“I have never again been that angry,” he wrote.
He watched the rest of the performance from the wings, steadying Nijinsky as he stood on a chair shouting counts to his dancers over the uproar. The dancers, stamping their way through Nijinsky’s imagined ritual of human sacrifice, “knew what they were doing, at least,” Stravinsky noted, “even though what they were doing often had nothing to do with the music.” Za-zing!
Twenty-five years later, another man heard the music and knew exactly what to do with it. “This is marvelous!” Walt Disney exclaimed in a meeting room at Disney Studio in 1938. “It would be perfect for prehistoric animals.”
So it was. Where Parisian art habitues and even the great Russian dancer Nijinsky were wrong about Stravinsky’s avant-garde composition (Nijinsky’s choreography was soon scrapped), the man who gave us Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck was absolutely right about it. Disney’s dinosaurs finally did the music justice — and still do.
“Fantasia,” the experimental film Disney unveiled in 1940, two years after hearing “The Rite of Spring,” is the greatest movement interpretation of the Stravinsky score I know. Its swooping roller-coaster ride through outer space still thrills me, as it did when I was a child (and is all the more amazing because those glorious views came years before space travel). The grace of its long-necked herbivores still moves me, the violent clash of predators terrifies, and when earthquakes and tidal waves finally tear across the cartoon earth, Stravinsky’s bellowing brass sounds like the roar of destiny.
Most important, each scene has everything to do with the music.
Disney was, in effect, a choreographer as much as a cartoonist. A few years earlier, he’d written about “how rhythmic the body really is — and how well balanced.” He added, “That, in itself, is music. In other words, it could be music in the body.”
He understood the power of music. Just a dozen years before “Fantasia,” Disney had introduced a whistling, musical mouse to the world in “Steamboat Willie,” his first film with synchronized sound. The cartoon was musical theater, with a mouse for a maestro. But here is the terrific thing about Disney: He believed he could sell audiences on quality. This is what sparked “Fantasia.”
“We simply figured that if ordinary folks like ourselves could find entertainment in these visualizations of so-called classical music,” Disney said of “Fantasia,” “so would the average audience.”
So into the picture went Bach (Toccata and Fugue in D minor), Beethoven (Symphony No. 6, the “Pastoral”), Schubert (“Ave Maria”), Tchaikovsky (“The Nutcracker Suite,” four years before the first American production of the ballet) and Mussorgsky (“Night on Bald Mountain”). And smack in the heart of the film is Stravinsky’s wild, primitive and unprecedented composition — with its high shrieks and an avalanche of brass, its reassembled folk tunes and chaotic rhythms, all of which cracked open convention so Modernism could push through.