Fantasia and fashion

My husband and I both adored Fantasia as children, and went to see Fantasia 2000 as university students when it first came out on IMAX (independently, since we wouldn’t meet for another eight years). Now that we have our own little daughter, it’s such a pleasure to revisit these old friends and see them through her eyes. Some of the pieces are too scary for a three-year-old, so we fast forward through Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, for example, but others, such as Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the flamingos and yo-yos in the Finale from Carnival of the Animals were just as charming and magical as I’d remembered.

I’d forgotten how Fantasia 2000 pays tribute to Leopold Stokowski by repeating a few things, such as his orchestration of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. I think my purist younger self rather disapproved of it, thinking it was this awful old-fashioned thing that wasn’t true to Bach. I’ve changed my mind now, though. We have no way of knowing what Bach would have thought of Stokowski’s reimagination of his composition, but I can’t help feeling that the orchestration is sensitively-coloured to the structure of the counterpoint. It’s been rather out of fashion for my whole lifetime, so I’ve only had the chance to play it once, but it was fun to play. And pretty difficult, with some high fiddly things for the cellos, too.

But just because something is considered a bit politically incorrect these days doesn’t mean it was done cavalierly or capriciously. It makes me think of Busoni’s arrangements of Bach, or Mendelssohn’s adjustments to the St. Matthew Passion–no one could say these great intellects didn’t understand Bach’s music. Perhaps Stokowski, like Busoni, like Mendelssohn, was part of a still-living European tradition of performer-arrangers that is now dead, killed off by the turbulent events of the twentieth century as much as by fashions and recording technology. Perhaps the modern scorners of their editions and arrangements are the ones who don’t understand.


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