract, as Walt didn't feel that "little triangles and designs" was quite enough to sustain a big screen production, and Fischinger left without taking any credit in the finished production. Nevertheless, the echoes of Allegretto, An Optical Poem and Radio Dynamics (released after Fantasia) are still there.

Oskar Fischinger, An Optical Poem. 1938.

The Nutcracker Suite: The Ballet of Nature

The Nutcracker Suite, Fantasia's second piece, has its cartoony caricatures (as caricatured as Tchaikovsky's music itself), but what is most remarkable is the delicacy of the faeries, dew, leaves, ice, and autumn seeds floating on the air. Making-of clips show how the semi-transparent seeds were painted, but I'm still astonished that it could be done. To achieve that delicacy and transparency on seed after seed, on cel after cel, is an unfathomable level of skill and patience.

Concept painting for The Nutcracker Suite. Image: Disney.

This piece foregoes the subject matter of Tchaikovsky's original ballet, which itself had a troubled history. Based on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (1816) by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann and Alexandre Dumas' 1844 adaptation, The Nutcracker debuted in St. Petersburg on December 18, 1892 to largely negative reviews. Many critics deemed it too chaotic, poorly paced, unfaithful to the original story, and with poor dancing from its cast of mostly children of the Imperial Ballet School. From the disaster, Tchaikovsky was able to tease out a 20-minute long Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a. which did prove more successful. Productions of The Nutcracker ballet would not resume until 1919, in a new staging that resolved many of the original criticisms. By the time of Fantasia, however, The Nutcracker had largely fallen out of favour as a ballet. In the original narration, music scholar Deems Taylor acknowledged that it wasn't much performed anymore. The Nutcracker's rehabilitation came in the 1950's, when the New York City Ballet began its annual Christmas presentation of the ballet. It spread across the United States and Canada, becoming a seasonal fixture in ballet company schedules. Estimates put up to 40% of an average company's ticket sales being owed to The Nutcracker. Like many auteurs, Tchaikovsky was often ahead of his time. Maligned in its day, The Nutcracker is now the composer's most famous work.

Though not revolving around a human condemned by a curse to live as a Nutcracker, at war with the Mouse King until the curse is broken by a little girl on Christmas, Fantasia's Nutcracker Suite retains the character of a ballet. Fairies of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, of dew and frost and snow, glide along leaves and skate across water to the tones of the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and "Waltz of the Flowers." The various character dances of the Land of Sweets - Spanish chocolate, Arabian coffee, Chinese tea, Russian candy canes, etc. - are delivered by various plants and fish in imitation of their ethnic origin. Unlike later in the program - the satirical Dance of the Hours - this is a straightforward ballet that effectively captures the grace of that art form.

Concept painting from The Nutcracker Suite. Image: Disney.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Romanticism and Expressionism

Fantasia's production began with The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the finished film's third piece. As originally conceived, the title role was to go to Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Echoes of his appearance and behaviour can even be seen in the final product. That role quickly fell to Disney's star performer, though. By the end of the Thirties, the spotlight was beginning to drift from Mickey Mouse and towards his more relatable compatriots Donald Duck and Goofy, who offered better slapstick laughs than could Mickey's good natured wholesomeness. Walt envisioned The Sorcerer's Apprentice as a spectacular "comeback" short on which no expense would be spared. Running into celebrity composer Leopold Stokowski, Walt broached the idea and was met with enthusiasm. But as costs on The Sorcerer's Apprentice soared, they realized that the only way to recoup their money was to go all-in on a theatrical feature film.

Set to the music of French composer Paul Dukas, The Sorcerer's Apprentice betrays its Germanic roots. The lair of the sorcerer Yen Sid could just as easily be in one of Fritz Lang's silent film epics, like Siegfried (1925). The use of shadow and construction of some of the shots recalls German Expressionist film. Very appropriate for a short based on a symphonic piece based on a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Concept painting of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Image: Disney.

Itself based on a excerpt from Lucian's Philopseudes written in 150 CE, Goethe's Der Zauberlehrling, was a 14-stanza poem published in 1797. Goethe was a leading writer in German Romanticism, which was a literary, artistic, and musical movement that emphasized emotion, intuition, and imagination against the stifling Rationalism of the Enlightenment. He was no stranger to the subject of magicians dealing with powers beyond their control, having begun work on the classic Faust in 1772 and publishing an early version in 1790 (the complete play was published in two parts in 1828 and 1831). It seems natural that, as a Romantic writer, he would be concerned with the themes of calling up powerful subconscious forces that could escalate with unforeseen consequences.

A century after Goethe penned his words, French composer Paul Dukas wrote a symphonic tone poem inspired by it. Deems Taylor's narration was correct in stating that Dukas' piece followed a definite narrative, and Goethe's poem is traditionally published in the symphony programme. Such music is called "programmatic" in how it is intended to aurally illustrate a story. In this case, Dukas creates a soundtrack to Goethe's poem. Fantasia by its very nature, turns most of its pieces into programmatic music by adding animated vignettes along with them. The only major exception is the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which Taylor identifies as "absolute music." He describes this antithesis to programmatic music as "music that exists simply for its own sake."

The Sorcerer's Apprentice is, sadly, Dukas' only lasting success. Other works like Ariane and Bluebeard are virtually unknown, a situation that was not helped by his very French act of having destroyed many of his own works later in his life. Not only that, but Mickey Mouse is the main reason for the longevity of that one piece. Orrin Howard of the Los Angeles Philharmonic bemoans Dukas' fate: "Pity the poor one-piece composer. Not the composer who writes only one piece, but the musical creator who enjoys far-reaching success with one of his works but is destined never to repeat that achievement with any other."

Concept painting of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Image: Disney.

Rite of Spring: The Brutalism of Time

The first half of Fantasia is closed out with the ostensibly science-based Rite of Spring. Yet its evanescence of cosmic gas clouds is divine despite the scientific pretensions. I remember seeing this short in the second grade in the early Eighties, during our unit on dinosaurs, but it is certainly an artefact of its time. Regardless of the assistance of scientific luminaries like palaeontologists Barnum Brown and Roy Chapman Andrews, and astronomer Edwin Hubble, acting as advisors, liberties are always taken when transmuting scientific ideas to film. Today, The Rite of Spring is enjoyable primarily for its nostalgic image of prehistoric saurians.

Rite of Spring had the misfortune of being the only piece based on the work of a still-living composer. Igor Stravinsky debuted the original ballet on April 2, 1913, to a literally riotous reception. The two factions who enjoyed Parisian opera at the time - the bourgeoise in the boxes and the bohemian in the cheap seats - turned on each other and eventually the orchestra, with fists and chairs flying. The riot got such that the music could not be heard. Eventually the offending parties were ousted and the show could go on. What unfolded was a panorama of Russian pagan ceremonies re-enacted with the choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky and costumes and backdrops by Nicholas Roerich. Because it was so avant garde, reception of Rite of Spring was mixed. Conductor Pierre Monteux had to be coaxed into performing it, and years later recalled that no matter how much he sucked it up and did it, never never grew to like Rite of Spring. Scholars of classical music site that evening in 1913 as the one that changed everything for music in the 20th century.

Concept painting of The Rite of Spring. Image: Disney.

Stravinsky's own reaction to Fantasia was conflicted. According to different accounts, he liked Disney's realization at the time, but grew a distaste for it. Stravinsky himself gave permission for Disney to use the piece, posed for photos with Walt, and gave no objections during production nor on the film's premiere. It was only much later in life that he decried it as "terrible" and an "imbecility." That much is a shame, considering what The Rite of Spring accomplished. Much of the segment is a study in special effects techniques more than traditional animation. The field of stars, molten Earth, billowing volcanoes, bubbling mudpits, and other artefacts of the Hadean Eon were rendered by innovative practical effects refined by the artist's palate. "Dinosaur movies" are a demanding, effects-intensive genre that beg for cinematic innovation. After the Hadean, Disney's animators depict a primitive, swampy world in deep, earthy tones. We've grown more accustomed since then to see colourful dinosaurs, very much like modern animals, in bright worlds much like our own (for example, in the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs documentaries). These are dull, dim, archaic reptiles in an alien, reptilian, antediluvian world where everyone eats everyone else in a ceaseless and merciless evolutionary battle.

No wonder, then, that New York Herald Tribune reviewer Dorothy Thompson described Fantasia as "brutal and brutalizing," "an assault," "a performance of Satanic defilement," "so perverse an expression," an assault on "the civilized world," and an expression of Walt Disney's (Walt Disney's!) "sadistic, gloomy, fatalistic, pantheistic philosophy to record the Fall of Man and to record it with sadistic relish," a film in which "Nature is titanic; man is a moving lichen on the stone of time." Others rose to Disney's defense, decrying Thompson's column as "sheer, unadulterated hysteria" and "Philistinism pure and simple." Proving that it is not a new habit to call anything you don't like "Nazi," Thompson did exactly that to Fantasia: "All I could think to say of the 'experience' as I staggered out was that it was 'Nazi.' The word did not arise out of an obsession. Nazism is the abuse of power, the perverted betrayal of the best instincts, the genius of a race turned into black magical destruction, and so is the Fantasia." Carl Lindstrom, of the Hartford Times, decried "the Nazi cudgel" as "the most conscienceless thing that has occured to music in many a year," adding "It should be widely and deeply resented."

Intermission: The Fantasia That Could Have Been

Following Rite of Spring is a welcome intermission (something that these modern three-hour long films could benefit from) and an opportunity to discuss some of the ideas that did not make their way into Fantasia. As the film developed, Walt conceived of a rotating series of animated shorts to be switched out and remixed, adding vitality and longevity to the film. Rather than a mere theatrical film, Fantasia would have been a must-see theatrical concert event as it rolled through one's hometown every few years. Unfortunately, Fantasia was not a box office success and those plans were scuttled. Material still exists for a few of those intended shorts, like a dramatic rendering of Norse warfare to Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries and Jean Sebelius' 1895 tone poem Swan of Tuonela, about a Finnish legend of a white swan that ferries the souls of the dead. Both pieces dealt with similar subject matter - the Valkyries ferried dead warriors to Valhalla - and mirrored aspects of Night on Bald Mountain, which did make it into the final film. There was also the problem of Wagner's popularity with the Third Reich in 1940. It would have been... impolitic... of Disney to have made that short at that time.

Concept painting of Swan of Tuonela. Image: Disney.
Concept painting of Ride of the Valkyries. Image: Disney.

The unused concept that came closest to completion was Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy. Actually, it did reach completion, but was pulled at the last minute in the interests of time. Debussy's classic piano piece, part of the Suite bergamasque written around 1890 and published in 1905, is visualized as a moonlight night on a bayou. After being cut, the animation was crudely reworked into the short Blue Bayou for the later Disney film Make Mine Music. After Fantasia's financial failure, Disney only revisited the format through popular music, which in the Forties meant Benny Goodman, the Andrews Sisters, and Roy Rogers. The main films in this format were Make Mine Music (1946) and Melody Time (1948). Some pieces from the two films could easily fit into Fantasia, like Peter and the WolfTrees and Bumble Boogie. The latter of these was another idea intended for Fantasia, using the original Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Flight of the Bumblebee. In Melody Time it is replaced by Freddy Martin's high-test Big Band version. Peter and the Wolf would have been far more engaging as an educational piece than the pedagogical "meet the soundtrack" segment that followed the intermission. After these, we are ushered into the two most "Disneyesque" of Fantasia's pieces: The Pastoral Symphony and Dance of the Hours. These two most closely resemble the Silly Symphony cartoons of Disney's past, in which Fantasia itself is most clearly rooted.

The Pastoral Symphony and Dance of the Hours: Funny Animals

Concept painting of The Pastoral Symphony. Image: Disney.

Having struck it big with Mickey Mouse in 1928, Walt sought a more challenging opportunity to develop the art form of animation. That pursuit manifested in 1929 with The Skeleton Dance, the first of the Silly Symphonies. In this peculiarly morbid short, a graveyard full of skeletons cavort to an original composition by studio musician Carl Stalling borrowing from Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre and Edvard Grieg's The March of the Trolls. The combination of animation with music proved a success and the Silly Symphonies henceforth became a format for both artistic and technical development. Flowers and Trees, released in 1932, was the first cartoon in Technicolor. The Three Little Pigs were introduced in the eponymous 1933 short, whose original theme song Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? would become a Depression Era anthem. Donald Duck debuted in 1934's The Wise Little Hen. Released the same year, The Goddess of Spring, retelling the story of Hades and Persephone, was Disney's first sustained attempt at realistically animating the human figure. It's inadequacies convinced Walt to rely on a process called "Rotoscoping" to achieve better results for his upcoming feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In 1937, The Old Mill was the first short to make use of the multiplane camera, which added greater depth to animation, and to attempt more realistic depictions of animals and natural phenomena (once more in anticipation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs released the same year). Finally, in 1939, after numerous Academy Awards, the series was brought to a close when feature films supplanted them as Disney's venue for experimentation and artistic excellence.

Yet many Silly Symphonies, like The Old Mill (based around excerpts from Johann Strauss II's The Gypsy Baron), could fit just as easily into Fantasia. Likewise, The Pastoral Symphony and Dance of the Hours could have been Silly Symphonies. The song Dance of the Hours, from Amilcare Ponchielli's 1876 opera La Gioconda, was in fact used for the 1929 Silly Symphony short Springtime. In Fantasia, this most famous of ballets becomes a satire of ballet itself, perhaps even leading to the original piece falling out of favour (Allan Sherman's Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp) probably didn't help either). In Ponchielli's opera, a Grand Inquisitor has found his wife guilty of infidelity and forced her to drink poison, thus damning her soul by suicide. He reveals her dead body to his guests at the grisly climax of Dance of the Hours. In Fantasia, funny animals dance around! It's funny because the animals are fat! Get it?... Honestly, Dance of the Hours is the piece I can really do without (I would happily replace it with The Old Mill or Bumble Boogie), but Deems Taylor's totally straight introduction helps make it a bit funnier.

Concept painting of Dance of the Hours. Image: Disney.

Backtracking to The Pastoral Symphony, it may have been the most controversial piece in the film. There was the incident of a Topsy-like negro centaur handmaiden who has since been excised by editing and revised animation, but what remains is still a "Disneyfied" impression of Greek mythology. Many critics have perceived it as too cloying and childish, both with mythology and Beethoven's classic Romantic music. Dorothy Thompson, in her shotgun review, said that it alone should have been "sufficient to raise an army, if there is enough blood left in culture to defend itself", could have been used to torture Beethoven if he "had lived to see the inside of a Nazi concentration camp," and was, with the film as a whole, a "caricature of the Decline of the West." For those who like their Bacchus to be the spry embodiment of lustful indulgence rather than the squat embodiment of jovial excess, this sequence might be disappointing. To those offended by the debasement of Beethoven, I simply recommend to get over yourselves. For me, its rendering of Olympus and its Elysian Fields is paradisiacal, and the sequence of night falling and Artemis lighting the sky with her lunar bow is beyond compare in the canon of animation. There is genuine beauty amidst the cartoon centaurs.

Concept painting of The Pastoral Symphony. Image: Disney.

Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria: On the Sublime and the Beautiful

The pinnacle of the film, and of Disney animation, is the Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria sequence. Walt Disney called the central figure of Night on Bald Mountain "Satan himself," though perhaps that was a little heavy for what was nevertheless a Disney film in all that may imply. His actual name is Chernabog, the Slavic "Black God" and one of my favourite Disney character designs, in my favourite piece of Disney animation, in my favourite Disney film, which might be a little awkward if we took Walt’s word for it that this was the Devil. While he may have been utilized to that effect in Night on Bald Mountain, the history of Chernabog is far more nuanced.

The first recorded mention of Chernabog (also variously called Chernobog, Czernobog, Crnobog, and Tchernobog) was from a 12th century account of Slavic culture written by the German Christian priest and historian Helmold of Boseau. Born in Lower Saxony around 1120 CE, Helmold became a priest in 1156, after which he was asked to write the Chronica Slavorum, a history of the conversion of the Slavic people of modern-day Poland. Though ostensibly meant to shed positive light on the time between the conquests of Charlemagne and his own time (the book closes at 1171 CE), Helmold was rather critical of the Holy Roman Empire's actions against the Wends (another name for Polish Slavs).  He decried the Wendish Crusades of 1147 and their leader Duke Henry the Lion as interested in only money and violence. Scholars generally see the Chronica Slavorum as being of questionable historical value where it predates Helmold, but fairly reliable where he is writing about contemporary events.

Concept painting of Night on Bald Mountain. Image: Disney.

A 1935 translation of the Chronica Slavorum by Francis Joseph Tschan gives us the following description of Slavic religious practice:
The Slavs, too, have a strange delusion. At their feasts and carousals they pass about a bowl over which they utter words, I should not say of consecration but of execration, in the name of the gods — of the good one, as well as of the bad one — professing that all propitious fortune is arranged by the good god, adverse, by the bad god. Hence, also, in their language they call the bad god Diabol, or Zcerneboch, that is, the black god.
"Diabol" derives from the Latin for Devil and is likely tipping us off to a Christianized interpretation of Chernabog and his relationship to the anonymous "good god." So far, amongst scholarly mythographers, there is no consensus on the identity of this "good god" or if the Wends were even dualistic in their polytheism. An interesting insight into the identity of Chernabog comes to us by analysis of Dazhbog. Whereas much about Slavic deities has been reconstructed by scholars, Dazhbog is well-known solar deity mentioned in several Mediaeval texts. What is curious about Dazhbog, whom was known to be worshipped across virtually all Slavic cultures, is that despite being a solar deity he was not uniformly regarded as good. A Serbian variation identifies him as a demonic entity who rules the underworld. His name also translates roughly to "dispenser of fortune": not necessarily good or evil, but the one who gives out both good and bad luck. With the arrival of Christianity, Dazhbog underwent a process of demonization, cast as an opponent to God. Nevertheless, looking at the example of Dazhbog, it is reasonable to consider that Chernabog may be both the "good god" and the "bad god." The ritual described by Helmold might not be an appeal to two different deities, but an affirmation of Chernabog’s dual nature as the giver of fortune, good and bad. This possibly being the case, and I admit that it is speculative, the Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria sequence of Fantasia may be giving us an accidental recapitulation of actual history. Chernabog - not necessarily a god of evil (or good) but certainly connected to the underworld and the dead - is supplanted by Christianity, which proceeds to cast him as the Devil.

Concept painting of Night on Bald Mountain. Image: Disney.

It is generally assumed that the responsibility of identifying Disney’s monstrous entity with the ancient Slavic deity lies with Chernabog’s chief animator, Vladimir "Bill" Tytla. No name is given to the character in the film, and both production sketches and promotional materials of the time call him by all sorts of different, satanic names. Tytla, however, made use of the name "Chernobog" and was himself a Ukrainian-American who may have been familiar with the name through his ancestral roots. In his own words: "On all my animation I tried to do some research and look into the background of each character. But I could relate immediately to this character. Ukrainian folklore is based on Chernabog." Some linguists argue that the name of Chernabog is still in use, in a modified and nearly unrecognizable form, as a curse in Slavic tongues. While it’s not implausible that Tytla recalled his Ukrainian heritage, there is another very likely possibility: Chernabog is mentioned by name in the program of Night on Bald Mountain.

The history of Modest Mussorgsky's most famous work is circuitous, and the full piece was never heard during his lifetime. He first spoke of his intention to write an opera based on the story St. John’s Eve by Nikolai Gogol in 1858. Gogol's book, written in 1830, is a chilling tale of witches, greed, classism, and demonic possession. The date of St. John's Eve (June 24) is significant, as it marks Midsummer Eve, the summer solstice, and the Slavic pagan holy day of Kupala. There would be bonfires and ritual baths, young women would float wreaths in the rivers, and would-be couples would enter the forest together to find a rare (nonexistent) fern that flowered only on that night. With the arrival of Christianity, the date was claimed for St. John the Baptist and the rituals reinterpreted. However, folk memory retained the ancient pagan practices and began to see St. John’s Eve as a night of devilry and witchcraft.

That opera never materialized, but the composer did pen a tone poem called "St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain" in 1867. Unfortunately, Mussorgsky's mentor condemned the finished work as "rubbish" and it went unheard until the 1930's. In 1872, Mussorgsky adapted "St. John’s Eve" for a collaborative opera-ballet entitled Mlada. This version was called the "Glorification of Chernobog," and features a ghoulish convention of ogres, spirits and demons. A young prince's betrothed was poisoned by a greedy woman and her father, who now wish his hand and his kingdom. She even goes so far as to sell her soul to the evil goddess Morena to achieve her goals, who hatches a plot to seduce the prince. The spirit of his betrothed leads the prince to the top of a bald mountain, expressing their mutual desire to be reunited in death, when the denizens of Hell tumble out of the underworld. Chief of them is Chernabog, who gives the prince a vision of Cleopatra in hopes that he will forget about his betrothed. It nearly works, but he is saved by the crowing of a rooster. Daybreak has come, and with it, the evil spirits disperse.

While Mussorgsky completed his contribution to the project, Mlada itself never was. The composer once more took his music and adapted it, this time as the intermezzo in an opera titled The Fair at Sorochyntsi. Sadly, this opera was left unfinished by Mussorgsky’s death in 1881. Friends of the composer, most notably Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, took on the task of adapting Mussorgsky's unfinished and unpublished works for public consumption. Utilizing "Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad," Rimsky-Korsakov created the version of Night on Bald Mountain best-known today. From Rimsky-Korsakov's program:
Subterranean sounds of unearthly voices. Appearance of the Spirits of Darkness, followed by that of Chernobog. Glorification of Chernobog and celebration of the Black Mass. Witches' Sabbath. At the height of the orgy, the bell of the little village church is heard from afar. The Spirits of Darkness are dispersed. Daybreak.
Both Fantasia’s conductor Leopold Stokowski (who in turn arranged Rimsky-Korsakov’s version for Fantasia) and its master of ceremonies, the music scholar Deems Taylor, would undoubtedly have been aware of this and perhaps it was they who suggested calling the character by that name. Rather than an inventive reinterpretation in the vein of the Pastoral Symphony or Rite of SpringNight on Bald Mountain may be a fairly straightforward animating of the symphony's actual story.

However Disney’s most visually striking and viscerally powerful villainous figure got his name, it is certain that this name would have been largely forgotten if not for Fantasia. One of my fondest memories of Halloween was the annual ritual of watching Hans Conried as the Magic Mirror hosting an anthology episode of Disney villains, topped off with Chernabog’s leering visage chilling us to the bones before sending us out to scare up candy. Nevertheless, it would be a strange fascination to hold if there was not a deeper interpretation to draw from it. The complete Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria sequence goes beyond Good and Evil, as it were, to exemplify the difference between the Sublime and the Beautiful. 

Concept painting of Ave Maria. Image: Disney.

The best known meditation on the subject of the Sublime and Beautiful is by the English philosopher Edmund Burke, in his On the Sublime and the Beautiful. In this essay, he defines the Sublime as:
The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment: and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.
What affects this are such attributes as vastness, infinity, overwhelming and overarching power, privation, obscurity, darkness, magnitude, suddenness or shock, brash noise, and terror (each of which earns its own chapter in that captivating essay). Beauty, on the other hand, Burke defines as possessing the qualities of even proportion, delicacy, smoothness, mild colouration, softness in sound, grace and elegance, and so forth. Then to compare them:
For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent: beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line; and when it deviates, it often makes a strong deviation: beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive. They are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure…
I do not think there is a more apt description of the contrasts between Fantasia’s bacchanal on Bald Mountain and the genteel melodies of processional monks. Chernabog, coherent with his origins as a dealer in good and bad fates, then represents Sublime forces contrasted against Divine Beauty. The battle between Good and Evil, between Chernabog's furious, destructive, sensual orgy of fire and the victorious monks' candlelit pilgrimage through a cathedral-like forest, is only the most superficial layer of interpretation. This isn't merely a moralizing metaphor for Evil's lively seductions and Good's pious serenity. It is a discourse on aesthetic philosophy and musical theory as a whole.

On the one side is the sublime of Night on Bald Mountain: everything grand, overpowering, horrifying, massive, ancient, dark, foreboding, the extremes of emotion, the ragged mountain, the crypts of the fallen warriors of battles long forgotten, cemeteries and ruin, of cacophony. On the other is the beauty of Ave Maria: everything delicate, sacred, soft, sensible, comforting, graceful, light, serene, of holy pilgrims, organic forms, and Schubert's great hymn set to a beaming dawn. Furthermore, Fantasia could be interpreted in its entirety as a meditation on these drives, from the beauty of fairies, magic, cherubs, and silly animals dancing ballet to the sublime of geologic cataclysms, prehistoric combat, wrathful deities, and alligators skulking under cover of darkness.

Concept painting of Ave Maria. Image: Disney.

Fantasia's Legacy

Pretty heady stuff, which is why I can understand that audiences weren't exactly looking for that kind of thing at that moment in history. While Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (my second favourite of Disney's animated films) was a milestone that broke all box office expectations, subsequent films suffered from diminishing returns. Pinocchio (1940) was more technically accomplished than Snow White, but lacked heart and the European market shut off by World War II. Fantasia bombed outright. The "Fantasound" surround sound system that Disney developed to achieve concert-real sound quality was expensive to install, the movie was expensive to make and Disney's most unusual and experimental to date, and the the US was on the verge of entering the war itself. Fantasia's returns were so dire that the film didn't start to recoup its production costs until its re-release in 1969!

The negative feedback and even more negative returns soured Walt to animation in the long term. He had built success upon success from Steamboat Willie to Silly Symphonies to Snow White, but Fantasia marked his first major failure. It wasn't just a missed shot either. Walt predicted that "'Fantasia' merely makes our other pictures look immature, and suggests for the first time what the future of the medium may well turn out to be." He felt that "This film is going to open this kind of music to a lot of people like myself who've walked out on this kind of stuff." It wasn't to be. The next film produced by his studio to turn a profit was Dumbo (1941), a fun, charming little picture that Walt generally had little to do with. The whole episode, also coinciding with the 1941 animators strike, was a blow to his confidence, sense of experimentation, and feelings of being vitally tapped into American culture. The receipts were in and there was nothing new, nothing higher, he could do with animation. After Fantasia, his own interests turned towards live-action, documentaries, television, and theme parks. 

Still, its imagery has resonated throughout the Disney company. Sorcerer Mickey is the next most iconic form of their corporate mascot after his basic yellow shoes and red shorts. Chernabog, Ben Ali Gator and Hyacinth Hippo, and Hop Low regularly find themselves in circulation... Disney doesn't treat the film's legacy as well as they should: it has lacked a home video release in any of Disney's premium formats, be it "Platinum" DVD, "Diamond" Blu-Ray, or "Signature" digital, and was last given proper treatment in a 3-disk Fantasia Anthology box set in 2000. Despite this, its characters and images are too important to avoid. Appreciating Fantasia takes a huge investment of time, attention and contemplation, but the results are well worth it.

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