During Leopold Stokowski’s tenure as music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra (1912-41), patrons would often line up around the block of the Academy of Music, even in poor weather, to hear the world-renowned ensemble. Stokowski began to dream of new formats to bring classical music to an even wider audience. In The Philadelphia Orchestra: A Century of Music, Joseph Horowitz explains: “Foremost in his thinking was Hollywood—its glamour, its mass impact and appeal. In the mid-1930s, Stokowski appeared in two Hollywood films: The Big Broadcast of 1937 and One Hundred Men and a Girl.”
It wasn’t until 1936 that Walt Disney decided to feature Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in an effort to boost the cartoon mouse’s popularity. This wouldn’t be the first time that animation was matched to classical music, but Disney was driven to go beyond expectations to enhance the fantasy of it all. After receiving the rights to the music the following year, Disney happened to run into Stokowski at a restaurant in Hollywood. He proposed the idea of Fantasia to the famed conductor, who was happy to collaborate.
“Then, in 1940, Disney released Fantasia, a two-hour animated film with Stokowski conducting The Philadelphia Orchestra. Stokowski appeared in silhouette, summoning the Gothic splendors of his transcription of Bach’s D-minor Toccata and Fugue. Sealing his post-Philadelphia marriage with popular entertainment, he was seen shaking hands with Mickey Mouse.
“It was Stokowski who had inspired Walt Disney to commit to a full-length, classical music showcase. Only Time could have offered the following interpretation, in its second cover story featuring Stokowski: ‘Deciding to go the whole artistic hog, [Disney] picked the highest of high-brow classical music. To do right by this music, the old mouse opera comedy was not enough. The Disney studio went high-brow wholesale, and Disney technicians racked their brains for stuff that would startle and awe rather than tickle the audience.’
“It worked. With such success, Stokowski eagerly anticipated future collaborations with Disney. But the pact with Mickey Mouse did not endure: Disney took no interest in cultural uplift.”
Stokowski may not have remained in the Hollywood limelight for as long as he desired, but his audacious work and the legacy of Fantasia carries on in Philadelphia and beyond. The Philadelphia Orchestra performs excerpts from Fantasia while the film is shown on the big screen January 3–5, 2020.