Opening a treasure chest or dumbing down?


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.

Fifty shades of gloom and glorious sunshine

Irish summer weather is renowned for extremes, not in seasonal terms but in day-to-day, even hour-to- hour terms. In one day you can be basking in glorious sunshine and within the hour you might find yourself negotiating a motorway in treacherously blinding torrential rain – as I experienced the other day in Dublin.

But extremes of experience are not confined to the weather and there are some which can be a great deal more treacherous and depressing that the odd downpour of rain or blast of cold arctic air. Last week also, I experienced two extremes of what you might call spiritual revelation, one which left me with one of the grimmest and grimiest outlooks on the future of our species I’ve had for some time; the other which brought me to heights of joy and optimism about the true nature of the human condition and the true prospects of the human race.

On the afternoon in question I happened to turn on the car radio and pick up a discussion on the latest publishing phenomenon of our time, the book that has now, by all reports, outsold Harry Potter – Fifty Shades of Grey. The discussion was not just about this wretched book – and I’ll let Leah give you some idea about why it is so wretched and what you might do about it – but about the whole cultural underbelly which it represents. This was not describing the behaviour of strange people a million miles from Ireland’s capital city. It was describing things in the very heart of this city which gave a new meaning to the term “dear old dirty Dublin”, which we sometimes affectionately use to describe it. The young woman, introduced to afternoon listeners as a promoter and purveyor of the life-style described in FSOG, told us in her unmistakable Dublin accent that these practices are commonplace across Ireland.

It was a grim afternoon, and no amount of sunshine was going to lift the gloomy thoughts which invaded me about the end of civilization as we know it. It seemed that we had descended into a pit of depravity and that not just the Celtic race but the entire human race itself had just lost it.

But then came the evening and another vision of the human condition revealed itself through the medium of the most glorious work of music ever composed and performed there and then in the most sublime rendering humanly imaginable. No longer were men and women pitiable creatures that were happy to wallow abusively in mud like base animals. They were pitiable indeed, pitiable because noble and in the image of God their creator. But if pitiable the source of that pity was divine and redemptive and that redemption was the very subject of those glorious two hours of music and song.

Somewhat casually, still smarting from the offence felt in that afternoon experience, I turned on the BBC broadcast of the Promenade Concert with the intention of recording it for a time when my spirits might be more up to the occasion. From the words of introduction I was curious but from the opening bars of the work I was spellbound. I then knew that all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. Nothing in this world is irredeemable. The sad and devastating scenario which had been laid out before us in the afternoon was ultimately nothing. It was simply evil, and evil is just that, nothing.

The following morning Geoffrey Norris in the Daily Telegraph reviewed the performance in the following terms:

 This was a remarkable evening. A very remarkable evening. An exceptionally remarkable evening. While acknowledging that everyone’s idea of perfection is different, there seemed to be a consensus among the audience that this practically flawless performance of Bach’s B minor Mass was something quite extraordinary. It might perhaps be slightly out of keeping that a work of such rapt intensity and devotion should be followed by whoops of approval and wild cheering, but the impact of the music-making was such that the joy and enthusiasm it generated seemed only natural.

 When, very near the end, that supreme young countertenor Iestyn Davies sang the “Agnus Dei” with such sublime, moving eloquence, it set the seal on an interpretation that had been conceived not only with the utmost care but with a depth of human feeling that was wholly enveloping.

 Never did “Gratias agimus tibi” sound so true and the jubilation in the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” was electrifying. “Et resurrexit” from the Credo meant exactly what it said. I might still have been shocked and saddened after the experience of the afternoon if this appeared as some relic from the 18th century. But it was not that. It was a living breathing performance into which all involved poured their hearts and souls and the absolute truth of what was being sung was expressed as true by each and every one. Being so perfect it could not have been otherwise.

The afternoon had made me at one with Lear, crying

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!

You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,

Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,

Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,

Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once,

That make ingrateful man!

The evening and Johan Sebastian Bach, thankfully, changed all that.