The First Time

The First Time

Hundreds of millions of people have seen Disney’s version of Le Sacre. It became a door–a misshapen door, perhaps, but a door nonetheless–for many to venture into contemporary music.

Written By

Rob Deemer

As everyone in the concert music community has been gearing up for the centennial of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, I noticed that WQXR-FM in New York City recently called several composers, performers, and radio hosts and asked them when they had first heard the piece and what their reactions to it were. I was curious what the answers to these questions were because I had an inkling that most of those answering were going to say “concert hall” or “recording.” Sure enough, out of eighteen respondents, seventeen of them remembered fondly this performance in Carnegie Hall or that high school performance or hearing it on an LP or in a college class or on the radio in the car. Most were in their teens or early 20s when they got their Printemps cherry popped, and all were strongly affected in one way or another (as a side note, I’ve noticed anecdotally that while the initial reactions of musicians to Pierrot Lunaire tend to be mixed

, most first impressions of musicians to Le Sacre tend to be emphatic and positive.)
But what about that eighteenth respondent whose first exposure to Stravinsky’s work was neither the concert hall nor a recording? Violinist/composer Owen Pallett was the only one who came clean–I am a bit dubious that he’s the only one from that list who falls into this category–and admitted that the first time he experienced The Rite of Spring was in a movie theater when he saw Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia.

The very topic of Disney’s musical pastiche writ large can be cause for eyes to roll and the animated treatment of Stravinsky’s work in particular is rarely set in a positive light. Although Stravinsky sold the rights to Le Sacre to Disney for the project (as well as those for Firebird, Petroushka, and Renard) and, at the time, seemed pleased with Disney’s adaptation, his comments about the film after it had failed at the box office ranged from “terrible” and “execrable” to “an unresisting imbecility.” For those who know the work well, listening to the Disney adaptation is more than a little disconcerting, as some sections are excised altogether while others (such as the opening) are reprised in accordance with the needs of the visual narrative.
It was not always like this. Just a year after it was premiered, an article in The Musical Times proclaimed:

A work that has had to fight for its place on the ballet stage and concert platform suddenly becomes an unquestionable masterpiece in the picture theatre. The music fits the picture to admiration, and Stravinsky comes out as the ideal auxiliary to a screen cartoonist. (Sept. 1941)

Seven years later, a Musical Times critic continued:

The same music was chosen for a different purpose in Disney’s Fantasia; and the corresponding label–death of the last dinosaur or whatever it was–is at least as valid as that attached by Nijinsky or Massine. In fact the Disney interpretation is more real to the present generation than the ancient dances were even in their own time, since the cartoon has been witnessed by the millions, whereas only a few hundreds saw the dances. (March 1948)

This last statement is telling because it can only be amplified many times over in the present day; hundreds of millions of people have seen this version of Le Sacre, many of whom were only children at the time, and were affected in some way by it. I myself don’t remember much of my early childhood, but I have always remembered my first time going to a movie in the local theater when I was three or four years old. It was in 1973 or 1974 and my parents took me to see Fantasia; it had been reissued in 1969 and occasionally was shown in art house theaters and on college campuses through the mid-’70s. To a young child at that time, that music combined with those images was extremely potent, and I was excited to see it again when it came back into the theaters in 1977 and 1982. Seeing that film was, I think, a direct precursor for my professional interest in music and film.
I’m not embarrassed at all to say that the first time I experienced Stravinsky’s work was through Disney’s eyes, but of course it wasn’t the only time I experienced it for the first time. Hearing the work as it was intended on an LP from my dad’s record collection was breathtaking and getting to hear it live for the first time was immensely powerful. During the first semester of my doctoral studies, Elliott Antokoletz’s Stravinsky seminar introduced me to the work afresh as we watched the video of the recreation of Nijinsky’s choreography; seeing the work in its balletic context allowed me to interpret the now-familiar lines in a completely new light.

Recently Frank J. Oteri explored the idea of familiarity, its importance in building audiences and the necessity of repeated performances of new works over a long period of time. Stravinsky’s Le Sacre, through the filter of Disney’s film, could be seen as a good example of Frank’s ideas put into motion. Le Sacre du Printemps–indeed, all of Stravinsky’s early ballets–were well-known to conductor Leopold Stokowski (who had conducted the ballet in 1930 with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and music critic Deems Taylor (who first suggested the piece to Disney to go along with his story of the earth’s creation). Based on the aforementioned articles in The Musical Times, the reaction to such a new musical work was made easier by its inclusion in the film.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine such a film project happening today with a piece composed less than 30 years ago–say, Short Ride on a Fast Machine or Different Trains (both composed within the same window of time between Le Sacre’s premiere and the opening of Fantasia)–not because of the nature of the music, but because of the lack of trust between music and film presenters and audiences that would allow them to be open to new ideas and repertoire. If anything, this can bring us back to the qualities that make Le Sacre satisfying both immediately and with repeated study; it transcended that mistrust and became a door–a misshapen door, perhaps, but a door nonetheless–for many to venture into contemporary music throughout the past 73 years.