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Paul Hindemith Meets Walt Disney

From Joshua Wilson: Thank you for publishing Donald Draganski's article with Hindemith's translated letters. Hindemith is perhaps my favorite composer, and one whom I think will be more and more highly regarded as the music world gains more perspective on the twentieth century.

I think Mr. Draganski's speculation that Hindemith "may even have found much to like in the finished product" of Fantasia is unlikely, however. Hindemith held to a very high view of the composer as the creator of the musical art (in contradistinction to the role of the performer or conductor, whom he described among other things as "some elevated form of public jester.")

Consider these words excerpted from Hindemith's book, A Composer's World:

"A very popular activity that satisfies such longings [to achieve a 'higher' musical goal than mere conducting] is producing arrangements of other people's creations. How do you do this? You take some older music written for harpsichord, organ, or any other relatively unattractive instrument or group of instruments, and dress it up with all sorts of more fashionable trimmings. For the connoisseur this is an artistic procedure of about the same value as providing a nice painted skirt and jacket for the Venus of Milo, or dolling up the saints of Reims and Chartres with tuxedoes, mustaches, and horn-rimmed spectacles. ...

"In the case of orchestral arrangements it is most frequently the apparently inexhaustible source of the works of defenseless J.S. Bach, whose name, followed by a hyphen and some necessarily anticlimactic name, covers all kinds of Tchaikovskynized or Griegoid versions of his works on programs which with his legitimate works for orchestra he hardly would have 'made.' Since Bach himself was a great arranger of other composer's pieces, our arrangers love to cite his name as a vindication of their own work. They forget that an arrangement is artistically justified only when the arranger's effort is greater than the original composer's."

I think that could about sum up what Hindemith would have said about Fantasia, were he to have reviewed it. (Incidentally, I made an arrangement for string quartet of a movement of one of Hindemith's piano sonatas when I was an undergraduate. I hope he forgives me.) This quote is from pages 162-163 of my paperback Anchor Books edition of the book, 1961.

I'm sure you are aware of the following anecdote from Stravinsky:

"In 1938 I received a request from the Disney office in America for permission to use Le Sacre in a cartoon film. The request was accompanied by a gentle warning that if permission were withheld the music would be used anyway. (Le Sacre, being 'Russian,' was not copyrighted in the United States.) The owners of the film wished to show it abroad, however (i.e., in Berne copyright countries), and they therefore offered me a $5000 sum I was obliged to accept (though, in fact, the percentages of a dozen esurient intermediaries quickly reduced it to a fraction of that). I saw the film with George Balanchine in a Hollywood studio at Christmas time in 1939. I remember someone offering me a score and, when I said I had my own, the someone saying, 'But it is all changed.' It was indeed. The instrumentation had been improved by such stunts as having the horns play their glissandi an octave higher in the Dans de la Terre. The order of the pieces had been shuffled, and the most difficult of them eliminated—though this did not save the musical performance, which was execrable."

Now I am not much aware of the history of Stravinsky with the Disney studio, but this at least reflects his opinion of the film from a few decades later in life. (I have this quote in a book called Composers on Music, but it is out of Stravinsky and Craft's book, Expositions and Developments, 1960.)

At any rate, it's an interesting topic brought up by your recent postings on Fantasia. I have always felt some ambivalence toward the film because of the job done to the music, but I tend toward a much more liberal attitude than either Stravinsky or Hindemith in the final balance.

Donald Draganski replies: Joshua Wilson is, of course, quite right about Hindemith's viewing transcriptions and arrangements with a skeptical eye.  Perhaps music exists in the realm of some sort of Platonic reality where it is unaffected by the performing medium, but as a Nominalist, I know that music can also metamorphose into something quite different—and not always for the better.  In Hindemith's book, there is another passage worth quoting (in the chapter on technique and style; I can't give the page number because I have the original Harvard Press edition, whose pagination probably doesn't coincide with the Viking edition). He traces the music of Gregorian chant as it was sung by a choir and then reduced to a solo voice; then—to quote directly—"these same melodies, which were the precious vessels of highest linear revelations, [were played] on a wind instrument, then on a fiddle, and finally on the piano.  The quality of the melodic line seems to disappear gradually, greatness turns into inexpressive melismatism, then becomes insipid passage-work, and finally ends in ridicule."

Still, one shouldn't condemn transcriptions out of hand, particularly if the arranger is a musician of taste and skill. (I recommend Philip Gosset's new book Divas and Scholars [University of Chicago Press, 2006], which describes in vivid detail the problems of putting together critical editions of 18th century Italian operas when the editor is faced with all of the various re-workings and  interpolations that have accumulated in the intervening years like barnacles on a boat.)

As to Stravinsky, when Fantasia was in production the composer was quite reticent about expressing his opinion about the way in which his Rite of Spring was mutilated.  In fact, he and Disney were discussing the possibility of producing an animated version of Renard.  It was only much later, when there was no longer any possibililty of further collaboration with Disney, that Stravinsky publicly attacked Fantasia.

[Posted February 17, 2007; reply posted February 19, 2007]