Stravinsky, dinosaurs optional Part I: On discovering a fantastical hearing aid for classical music

The author and a friend. Courtesy photo.

By Alan Dean Foster

Here’s how you get kids interested in classical music: you throw out all the traditional “music appreciation” courses, haul your class to a theater, and have them watch the original Disney “Fantasia.” Then you go back to the classroom and spend a semester discussing it. That’s what did it for me, and I did my own homework because the class in question didn’t exist.

I remember being taken to see a re-release of the film when I was about 7. We had a little classical music in our house. Beethoven’s Fifth, some Tchaikovsky, on 33 rpm records. My mother played a mean “Rhapsody in Blue” on her baby Steinway. But “Fantasia” simply overwhelmed me. I remember my initial reactions to it to this day. Confusion at the abstract visuals of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue”, mild amusement at Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”, quiet awe at the sheer beauty of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” wonderment at Beethoven’s sixth symphony, amazement that Mickey Mouse could do more than giggle in Dukas’ “The Sorceror’s Apprentice,” and yawning at the concluding Schubert “Ave Maria.”

But … there were dinosaurs. Ah, dinosaurs! As part of the whole evolution them of the Stravinsky “Rite of Spring.” Stravinsky hated Disney’s take on his ballet, but the appearance of the score in Fantasia has probably sold more copies of recordings of “Rite” than all the other sales put together. Ironically, in showing fast-moving, highly active dinosaurs, Disney’s artists got the paleontology right decades before it was determined that dinos weren’t lumbering, slow-moving, swamp-surfing critters.

Lastly, there was what for Disney was doubtless the greatest gamble in the film: a fairly literal visual interpretation of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” with its howling, bare-breasted she-demons and a Chernobog/devil that scared the bejeezus out of me for many nights thereafter. Kid stuff, my ass.

Gramophone, public domain, “Fantasia” dinosaurs by Disney, fair use. Illustration by 5enses.

As soon as I started buying classical music, my first purchases were all of music from the film. Which led me to other compositions by the same composers. I devoured all of Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Mussorgsky. None of this thanks to public school music appreciation classes; all of it because of the Disney version. Learning that Beethoven wasn’t really thinking of gamboling Greek mythological characters when he wrote his sixth symphony or Stravinsky of the march of life when he did “Rite of Spring” did nothing to mute my enthusiasm for the music itself.

When I started attending UCLA I learned that the Los Angeles Philharmonic sold student tickets, at the box office, just before performances. When I could get gas money I’d fire up the old Ford Galaxie and haul myself downtown. Though the last-minute student seats were usually in the first few rows, hard up against the stage, I didn’t care. You could still hear the music and as a bonus you got to observe the conductor and soloists up close. I saw some wonderful performances that further expanded by knowledge and love of classical music. Anyone who thinks of L.A. as a cultural wasteland is plainly unaware of the musical offerings to be had that extend far from Sunset Blvd.

I remember seeing the legendary Otto Klemperer conduct in Pasadena, and regular spectacular performances led by Zubin Mehta (with whom, in one of the universe’s odd coincidences, I shared a dentist). There was a grand performance of Mahler’s second symphony back before Mahler became a staple of orchestral programming everywhere.

A used record shop on Santa Monica Boulevard near Vermont became a second home, so much so that the husband-and-wife owners got to know me by name. Perhaps because I was often the youngest customer browsing the classical section they would sometimes give me unrequested discounts on multiple purchases. The neighborhood sucked, but the store was great. Both are long gone now, like the huge Tower Records store on Sunset where, when I became able to afford it, I used to go to shop for new releases. Or the numerous wonderful used book stores on Hollywood Boulevard. But I digress.

With “Fantasia” as my classical music foundation, I went on to explore more and more pieces by more and more composers, always trying to keep an open mind. Despite this I never could get behind such developments as 12-tone music or the works of John Cage and his ilk. Call me old-fashioned, but to me music needs rhythm and melody. Throwing bricks at a piano is something I can do for myself. I don’t count it as composition, just as I don’t count blowing up balloon animals to Green Giant size or painting a black square in the center of a red canvas as art. To me, the biggest problem with contemporary classical music is not a lack of new material but a turgid reliance on the same old standards.

Go to a typical classical concert in the U.S. and who might you hear? Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky … sound familiar? And not just Bach, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, but the same Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky that was on the program last month, or last year. Great music to be sure, but isn’t there anything else listenable out there? Anything? Orchestral programmers don’t seem to think so. Well, they’re wrong. Just as the writer Robert Bloch (of Psycho fame) once told me that he’d heard “everything worth listening to.”

As I’ll discuss in next month’s column.

*****

Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.

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