Russian Classical Music a la Disney
Walt Disney believed that incorporating classical music into his films would help people appreciate classical music more, allowing them to explore the genre, while also watching an animated story unfold. We look at three Disney films that incorporated Russian classical works, beginning with the one that started it all.
Originally released in 1940, Fantasia tells multiple stories, all put to famous classical pieces, including Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet, and Modest Mussorgsky’s suite, Night on Bald Mountain.
Fantasia was an experimental project meant to attract new audiences to classical music. Vivid and exciting animated stories accompanying the works allowed the audiences to embrace the various moods set by the score, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The colors and stories onscreen bring viewers closer to the music.
The Rite of Spring was not well-received upon its debut in 1913 by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company, as critics found the music jarring and the ballet dancing unnatural. Disney’s version pairs Stravinsky’s music with something equally intense: prehistoric nature. There are volcanoes, ocean creatures, and dinosaurs. And a rainy fight scene beautifully captures the chaotic tones of the composer’s work.
In contrast, selections from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite (eight works that Tchaikovsky extracted from the full ballet, intended for concert performances) accompany images of graceful flowers and fairies among the changing seasons. Until Fantasia’s release, The Nutcracker ballet had never been seen in its entirety in the United States. Today, of course, it is a holiday season staple. (Notably, the 1892 debut performance of The Nutcracker ballet, like The Rite of Spring, was panned. The concert suite, however, was instantly popular.)
Finally, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is accompanied by images of the Chernabog, a monstrous Slavic god of night, and dark scenes of ghosts and spirits.
In 1999, Disney released a sequel to its 1940 classic, Fantasia 2000. The newer version featured the Allegro from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto (featuring a performance by Soviet-born pianist Yefim Bronfman), as well as Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite.
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
George Bruns’ score to the film Sleeping Beauty was inspired by Tchaikovsky’s 1890 ballet of the same name, and liberally used themes and melodies from the original (which is today one of the world’s most popular ballets and musical suites). The famous lyrical piece from the animated movie, “Once Upon a Dream,” is a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Grand valse villageoise,” otherwise known as “The Garland Waltz.”
According to Bruns, “it would have been much easier to write an original score.” Nevertheless, the animation would not have been the same without Bruns’ reworking of Tchaikovsky’s ballet. By reusing segments and melodies from Tchaikovsky’s original ballet, Brun could highlight the animation’s fantastical and romantic aspects.
Read more about the history of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Sleeping Beauty and its connection to the feature film.
Peter and the Wolf (1946)
Peter and the Wolf brings Sergei Prokofiev’s symphony of the same name to animated life. The fifteen-minute short features all the animals in the original score, each of which is represented by a different instrument: the duck by the oboe, the cat by the clarinet, the wolf by French horns, and more. The characters are silly and charming, but the music is the story’s true star. Although the story is changed from the original to be less grim, Disney’s version of Peter and the Wolf makes classical music accessible and easy to enjoy.
If you have ever watched a film without a musical score, you will immediately understand the importance that music plays in setting the mood and lifting the quality of any movie. Walt Disney definitely got that. And his love of classical music, combined with his studio’s talent for telling exciting and beautiful stories through animation (there were a total of 57 animated feature films created by Disney through the end of 2018), has left us all better off.