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When Disney’s “Fantasia” was first released in 1940, it was a flop. Over 80 years later that’s easy to forget, since the film went on to become a vaunted classic.
Conventional histories of Disney lay the blame for the film’s initial fortunes on the economic turmoil of World War II. A few decades into the Cold War, the film had a revival that cemented the high esteem in which it’s currently held.
Another “Fantasia” fact that can go unremembered? The Philadelphia Orchestra is credited for seven of the nine musical selections that soundtrack the anthology of animated shorts — and the work was recorded at the Philadelphia Academy of Music on South Broad Street.
From the opening orchestration of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” to the instantly hummable translation of “Night on Bald Mountain,” Philly artists played an instrumental role in some of classical music’s shining moments on the silver screen.
And while the players had serious chops, the collaboration was driven by the reputation of the orchestra’s popular conductor and music director, Leopold Stokowski.
‘Finest orchestral combination in the world’
British conductor Stokowski became a certified concert music celebrity before he met Mickey or the character’s inventor, and the initiatives he forwarded made the Philadelphia Orchestra the ideal band to make the film’s soundtrack.
When Walt Disney ran into Stokowski in a Hollywood bar in 1937, as the story goes, the conductor was already responsible for the American premieres of work from the most prominent modern composers in the European canon: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel, Mahler.
Stokowski had graced the cover of Time magazine in 1930, with an accompanying article that declared him something of a diva, but one so widely respected that he was like the people’s prima donna. By 1937, Stokowski had also been in two feature films — so not exactly a figure Disney plucked from obscurity.
The conductor’s involvement in experimentation with recording, done by Bell Laboratories, only spread his — and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s — renown.
Sergei Rachmaninov had a string of concert premieres during Stokowski’s term with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the recordings earned high praise from the famed Russian composer and pianist, who in 1931 called the musicians and their leader “the finest orchestral combination in the world.”
In Stokowski, Disney found a collaborator as interested in the boundary breaking possibilities of the film as he was. According to the Walt Disney Family museum, they conferred about incorporating everything from widescreen images to pumping scents into the theater to align with the action on screen.
Bringing recording into the modern age
The inventive impulse that got the most buy-in from the entire production team had to do with the sonics of the film, embodied in the Fantasound project.
Fantasound was an early example of stereophonic sound — projecting audio with multiple speakers to imitate the multidirectional, spatial aspect of how we hear things IRL — being used in film, part of the industry’s build-up to the immersive experiences common today. There’s a shockingly technical article from a film industry journal that digs into the logistics of developing “Fantasia’s” sonic profile.
In the Academy of Music, eight channels helped recording engineers capture the sound flowing into 33 microphones that surrounded the orchestra for seven weeks.
Sound production post-recording saw technicians tinkering with speaker riggings to give the soundtrack a sense of motion that tried to approximate actually being in a concert hall, while still aligning with the onscreen narrative.
Few orchestras in the world were as familiar with experimental recording as the Philadelphia Orchestra, already a fitting conduit for ushering the highlights of the Western musical tradition into the modern age — which was Walt Disney’s vision for the film.
On camera, the orchestra’s greatest asset was Stokowski’s expressive, baton-free conducting that he had become known for in the mid-30s, and the variable range of motion that players were allowed — there was no need to bow the same way all the other violin players did, in Stokowski’s orchestra you were free to do what works for you.
Enhanced by colorful lighting effects, this riveting performance style memorably kicked off “Fantasia.” The orchestra’s screen time was capped by the scene of Mickey Mouse’s silhouette hopping onstage to give the conductor a hearty handshake.
When recounting the scene, Stokowski, the people’s prima donna, made it clear who the star of the show was, saying, “No, no, no. He shook hands with me.”
Interestingly, Warner Brothers, Disney’s main competition, were Stokowski savants as well. A 1949 short called “Long-Haired Hare” featured a scene of Bugs Bunny doing his best impression of the composer live from the Hollywood Bowl — one of Stokowski’s next stops when his tenure in Philly ended in 1941.
The Philadelphia Orchestra can boast of real success in the world of recorded concert music, but it’s hard to imagine that any work they’ve done before or since has been heard more than their “Fantasia” performances. Everywhere that film has landed, undoubtedly the world over, a piece of Philly has been there too.