Poster Fantasia

Bach's Toccata and Fugue: The 'Fantasia' opener that drove Disney to abstraction

By 1940, abstraction in art wasn't new or shocking. Was the world ready, though, for dark, dense abstraction in an animated family feature? That was what Walt Disney was ready to find out when he brought his new film Fantasia to debut in New York City, which had been rocked 27 years earlier by Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase.

In celebration of Fantasia's 75th anniversary, we're exploring each segment of the movie that's now regarded as among the most seminal feature films of all time. Last month I wrote about the genesis of Disney's most distinctive creation, and this month we're looking at the segment that was, in many ways, the film's most pioneering: Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

Opening Fantasia with the Bach animation was a very deliberate choice. Not only did the challenging segment establish from the outset that this would be a very different sort of film than Snow White or Pinocchio, it served as a bridge between the orchestra and the screen.

With Fantasia, Disney aimed not only to explore new frontiers in the medium of animation, but to help a mass audience unlock the layers of complex classical music such as Bach's organ composition.

"There are things in this music that the general public will not understand until they see the things on the screen representing that music," Disney said in a Fantasia story conference. "Our object is to reach the very people who have walked out on this Toccata and Fugue because they didn't understand it. I am one of those people; but when I understand it, I like it."

In a rave review of Fantasia, the New York Times wrote that the Bach is "illustrated abstractly on the screen with brilliant colors flowing and merging, lacy figures cometing through space, a sky-writing cipher tracing patterns and sprays of falling stars. It is intended, obviously, to create the necessary mood of reverie, of immaterial detachment necessary to the complete comprehension and enjoyment of the entire program."

Bach's music had been transcribed from its original organ arrangement into an orchestral score by conductor Leopold Stokowski, whose Bach transcriptions were among his signal achievements. Stokowski's Bach orchestrations, notes Pipedreams host Michael Barone, "proved hugely popular with his Philadelphia Orchestra audiences which, along with his history-making experiments in stereophonic recording caught the attention of the emerging master of the animated film, Walt Disney." (To read more by Barone on Stokowski, Bach, and Disney, click here.)

Stokowski agreed that the Bach was the perfect choice to open the film. "The Toccata starts off with three phrases," he told Disney, "which are like the playing of immense trumpets to call you to attention. For that reason, this composition is a wonderful selection with which to begin your picture."

Disney's goal in the Bach animation was to illustrate the audience's thoughts as they might flow during a performance of the piece: from abstracted images of bows and other orchestral motifs into flights of pure fantasy. To assist, Disney enlisted Cy Young — a Chinese-American animator (and amateur fiddler) who had taken lead on the independently made 1931 short Mendelssohn's Spring Song.

In Disney's mind, the success of Snow White and the Mickey Mouse cartoons had purchased for the studio the artistic and financial freedom to take their art to new heights — and to take the risk of venturing into abstraction. "The abstractions that were done in Toccata and Fugue," he explained, "were no sudden idea. Rather, they were something that we had nursed along for several years but we never had a chance to try."

German-American animator Oskar Fischinger, whose Optical Poem (1938) had been set to music by Liszt, was regarded as the world's finest creator of abstract animation.

Disney called on Fischinger to design visuals for the Bach animation — but when Disney insisted on adapting Fischinger's work to a degree Fischinger found excessive, he quit and did not receive credit for his work. (Fischinger's original vision for the segment has been partially reconstructed, and is included as a bonus feature on The Fantasia Anthology DVD set.)

To achieve the segment's distinctive multilayered effects, Disney's animators often double-exposed images on the film negative, creating a strong sense of depth. For all its formal innovation, though, the Bach segment wasn't as technically innovative as others in Fantasia: the segment was largely built on techniques that Disney's team had already mastered in order to depict the subtleties of the natural world (rolling waves, shimmering light, cloudy skies) for earlier features.

As to what the mysterious images actually meant and where they came from, Disney cautioned against overthinking: the images had arisen from story conferences where Disney and his animators free-associated. Disney said that one segment reminded him of spaghetti, and so spaghetti was what appeared on screen. Another odd image perplexed Disney's nephew Roy: "I always thought it looked like a tombstone, marching away," mused Roy.

With the Toccata and Fugue animation, Disney planted a stake. "We have worlds to conquer here," Disney explained in discussing this segment, a masterpiece of abstract animation unlike anything else in his oeuvre. "We've got more in this medium than making people laugh."

Fantasia fans: listen to a performance of Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice this coming Wednesday, March 4 on Performance Today.

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