By John Schauer
In the program notes for kids that I wrote this year for Ravinia’s Family Fun Guide, I took a tack that might raise the eyebrows of some music educators, but an approach I actually took when I was a child becoming acquainted with recordings of classical music, namely closing my eyes and visualizing stories or choreography—I remember I had an especially elaborate, gravity-defying routine I created for Vienna’s famous Lippezan stallions to the heroic conclusion of the William Tell Overture. It added to my enjoyment of music immensely, and no one ever taught me to do it, at least no one person. I learned it, as so many of my generation learned so many things, from television. And by television, I mean cartoons.
The marriage of music and animation seems apt enough, since the essence of both is movement, and animation giants like Warner Brothers and Walt Disney issued their short theatrical cartoons under the series headings of “Merry Melodies” and “Silly Symphonies.” Often the music behind the cartoons consisted of sappy pop songs of the day or children’s nursery-rhyme ditties, but with surprising frequency they also had fun with “serious” music.
I’m always surprised when classical music pundits blame the allegedly shrinking audience for classical music on the fact that children today are not exposed to classical music in the schools any longer, since arts programs fell victim to budget cuts. But I grew up in the supposed golden age of music in school, and that certainly wasn’t my experience. Neither my grade school nor my high school had orchestras, only marching bands, and the only music course we got in grade school was when we met once a week with the music teacher, who led us in group renditions of such classics as “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” or “She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain.”
I was fortunate to begin private piano lessons in third grade, but my introduction to classical orchestral music was primarily from cartoons I saw on television. I’m talking classic animation here, from the great animation studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And so I first heard Suppé’s Poet and Peasant Overture while Popeye was single-handedly building a high-rise hotel after an infusion of spinach, and Rossini’s overture to The Barber of Seville as Bugs Bunny mauls Elmer Fudd’s face in a barber chair in perfect sync. The premise of numerous cartoons was simply the comic chaos that ensued when an animated orchestra attempted to perform a “serious” work; the conductor was usually a cartoon icon, like Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, or Mickey Mouse. Looking back, it seems most of them featured overtures, which seems logical since most overtures are a convenient length for a short cartoon, among them those to Suppé’s Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna, Rossini’s William Tell, and his La gazza ladra.
But just as it was Walt Disney who first expanded a cartoon into a full-length feature with Snow White in 1937, only three years later he performed the same feat on cartoon interpretations of great music in Fantasia. Here’s one instance where you won’t want to close your eyes to create spectacular visuals in your mind’s eye; Disney’s animators have taken that concept about as far as it can go in interpreting performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. Ravinia’s presentation on July 12 will feature most of the most legendary sequences from that film in tandem with portions of its sequel, Fantasia 2000, for which the music was provided by none other than our own Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Ravinia’s former music director, James Levine.