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From 'Bald Mountain' to 'Ave Maria': The hell-to-heaven 'Fantasia' climax

Ave Maria Disney

75 years ago today, an audience at New York City's Broadway Theatre saw the first-ever screening of Fantasia, a Walt Disney feature film that has become revered as one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of animation — and an introduction to classical music for generations of children.

What most of the audience didn't realize was just how close they came to not seeing the complete movie. The final footage — the epic last shot of the concluding Ave Maria segment — had only arrived in New York four hours prior to the screening.

It was one of the most ambitious shots in animation history — it was the longest single shot ever animated up to that date — and completing the shot, which involved moving a multi-plane camera through a cavernous soundstage full of illustrated panels, became a comedy of errors. First the crew used the wrong lens, then there was an earthquake — and they kept having to stop work so that the boss could use the soundstage for his badminton games. In the end, though, all the work paid off: the shot is a transcendent conclusion to a landmark film.

Before viewers could ascend to heaven with Schubert, though, they had to descend into hell with the demon Chernobog, the malevolent star of the segment set to Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain.

The Mussorgsky segment, inspired by a Slavonic legend about evil spirits gathering on Walpurgis Night, has become a scary Halloween standby through its inclusion in Disney anthologies, and the towering demon never fails to frighten. He was a hallmark creation of the animator Vladimir Tytla, a master at rendering the human form — here, as it emerges from the top of a mountain, with wicked horns and bat-like wings.

The segment was meant to startle, and it certainly does. If the mythological creatures in the film's Pastoral segment were somewhat sanitized, there was nothing safe about the horrific minions of Chernobog. Though he's animated, this devil is no cartoon — and Disney's vision of hell is no caricature, but a Boschian menagerie of the grotesque.

To achieve the otherworldly effects of the demonic Bald Mountain summit, Disney's animators again reached into their bottomless bag of tricks. To show the spirits rising from their graves, for example, drawings were reflected off undulating tin, then overlaid on backgrounds. As with the Dance of the Hours segment, live models — including Tytla's wife — were used to ensure fidelity to the human form, in this case for the anthropomorphic dancing flames.

At the final moment of Chernobog's great revel, the devil casts his minions down like a lighting bolt into hell. To soundtrack that moment, Stokowski used the recording studio to achieve a musical effect that would have been impossible in live performance. As the conductor explained, the sound we hear is:

an extremely powerful chord...played by all the horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba — with deep foundation tones by tympani, bass drum, and tamtam. Above this chord all the string and woodwind instruments play a rapid rushing-down passage, beginning very high and ending with the lowest tones of the double basses. These downward-rushing tones should sound like an avalanche — beginning loud and increasing in tonal volume the lower they go. In the concert hall this is impossible to achieve because the instruments have more strength of tone in their higher registers than in their lower, so that no matter how much the players try to increase the volume as the tones become deeper, exactly the opposite happens — the volume of the tone becomes less. In Fantasia we were able for the first time to achieve the ideal in this music — increasing the tone as the scale passage descended — because recording for motion pictures puts techniques at our disposal whereby the "impossible" can sometimes be achieved.

Then, in an enormously satisfying and exquisitely animated moment, Chernabog hears the tolling of a bell. Recoiling from a light that accompanies the church-like sound, he folds himself back into the form of a mountain and the hellish interlude ends as the camera pulls back to show a slow and humble procession of figures carrying pale lights into the dawn. This is the beginning of the film's final sequence, set to Schubert's Ave Maria.

Part of of the genius of the Fantasia conclusion is that it seems impossible for animation to get any more majestic than what we see on Bald Mountain — and then the studio outdoes itself with the unprecedented scope of the Ave Maria sequence, with its carefully calibrated shades of blue and its vast inner space.

The Ave Maria scene was daringly conceived to essentially turn the animators' art inside-out: instead of focusing on foreground characters, as was typical, it would make those characters incidental to the work of the background artists. Ultimately, the Ave Maria animation is a cascade of beautiful blue backgrounds, continuously sliding past each other as the barely-defined pilgrims proceed out of the woods and into the stunning morning light.

The very slowness of the characters' movement in this sequence posed challenges for the animators, since the more slowly a character moves from frame to frame, the more precisely that character needs to be drawn. "So close was this animation," remembered one of the artists, "that the difference in the width of a pencil line was more than enough to cause 'jitters,' not only to the animation, but to everyone connected with the sequence."

There was debate over whether the sequence should include a literal "Maria": a Madonna who would be inverse to the horrible Chernabog. Ultimately, Disney decided simply to have the paired pilgrims — eventually, we see that they are nuns — emerge into "a blaze of morning light. Once again the powers of life and hope have triumphed over the hosts of death and despair."

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