Disney Diary: Fantasia – Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” is the first of eight musical shorts released as part of Disney’s Fantasia in 1940. It was selected to introduce Walt’s  unique mix of animation and symphony, as well as provide us with our first look at Leopold Stokowski, the conductor; Deems Taylor, the narrator; and the players of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The short contains no plot, but transitions smoothly from a live-action blend of music and color to abstract animation. It ends where it began, with a brilliant image of the conductor silhouetted in front of the rising sun. It is one of the most iconic images of the Fantasia experience.

This “Disney Diary” is the first in a series on Fantasia (1940), one post for each of the musical shorts contained in the program. These will be followed by a wrap-up combining and linking them together to provide a full assessment of the film. Read on for part one of Fantasia!

Once Upon A Time – Film Recap

The orchestra arrives.
The orchestra arrives.

“Even the title has no meaning beyond a description of the form of the music.” – Deems Taylor

The short and the film begin with a curtain rising to reveal an orchestra. There is no title card, no concession to actually watching a film to be seen, only the silhouettes of musicians taking their seats. As the men and women ready and tune their instruments, they are splashed with light and color. The message is clear: this is not just a regular concert; magic is at work.

A few moments later, we are introduced to our narrator, Deems Taylor, who introduces the film on behalf of Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowski, and the other artists. He provides an overview of the program and explains that there will be three kinds of animation presented: some with a definite story, some with definite imagery but no clear plot, and some completely abstract. This first piece, he explains, will fall in the final category. The idea is that as you let your mind wander through the performance, you will become less aware of the musicians themselves and more in tune with the music in all its abstract beauty.

The performance begins with Stokowski in silhouette giving his cues to the musician-performers. As they play against vibrant background, their instruments are splashed with color, a constant interplay of light and shadow. Gradually, the concrete images fade as bows and strings become raindrops and instruments collapse into colored waveforms that seem to dance with the music, but are somehow disconnected from it.  Waves become hills, hills become mountains, and mountains fade to clouds. Those shapes become bursts of confetti then flame or smoke. The whole effect is far too abstract to describe, but very well done and frequently feeling three-dimensional. As the piece nears its conclusion, the sun rises over the horizon and we are again greeted by the silhouette of the conductor as he brings the first piece of music to a close.

The Source – The Story Behind the Story

Abstract "confetti" to the music.
Abstract “confetti” to the music.

“At first, you’re more or less conscious of the orchestra.” – Deems Taylor

The original version of the “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” was most likely written by Johann Sebastian Bach sometime prior to 1833. Although there are some scholars today that question that attribution, none can deny the masterpiece of the work. While Bach’s version was for the organ, Disney used a version that had been adapted for a full orchestra by Leopold Stokowski himself. This version was not created for the film, but presented by Stokowski to Disney during a series of planning sessions in 1938. Disney initially suggested that the piece could be used with a in-development sequence involving the devil, but that was rejected in favor of “Night on Bald Mountain”. Rather that forget about the “Toccata and Fugue”, Disney selected it for his abstract presentation.

Even by 1940, the piece was not generally imagined in the bright and colorful way that Disney portrayed it and the animators may have been deliberately playing against type. Earlier films that the work had appeared in were generally horror or suspense films including 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1933’s The Black Cat, and 1935’s The Raven. Deems Taylor also raised objections to the music being used as the first short, remarking to Disney in a planning session that opening with it would be “not strictly legitimate” and that “no symphony … or a pop concert” would open with such a piece. Disney overruled his objections on the grounds that it was the best way to present and introduce the ideas of the orchestra to the audience.

The live-action portion of the short was filmed in Los Angeles and did not use the actual musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra. Local actors, musicians, and Disney staffers mimed playing against the pre-existing soundtrack. The lighting accents in the early portions of the short are not animation, but rather practical effects shot on set with bright colored lights. The transition from live-action to animation is seamless as camera effects segue into full illustration.

Despite its pride of place and excellent introduction to the orchestra and orchestral music, this short was cut from the 1942 re-release of the film to reduce the running time. Subsequent versions added the short back, albeit with some of the narration and scenes of the musicians taking their places removed. The full version was returned to theaters in 1990 for the fiftieth anniversary and has been present as such in re-releases since. Like all Fantasia shorts, Deem Taylor’s narration has been replaced by a voice actor (Hugh Douglas) as the original audio was damaged or lost.

Passing the Test – Gender and racial stereotypes

Principal Harp, Edna Phillips
Principal Harp, Edna Phillips

“Our picture opens with a series of impressions of the conductor and the players.” — Deems Taylor

As an abstract collection of images, light, and sound, you must think me mad for even including this category. And yet, we have not just one, but two great reasons for doing so: Edna Phillips and Majorie Tyre.

As the musicians are coming onto the stage in silhouette and begin to play, our otherwise all-male orchestra is joined by two female harpists. Their presence is never called out by the narrator, in the credits, or indeed presented as being special in any way. But in 1940, they were quite special: they were the only women playing in any of the “Top 5” orchestras in the United States. Edna had won her audition as principal harp for Mr. Stokowski in 1930, at only 22 years of age, and continued performing full-time with the orchestra until resigning in 1941. She would return perform with them from time to time for another eleven years. Marjorie was selected as the second harpist shortly after Edna, although she too resigned in 1941.   They were pioneers. In contrast, the first woman would not join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra until 1944, the Boston Symphony Orchestra until 1952, or the New York Philharmonic until 1966.

The beautiful thing about this is that Disney did not need to film the  women at all: the live-action segments were produced using Los Angeles musicians and actors rather than the original performers and they could easily have selected two men for the roles. Instead, Disney elected to very silently keep this important milestone for woman’s equality in the film.

Final Thoughts

This piece makes a great starting point to Fantasia, but is not without its drawbacks. While it provides a fantastic introduction to the concept of orchestra, it also lends the work an air of stuffiness that could have been avoided if a more traditional lead-off was used, perhaps one more akin to the “Silly Symphonies” that Disney was already famous for. It is telling that in the 1942 re-release, this whole sequence was cut, allowing the film to begin with the much more popular (and well-known) “Nutcracker Suite”, even if it was put back in place in all subsequent editions.


Previous Disney Diaries:

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