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Paul Hindemith Meets Walt Disney

By Donald Draganski

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Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) was one of the most active and widely respected German musicians during the twenties and thirties. A composer, violist, conductor and teacher, he was an active participant in the modern music movement and enjoyed a wide international reputation. In 1933 Hindemith's compositions were put under interdict by the Nazis, and he was branded by Goebbels as a "cultural bolshevik." Paul and Gertrud HindemithForced to accept engagements abroad, he toured and taught extensively for the next few years outside of Germany, particularly in the United States and in Turkey. The Nazi authorities continued to apply pressure on Hindemith. Although his own "racial purity" was never questioned, his wife's father was Jewish, and it soon became apparent that, for Gertrud's safety, they would have to emigrate. In 1940, therefore, Hindemith accepted an invitation from Yale University to join its music faculty, a position he held until 1953. He and Gertrud subsequently returned to Europe and settled in Switzerland, where Hindemith died in 1963. Gertrud died in 1967. [The photo of the Hindemiths at right, taken in the 1930s, is from the Hindemith Foundation's Web site.]

It was on one of Hindemith's U.S. tours, in 1939, that he visited the Walt Disney studio. Hindemith at one time entertained hopes of working in the film industry, and while in Los Angeles he made a special point of touring some of the major studios.

A collection of Hindemith's selected letters [1] includes his observations on the Disney studio at the time Disney was working with Leopold Stokowski on Fantasia.The following two excerpts, translated here from the original German (with the invaluable assistance of my wife, Antje, whose knowledge of German is light-years beyond mine), show quite clearly that Hindemith was very much disillusioned by what he had seen in Hollywood. He was obviously none too happy with what he saw of the work-in-progress at the Disney studios,although he did retain a certain grudging respect for Disney's talent. The principal blame for what Hindemith felt was the artistic failure of Fantasia was reserved for Leopold Stokowski, who, being a trained musician, should (in Hindemith's opinion) have shown greater integrity in the way he directed the project.

The first excerpt is from an undated letter, from Hindemith to Gertrud, sent sometime in early March of 1939 from Los Angeles. Hindemith has just completed a tour of the Fox studios, and he and his travelling companions continue on their way:

We again took a taxi and drove ten to twelve kilometers further in another direction to Walt Disney. It was certainly interesting to see, although there too we experienced an unpleasant aftertaste. Two young men showed us all around the place, and it was nice to see how Mickey Mouse, etc., is created. Still, if one looks at such a huge organization, and then thinks about the humorous things it puts out, one gets very depressed by it all. They have a special school where talented young men devoted to their art learn to draw only Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck; the disciple pours his love and devotion into these and similar characters until he dies at a ripe old age. He can never smuggle in anything truly original. The animators have it somewhat better, for they draw only the high points of a sequence on drawing paper, and they can freely invent these highlights. Even there, however, a director is hovering over them, watching, making sure that no one puts in too much originality. And above it all Mr. Disney himself reigns supreme. He is a pleasant man, about 45 years old [sic; Disney was only 37 at the time], but he isn't at all like the person one would imagine the creator of Mickey Mouse to be. He seems to be rather naive and uncultured. I was admitted to the Holy Sanctuary where, accompanied by a Stokowski recording of the Bach Toccata and Fugue [in D minor] we were shown about 180 sketches that seemed to be a curious blend of commercial orchestra silhouettes and Fischinger's work.[2] Disney served up a crazy salad of his musical opinions, while twelve of his awe-struck animators mindlessly nodded and agreed like a bunch of lickspittles. And all of this was seconded by that World Prodigy Stokowski, the real cause of this whole disaster. Actually, they're producing something I have always wanted to see done: a serious animated film. But how! Stokowski starts with his own recording [of the Bach piece] and further insists on adding other masterworks, also directed under his baton. Meanwhile the poor composers have to suffer an awful lot of abuse under his heavy-handed tampering. The whole thing is a crazy mish-mash of a program: The Sorcerer's Apprentice, The Nutcracker Suite, Rite of Spring, A Night on Bald Mountain, and Schubert's Ave Maria. I looked at the Stravinsky sketches; they looked very promising, but the end result will probably appear senseless in this topsy-turvy context, and they will no doubt fit the spring rites like a toothpick in an asshole. They depict the origins of the world (inspired, I believe, by Massine's Seventh Symphony [3]), beginning with the instellar dust. I was able to follow its progression up to the creation of the dinosaurs. In all of this atmosphere of trickery, I am of the opinion that the way they work is roundabout and impractical. An improved version of the music chronometer [4], which in its own day was denigrated, would really save a lot of time and effort. I also spoke with Stokowski, the Musical God himself, and I got the distinct impression that, in spite of his affability, he was very insecure about the whole business and didn't really care for my visit. When I observed what kind of trash he was coming up with—that, along with his ultramarine silk shirt and lemon-yellow scarf, and his albino-like face which reminded me of Fritz Stein [5]—when I saw all that, I could not possibly feel the appropriate measure of awe that was everywhere so much in evidence. The last remnant of any respect I might have had vanished altogether as I sat there and watched him take a well-written and logical piece like [Mussorgsky'sJ Night on Bald Mountain, order one of his colleagues to alter it beyond recognition, and then proceed to scribble and scratch and tear it apart even further. When the two of them then proceeded to mangle the Ave Maria, I came close to vomiting, and I decided then and there that the musical world would only be rid of this evil person by a liberal dose of rat-poison. It's really disgusting. Here they have all the means, all the facilities, to make really good films; instead I find a swine rooting around in this garden. Fischinger, who is also over here, has his own workshop at Disney's and keeps close tabs on his work. (The original version of the Bach piece—without the orchestra silhouettes—was his work.) He is also quite depressed by it all, and complains about the over-organization and the imperiousness of the quasi-gods who are in command, the end result being the loss of any real freshness and originality. "I can see," he said, "a lot of money and basically good intentions going into it, and I think in time Disney could really come up with something fine." Well, who knows! One day I may still have a role to play in this business. Fischinger, who is even more pleasant than I remember him to be, took an hour to drive me in his Muckepicke [jalopy] into town. There I said goodbye to him, and later also took my leave of Denham [6] and walked slowly to the Santa Fe station. [7]

In letter to Gertrud dated March 27, 1939, Hindemith bemoaned the huge amounts of money paid out in Hollywood to parasites and incompetents. He continues in the same vein:

Even in the case of Disney, whose work and ambitions tower above the others, the situation seems hopeless. I spent an evening with Fischinger, and what he told me was so discouraging that I was glad when I received the enclosed letter from Disney. [8] (I had written him from New York.) Even if prospects were rosy and encouraging, I wonder if I could still work with someone who utters such i-dots! [9] I do believe that I'm quite cured of the notion of working here in the movie industry—an idea which was supported by the crazy notion that I might produce something of genuine artistic value. One really cannot work here on a serious undertaking. The only question is whether one should accept an offer that might come along for purely monetary reasons—but the probability of such an offer is so remote that one should look elsewhere. [10]

StokowskiUnfortunately the published letters do not include any comments that Hindemith may have made after seeing Fantasia in its finished form—assuming that he could have brought himself to attend a showing at a movie-house after his experiences at the studio. Hindemith, after all, had observed only the tentative gropings and bull-sessions that have always typified the early stages of work on all Disney films. It is easy to understand why Hindemith entertained grave doubts that any kind of a polished production could come out of those chaotic first steps. Who knows, he may even have found much to like in the finished product.

It is not at all surprising that Hindemith and Stokowski were unable to hit it off very well. Notwithstanding Stokowski's genuine musical gifts, he was something of a poseur, with a flair for the over-dramatic that would certainly rub a man like Hindemith the wrong way. His ideal of a musician was that of an honest craftsman who goes about his business in an efficient and no-nonsense manner. One can well imagine the thoughts that went through Hindemith's mind as he speculated on the kind of work that Walt Disney could have been producing under someone else's (that is, Hindemith's) musical guidance.


[1] Paul Hindemith, Briefe, hrsg. van Dieter Rexroth. Frankfurt/Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1982. Selected Letters of Paul Hindemith, edited by Geoffrey Skelton, was published in 1995 by Yale University Press; I don't know if the Disney-related letters are included in that edition.

[2] 0skar Fischinger (1900-1967), a German-born avant-garde artist and animator who was active in experimental animation in Germany during the twenties. He worked with Fritz Lang on the German silent feature Frau im Mond. He came to Hollywood and worked briefly at the Disney studios on Fantasia.

[3] Leonide Massine (1895-1979), Russian ballet dancer and choreographer who, in 1938, produced a ballet with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo based on Beethoven's Symphony No.7. Each movement was assigned a distinctive title: The Creation; The Earth; The Sky; The Bacchanale and Destruction.

[4] Musikchronomoter. I have been unable to determine what sort of device Hindemith is referring to. I suspect it may have been some sort of early click-track apparatus.

[5] Fritz Stein (1879-1961), German musicologist who was director of the Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin fron 1933 to 1945. According to Geoffrey Skelton in his book Paul Hindemith: The Man Behind the Music (London: Gollancz, 1975, p. 107), Stein had been an early secret supporter of the Nazi Party and, before assuming office at the Hochschule, had demanded that all professors considered undesirable by the Nazis be dismissed. Hindemith never made any secret of his anti-Nazi convictions while he was teaching at the Schule.

[6 ] Sergi I. Denham, Russian-born director of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo from 1938 to 1962.

[7] Hindemith, Briefe, pp. 208-210.

[8] Disney's letter is not reprinted in the Rexroth edition. From the overall context of Hindemith's letter, one can assume that Disney turned down Hindemith's suggestion to collaborate on a film project.

[9] "...der solche I-Punkte von sich gibt!" The meaning here is obscure. It might mean that Disney blows trivial matters out of all proportion, or that he pontificates on obvious banalities, or that he suffers from an inflated ego.

[10] Hindemith, Briefe, pp. 221-222.

[Posted February 16, 2007]