I’m relatively certain that I would have had little to no exposure to classical music without having watched copious amounts of cartoons. Those of us fortunate to have grown up during the 1970s will undoubtedly have feasted our eyes on a steady diet of viewing after-school and Saturday morning cartoons. In these days of having to fiddle with rabbit-eared antennas to gain clear reception of only a handful of channels available over the (gasp!) airwaves, the animated fare was made up of mostly 1940’s-era Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the occasional Walt Disney shorts. As we entered the early 1980s, there was a new means to see animation at home, in the form of the videocassette recorder. The occasional trip to see a Disney re-relases at the movies and the ever-present television set were my windows to the world of classical music. Having grown up in a working-class household, there wasn’t a dearth of exposure to things classical. Here are a few of the pieces of animation that musically impacted my young life.
My mother took me to the 1977 re-release of Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940), when I was only 5 years old. I have a very vivid recollection of the gorgeous, color-saturated ballerina hippopotami and Chinese mushrooms dancing around to the strange, yet beautiful-sounding music. What I remember best is being inspired by the interaction between the luminous silhouetted forms of Mickey Mouse and Leopold Stokowski to whip the straw out of my soda to conduct along with the maestro—much to the chagrin of both my mother—and the theatre-goers within the splash zone. As an added bonus, I received the LP record of Fantasia, so that I could go back into my room and re-imagine the magic I had just experienced.
PETER AND THE WOLF
The next recollection I have of classical music making an impact on me was in 1983, when we got our first top-loading VHS videocassette recorder. My folks went over to the local Wherehouse store to rent a few videos for my sister and I. In the stack of Strawberry Shortcake, He-Man, and Felix the Cat tapes, the diamond in the rough was the Walt Disney “Storybook Classics” which contained the 1946 “Peter and the Wolf” short, based upon the Sergei Prokofiev work of the same name, (originally a segment of the feature-length film, “Make Mine Music,” but was deemed good enough to be included as a short before the ’46 Fantasia re-release). The short begins with an explanation of how each character is thematically represented by an instrument, or group of instruments (honestly, how else do you communicate the concept of the “leitmotif” to children?). I was engrossed in the story of cherubic, red-nosed Peter’s desire to disobey his Grandfather’s wishes and head out into the Russian winter to hunt the wolf—armed only with his self-determination—and a cork-tipped toy pop rifle. Peter, represented musically by bouncy strings, sneaks out of the house, even after having received his grandfather’s bassoon-laden warnings about the dangers of hunting the wolf. Along his path to locate his lupine prey, Peter comes across a small, fluttering bird (flute), a lumbering duck (oboe), and a nimble cat (clarinet)—all three of which learn that Peter is on his way to dispatch the menacing wolf, and decide to become members of his intrepid hunting party. After following a snowy path to find their prey, they accidentally back up into none other than the wolf (3 horns). The wolf gives chase, seemingly catches (and eats) the duck, and runs the remaining three up a tree. The wolf climbs the tree and seemingly traps Peter and the cat on a branch, as the bird escapes to find help. The bird locates a group of adult hunters, and alerts them to the fact that Peter is being endangered by the wolf. By the time they arrive to save Peter, they find his hat and pop rifle in the snow—thinking the worst has happened—yet look up to see that Peter and company have saved the day. The wolf is hogtied to a branch, and the hunters parade their young hero back into the village, with the spoils of his hunt still hogtied, but to a spit. Peter is welcomed back into the village as the conquering hero—with traditional Russian dancing to celebrate his derring-do.
THE CAT CONCERTO
Evidently, 1946 was a watershed year for the infusion of classical music in cartoons, as also evidenced by the Academy Award winner (Best Short Subject: Cartoons), M-G-M’s Tom & Jerry short, “The Cat Concerto.” The cartoon begins with a dapper, tuxedoed Tom walking onto a stage with a grand piano at its center. He takes his seat at the piano, and begins a very austere rendition of “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” by Franz Liszt. Jerry, who is nestled down for an evening’s rest on top of a few the piano hammers (with adorable mouse-sized clothing on a line above him), gets a surprise awakening when his makeshift bedroom starts moving around. Jerry pops onto the ledge above the keys, and he begins to mock Tom by faux conducting at him. This enrages Tom, as he proceeds to thump Jerry back into the belly of the grand piano’s wires. Jerry continues to torment Tom by running under the keys, shutting the cover onto Tom’s fingers, replacing a few keys with a mousetrap (via a door with a Doric arch [why do all cartoon mice have these?]), and working the hammers from the inside—changing the music into a boogie-woogie rendition of “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.” Tom finally gets a bit of revenge by placing Jerry into the piano bench, but Jerry works the mechanics of the seat to raise and lower Tom onto the piano with a slam. Tom then throws Jerry back into the piano, where Jerry breaks off two hammers and completes the Rhapsody, leaving Tom spent and collapsed face-down at the keys. Jerry exits the piano in a tuxedo to the rapturous applause of the concertgoers.
According to animator/director Eric Goldberg’s DVD commentary (found on the Warner Bros. disc “Academy Awards Animation Collection: 15 Winners”), “The Cat Concerto” was made at the same time as WB’s short, “Rhapsody Rabbit”—which features Bugs Bunny playing the exact same Liszt piece. Both studios utilized the same film lab, Technicolor, who allegedly delivered M-G-M’s short to Warner’s and vice-versa. According to this story, Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera screened the Bugs short, and worked at a breakneck pace to finish their Tom & Jerry to ensure it was done in time for MPAA consideration screenings. As the shorts were screened in alphabetical order, “The Cat Concerto” was seen first, and became 1946’s Oscar darling.