Friday, August 23, 2013

World premiere in public screening: Film concert Walt Disney / Jean Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela (Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra / Erkki Lasonpalo)

Walt Disney: The Swan of Tuonela (US 1940 sketched, 2000 reconstructed for Fantasia Anthology: Fantasia Legacy).

A Walt Disney Production of Jean Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela (sketched in 1940, reconstructed for Fantasia Anthology: Fantasia Legacy, 2000)
    9 min
    Triple screen Coolux digital video projection at Helsinki Music Centre, 23 August 2013 (Helsinki Festival / Disney Concert Library / Film Concert Disney Fantasia).
    Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor: Erkki Lasonpalo.

The Swan of Tuonela was a part of the original Fantasia Continued project. The animation was sketched during the 1940s, but when Fantasia Continued was discontinued, nothing more happened until a reconstruction was made for the Fantasia Legacy disc in the Fantasia Anthology triple box set in 2000.

The reconstruction has been conducted with good taste from the pastel sketches. The camera moves inside them, and the montage effects are subtle.

Tuonela is the Hades of the Finnish mythology, the Land of Death. A daring subject for a Disney anthology, but not completely strange. Disney's first Silly Symphony was The Skeleton Dance to the tune of the Danse macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns.

The sketches are at times almost abstract. There is a world of ice, in which the ship of Tuonela sails amongst the icebergs. The swan swims in the icy waters, the gloomy streams, evading the maelström. There are vapours, there are rings of water, there are vortexes. The death is the final home. There is a sense of the death instinct, der Todestrieb.

The mountains are desolate, the colour world is dark, gloomy, cold, and gray. A ghostly light emerges from beyond the clouds. Spectral, radiant beings emerge like in a near death experience.

The interpretation of Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Erkki Lasonpalo, was profoundly moving. I kept hearing this music in my mind for days afterwards.

Although the visual quality of this Fantasia film concert was generally dreary, in the Swan of Tuonela episode there was no problem because there is hardly any warm colour in the animation.

Vesa Sirén wrote about the Jean Sibelius / Walt Disney collaboration in Helsingin Sanomat (23 August, 2013), revealing previously unknown facts for the first time.

Vesa Sirén reports that in December 1940 Jean Sibelius received a letter from Walt Disney Company with an illustrated logo of Walt Disney's Fantasia, complete with dancing hippopotami.

John C. Rose wrote (I translate back to English from Sirén's Finnish translation) that "Walt Disney has admired your music for a long time and considers that animated pictures have now reached such a standard that they could do justice to The Swan of Tuonela on the screen".

Mr. Rose stated that The Swan of Tuonela is not protected by copyright in the United States but Disney would not proceed without the composer's permission. According to Rose the film would reverently depict the tale of the swan of Tuonela based on the great epic poem Kalevala.

The letter was accompanied by a recommendation by Hjalmar J. Procopé, the Ambassador of Finland in the U.S.A.: the project would bring favourable publicity to Finnish culture.

The original Fantasia had just been released, and Disney wanted to revive it annually. The Swan of Tuonela was planned for the next edition.

Sometimes it has been assumed that Sibelius refused to participate, but in fact he was more enthusiastic than has been known. I happened upon a letter from Rolando Pieraccini's private collection, dated in February 1941. In it Sibelius asks his friend for help in the contacts with Disney.

"Disney's films are world-famous. I would figure I might receive a substantial reward, which would be highly desirable, as I am getting hardly any compensations from America", wrote Sibelius.

Many sketches were drawn at the Disney company for The Swan of Tuonela. Yet the original Fantasia film did not succeed in the box office as well as had been expected, and plans about new Fantasia versions were put on ice.

Erkki Lasonpalo comments that he is forced to keep the tempi quite slow in other Fantasia segments, following Leopold Stokowski (in Fantasia 1940) and James Levine (in Fantasia 2000).

But in The Swan of Tuonela the imagery does not consist of rapidly changing and fast moving cartoon characters. Instead, on display are slowly changing sketches in which the camera zooms about. 

"I need to pay attention to the total duration but otherwise we can play as in a regular concert".

In the Thursday rehearsal the The Swan of Tuonela sketches radiated with respect towards Sibelius and the Kalevala mythology, precisely as the Disney company had assured to the composer. 

The players of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra burst into an applause when the opus had been played together with the visualization.

"It did look fine. No need for Donald Duck to scurry about in Tuonela", smirked the violinist Erkki Palola. (End of my digest from Vesa Sirén's article.)

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