Opening a treasure chest or dumbing down?

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Before video tape recorders came along it was the masterpiece that was very hard to see. But was it a masterpiece or just a dumbing down of great music on the back of Disney animation?

In a short online piece today courtesy of the New York Times we are reminded that Walt Disney’s Fantasia is 75 years old this month.

The movie, the Times tells us was Walt Disney’s most artistically ambitious feature. It was “dreamed up to bring highbrow masterpieces to everyone.” It didn’t succeed, at first. It cost the equivalent of $39 million and it was only after repeated releases over decades that it finally recouped its costs.

Like all approaches to classical music which concentrate on the “good bits” of the masterpieces of the repertoire, it is ultimately disappointing – little better than what Old Spice did for Carmina Burana or what Hamlet cigars did for Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major. On wonders how many people hearing any of these actually ever found their way to the originals in all their glory?

Fantasia features unrelated segments set to music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
“Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” accompanying an 1897 composition by Paul Dukas, features Mickey Mouse as a wannabe magician.
Animation for “The Rite of Spring,” composed by Igor Stravinsky, tells the story of evolution.
And “Dance of the Hours,” from the opera “La Gioconda,” becomes a comic ballet performed by animals.

When the film finally arrived in video tape format it was an immediate bestseller among school teachers who saw it as a way of awakening an interest in great music in their pupils. There is not much evidence that it helped in any way to stem the tide of inane pop which was already swamping musical taste across the globe. Reaching the higher reaches of any great mountain requires effort and stamina. The same applies to the great works of literature, drama and music. Funny pictures and soft options are not enough. Pretending that they are is in fact selling out on the things of real value in our culture, those things which will really enrich our lives and cultivate our sensibilities at the deepest level.

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