'Rite of Spring': A classic 'Fantasia' segment, whether Stravinsky liked it or not
Among the eight pieces of music featured in Fantasia, the only one written by a composer who was still living was The Rite of Spring. What did Stravinsky think about his infamous ballet being used to soundtrack an animated portrayal of amoebae that develop into battling dinosaurs? Well, his feelings about it seem to have...evolved.
Stravinsky personally granted approval for Disney to use the music, and he expressed no disapproval — at least, any that made it on record — when he visited the animation studio and saw work in progress on the segment. He even posed for a photo with Walt Disney, signing it "from an admirer of your great achievements."
According to a Time cover story that was published upon Fantasia's release in 1940, "An imposing list of top-flight contemporary composers (Paul Hindemith, Serge Prokofiev, William Grant Still, Deems Taylor, et al.) have vowed that they would spend their lives working for Disney if he gave them a chance. Composer Igor Stravinsky himself had signed a contract to do more music with Disney, has blandly averred that Disney's paleontological cataclysm was what he had in mind all along in his Rite of Spring."
Nine years after the film's release, though, Stravinsky had come to the conclusion that the Rite of Spring segment was "terrible." In the last years of his life, Stravinsky called the animation "imbecility" and even tossed in a dig at conductor Leopold Stokowski, saying his interpretation was "execrable."
To each his own. Walt Disney himself was proud of the decision to depart from the ballet's original story (in a primitive ritual, a young girl dances herself to death). "The ballet was built for people who have to put their feet on the ground — who can't fly through the air," noted Disney. "When we go 50 million lightyears in space and come down on the Earth, it's something that's never been seen before. The motion and sweep of it fits right with the music."
Disney's ambition to task his animators with a dramatic exploration of the prehistoric world came before he knew what music would provide its soundtrack. It was Deems Taylor who suggested that Stravinsky's Rite of Spring might be just the thing for a barbaric battle, and Disney wholeheartedly agreed.
If Stravinsky's 1913 ballet was the most musically daring among the Fantasia segments, so was the idea of evolution — or at least, the idea of dramatizing it via animation in a family film. Walt Disney originally conceived of following evolution all the way up to "the age of mammals and the first men" and even beyond that to "fire and the triumph of man." That was ultimately deemed to be too controversial, though, so the segment was written to wrap up with the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Despite the fact that the animators knowingly took some creative liberties — the climactic battle between a Stegosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus rex could never have happened, since those animals lived in different eras — the segment was taken seriously enough as an educational aid that a 16mm film of the Rite of Spring sequence was circulated among schools for decades for use in science classes.
The first scenes in the Rite of Spring segment showcased the studio's skill at special effects. To convincingly depict a wild prehistoric landscape, animators tried every trick in the book — and then they invented some new ones. The spacescapes were made by filming rotating planes of painted stars and a 20-foot tracking shot through a room full of shining beads; the volcano smoke was created by dropping black ink into a vat of water, then flipping the image upside-down so the smoke would appear to rise; and the belching bubbles were drawn over burbling "lava" that the animators created by pumping air into a vat of mud, coffee grounds, and oatmeal.
When it came to the dinosaurs, the Disney animators wanted to go way beyond Gertie — the most famous cartoon dinosaur who had been seen on screen to date. "Don't make them cute animal personalities," ordered Walt, who wanted to create a scenario that was both fearsome and reasonably realistic. To capture the dinosaurs' epic scale, they used images of towering skyscrapers to set the scene's perspective.
The moment most viewers remember best is the T-rex attack, the fearsome carnivore's eyes glowing red. It's worth lingering, though, on the lyrical interludes that precede it — with Pterodactyls finding flight, while Brontosaurs quietly graze in a shimmering lake. Stravinsky's eerie music is peaceful yet wary, creating a sense of deep-seated turmoil that's been only temporarily stilled.
Though Stravinsky ultimately soured on the segment, Fantasia helped make The Rite of Spring part of classical music's standard repertoire, a staple on concert programs around the world. Also, though the segment's science was a little spotty, it had its intended effect: it helped turn millions of children into dinosaur enthusiasts. Among the kids who have credited Fantasia for helping introduce them to dinosaurs was Stephen Jay Gould, who went on to become one of the century's great evolutionary biologists.
At the end, after the dinosaurs have made their march of death, the world itself seems to come to an end in a dramatic crescendo. At an animators' meeting, Walt Disney shared his vision for the segment's conclusion.
"All this music is going wild," explained Disney. "The Earth is shaking, and things are retreating. You've got big waves breaking and wind sweeping over the water! But in the last, there's a sort of stop — pulsating like an old steam engine. Whatever would be the most spectacular in a setup, the dramatic effect that you want is the shaking. Then, no noise whatsoever."