Mickey Mouse dans l'Apprenti Sorcier, sur la musique de Paul Dukas - Extrait de Fantasia, de Walt Disney.
Mickey Mouse dans l'Apprenti Sorcier, sur la musique de Paul Dukas - Extrait de Fantasia, de Walt Disney.

Classical music in cartoons: humour or a concert in animated film

Classical music has been a prominent theme in the world of cartoons, from the Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry type to the poem-in-film of Walt Disney's Fantasia. A panorama in video.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, before rapidly tailing off after that, classical music was very often one of cartoon writers' favourite subjects. Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940) immediately springs to mind, but there is an abundant repertoire of cartoons that deal specifically with music and musicians.

In the United States, an entire generation born between 1930 and 1950 grew up in the company of Bugs Bunny, Mickey and Tom and Jerry in the role of musicians, composers, conductors and singers. A whole generation forged a deep-seated association between entertainment and music as they watched Woody Woodpecker playing Chopin, or Tom and Jerry's antics at the New York Metropolitan Opera during a performance of Bizet's Carmen...

Entertainment is the key to success in using the theme of classical music and a very effective channel for getting a broad audience accustomed to listening to music. If it's not fun and entertaining, a cartoon will never be able to bring people to music. Fantasia's flop when it was released in cinemas is a case in point. Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski saw Fantasia as "an evolving cinemato-graphico-musical show": instantly a marked departure from the canons usually governing the combination of music and humorous drawings. A particularly striking example is A Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky.

Whereas most cartoon shorts use very familiar, catchy themes (such as Carmen or a plethora of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2), Fantasia  used Schubert's Ave Maria and Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours. Other musical themes were also quoted: Clair de lune from Debussy's Suite bergamasque and The Swan of Tuonela by Sibelius.

In the 1950s, as rock music gradually made its way into homes, the use of classical music in cartoons declined. It was only with the release in 1999 of Fantasia 2000, produced by Roy Edward Disney in accordance with the wishes of his uncle Walt, that classical music, and classical music used on its own, began to play a major role in cinema again. Fantasia 2000 uses the same format as the 1940 version, but with a greater focus on image and colour. Humour is more prominent and keeps the pace of the film moving, far more than in the 1940 version. The poetic depictions (set to Beethoven's 5th or Respighi's Pines of Rome) are dotted with highly narrative, entertaining passages (Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin, The Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, etc.).

The illustration of Night on Bald Mountain in Fantasia, which many children found terrifying, remains a very isolated instance and the only one of its kind. No subsequent cartoon short ever came anywhere near it.

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