In commemoration of Fantasia‘s 75th anniversary, I’m writing about the various segments of Disney’s animated masterpiece. When I set out to write about the opening segment, J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, I asked Pipedreams host Michael Barone if he had any thoughts on the piece—originally written for organ. Here’s what Michael shared:
“The Toccata and Fugue in D-minor is the best known and most popular of all organ pieces. From its opening fanfare-like gesture and throughout its demonstrably dramatic and dynamic course, this score has captured the general imagination with a ferocity and consistency unlike any other composition for the pipe organ. Likely because of its dark ‘minor key’ tonality and the phantasmagorical profile of its thematic exposition, it also has taken on ‘sinister overtones’ and become a nearly obligatory presence in spooky Hallowe’en concerts, the ‘theme song’ of The Phantom of the Opera.
“However, the history of this remarkable composition is complicated. Attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach but first published only in 1833, 83 years after Bach’s death (and eventually catalogued as BWV 565 in the Bach Werk Verzeikniss…the official listing of Bach’s many compositions), the Toccata and Fugue was given its first documented and significant public performance by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840, which event ignited its continued popularity. Yet no autograph score exists, and those copies from which the piece has been derived left enough detail uncertain as to cause some musicologists in recent times to question whether the work really was by Bach after all. Though we may never know with absolute certainty, the majority vote is for Bach’s authorship, a marvelous display of his well-documented youthful zeal and virtuosic technical skill.
“Bach’s style adapts well to transcription, and his popularity has been consistently enhanced by arrangements such as those of the mercurial and innovative conductor Leopold Stokowski. Remember that Stokey’s career began on the organ bench. But just as his imagination demanded the greater potential of the orchestral conductor’s podium, his delight in Bach required a tonal palette more expansive than what could be provided by even a large pipe organ. His Bach orchestrations proved hugely popular with his Philadelphia Orchestra audiences which, along with his history-making experiments in stereophonic recording caught the attention of the emerging master of the animated film, Walt Disney.
“Their collaborative project, the epochal family-friendly cinematic spectacle Fantasia, a visual recasting of classical works by Tchaikovsky, Dukas, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Ponchielli, and Mussorgsky, used as prelude Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. That piece, the film’s opening sequence, almost literally blew people’s minds back in 1940, and it has lost none of its magic through the ensuing years. Any number of the young and young at heart had their first exposure to Bach in this context, but when they then rushed out to ‘find a recording’ of the Toccata and Fugue, discovered unexpectedly the further magic of Bach on the organ. And so it goes.”