It was 1937, the height of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Disney Studios and Leopold Stokowski began working on a groundbreaking project which would change the face of cinema and animation. Fantasia, a short animated film intended to introduce history’s finest classical works to the public, would go on to be ranked the 58th greatest film, and the 5th greatest animated film, of all time. But Fantasia was not always the much-loved classic it is today.
Leopold Stokowski was one of the 20th century’s greatest and most underestimated orchestra conductors and composers. Considered an avant-garde eccentric, the english composer of Polish and Irish descent is considered today the brain behind Fantasia’s success.
So what, right? But in the world of classical music, altering or reinterpreting a partition was (and sometimes still is) considered a cardinal sin. Stokowski was slammed by the critics and became a laughing stock among his peers and rivals. This wasn’t helped by Stokowski’s shady past and deplorable reputation. In the words of Tom Burnham, “the ‘concatenization of canards’ that had arisen around him was revived – that his name and accent were phony; that his musical education was deficient; that his musicians did not respect him; that he cared about nobody but himself.”
Despite rumors and outrage, the scandal surrounding Stowkowski’s musical ‘vandalism’ was rapidly crushed when the film was released in 1940; critics and specialists were forced to recognize Stokowski’s immense talent and hail a new form of animated art. In some ways Stokowski can be considered the Banksy of the classical world.
Unfortunately, despite critical acclaim, Fantasia did not do as well as the studio anticipated. This wasn’t helped by Disney Studio’s decision in 1960 to censor protagonist ‘Sunflower’ from the Pastoral Symphony scene due to her perpetrating an overtly racist stereotype. It was bad enough for Disney to include black servants to begin with but, to make matters worse, they denied the character’s existence with the Fantasia re-release in 1960.
It was only when the film was re-released in 1990, 50 years after its first airing that Fantasia took off. This newfound infatuation saw the sale of over 9 million copies. Fantasia would become the first successfully popularize classical music.
Sadly, Stokowski died in 1977 before he could revel in his success. He introduced the world’s greatest composers to the masses and helped connect the public to the emotions conveyed in classical music. Who can deny the beauty of the mother Pegasus and her foals, or the palpable tension during the dinosaurs’ fight for survival? You may even have cried when the evil sorcerer came back to whack Mickey with a broom.
Here is a playlist made by Deezer containing the greatest modern take on classical music of all time by Stowkowski: