Fantasia: The Pastoral Symphony

For those who don't know - this is what Fantasia is. I love Fantasia. My brother and I got the video for Christmas when we were little, and we didn't have many Disney videos, so it was very exciting. I loved the magic of it - I remember sitting next to the Christmas tree with a doll I'd just been given by Father Christmas, pretending there were fairies in the tree branches. I'd been in a couple of productions of The Nutcracker when I was even littler - I was a mouse, all we really did was run around pretending our fingers were whiskers - so the Nutcracker segment was my absolute favourite bit, but I liked it all. We both loved dinosaurs too, as a result of several trips to see the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum and at least one trip to Crystal Palace park, so we also both enjoyed the Rite of Spring segment, though we were a bit upset when all the dinosaurs died. And I'm not sure the Tocata and Fugue bit isn't wholly responsible for my brother becoming a musician.

One of the big statues of dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park, London

As I said, I loved it all, but my second favourite bit, after the Nutcracker, was the sequence set to Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (No. 6). I'd already fallen head over heels in love the Chronicles of Narnia, so I think the appearance of the centaurs appealed to me, and I was a child of the My Little Pony age, so the incredibly cute baby flying horses in different colours were also a favourite element. I also like the strong story-line. Deems Taylor explains at the beginning of Fantasia that some music suggests a strong narrative line to the artists, some presents them with a series of coherent pictures, and some just presents them with seemingly random images. I've always preferred music with a strong narrative element (still do), so I also tended to prefer the more strongly narrative parts of Fantasia, though for some reason I didn't like the Sorceror's Apprentice section so much at the time.

The Pastoral Symphony tells the story, musically speaking, of a beautiful day in the countryside, interrupted by a storm, which then clears. For Fantasia, the Disney artists decided follow this basic pattern, but give the whole thing a 'mythological setting' as Deems Taylor tells us in the introduction to this segment. The scene is loosely set in the Greece of mythology - we see Mount Olympus rising in the background at the beginning and a number of recognisible characters from Greco-Roman mythology appear - Dionysus/Bacchus, Zeus/Jupiter, Hephaestus/Vulcan and Apollo, as well as a personification of Night who could easily be a manifestation of the Greco-Roman Nux/Nox.

The characterisations of these gods are great fun. Dionyus seems to spend the whole thing drinking purple wine and both he and his donkey (it's Disney, you've got to have a comic animal sidekick) get very, very drunk. He's the usual image of Dionysus - fat, grapes round his ears, sort of jolly looking. (Update: I think actually, on reflection, this figure may be Silenus, rather than Dionysus. Either way, he's quite sweet and quite fun).  Zeus and Hephaestus play 'smite-the-centaur-or-lesser-god-with-thunderbolts and seem to be having a great time, while Apollo doesn't do much except his job.

The other creatures are mostly drawn from recognisibly Greek mythology - centaurs, satyrs, cupids (the god Eros/Cupid was sometimes depicted in the plural). Flying horses are sort of Greek - Greek mythology really only has the one flying horse, Pegasus, but the idea is Greek. Unicorns, as a concept, were around in the ancient world, but more often as part of natural history than mythology - the image of unicorns we have today is more medieval than Greek.

Eveything in this sequence is weirdly coloured - it's all pastels, pinks and pale blues and soft reds. Presumably this is is to soften it, to make it appealing to children, to make it look more magical and fairytale like, and to let the artists have some fun with their colour palette.

The sequence opens with a view of Mount Olympus, and then we see a bunch of My Little Pony lookalike unicorns samper across the multi-coloured countryside. As a woodwind instrument of some kind starts to play, we see a satyr playing a set of pan pipes, to fit with the pastoral theme. Although traditional satyrs are wild creatures who enjoy rather a lot of sex and drink, these are depicted as childlike figures, barely more than infants. We don't see any grown-up satyrs.

My Little Pony. Getting hold of the special hairbrush was particularly exciting.

Next, a family of flying horses glide across the scene, and we see a mother flying in a nest halfway up a tree, having just given birth. There are some more cuter-than-cute scenes of the My Little Pony flying horses learning to fly while their more graceful (and more Greek-looking) parents glide about, then they land on water and swim about like swans, and the first movement ends. The first movement really focuses on the childlike aspects of Disney's interpretation of mythology, and on making everything look as cute as humanly possible.

The second movement opens in a dark (but not threatening) lake and introduces two themes so far missing - partly human adults, and sex. A large group of female centaurs, most of them not, as Ariel the Little Mermaid would at all times, wearing bras, are bathing, accompanied by some more ridiculously cutesy, baby-like cupids. These multiple manifestations of the god of love lack the usual requisite bow and arrow - perhaps too violent for them - and are depicted as the infant-like creatures of the modern imagination, rather than as adults. As the female centaurs get out of the lake and start putting make up and doing their hair, they do put bras on, and then - the men arrive, or rather the male centaurs. They are all big, manly and very smug-looking. A positively bizarre sequence follows in which the female centaurs all get themselves all prettied up and then put on what looks like a fashion show for the males, showing themselves off until a male chooses them. Two get left out, but the cupids unite them. The centaurs, like everything else, are crazily multi-coloured, and every centaur ends up with another of the opposite gender but the same broad colour scheme. The implications of the whole sequence for gender and race relations don't even bear thinking about, but as a child, I was happily oblivious to any of that (though I do remember noticing the colour coordination, and even as a small child, I thought that was a bit weird, and worried about what would happen if the blue girl centaur didn't like the blue boy centaur...).

The third movement is livelier. The centaurs and satyrs bring massive piles of purple grapes and make wine, and Dionysus turns up (with some dark-skinned zebra centaurs, for some reason - perhaps a belated attempt to embrace ethnic diversity). Dionysus (or more probably Silenus), as mentioned above is extremely fat and riding on a tiny, tiny donkey. He spends the whole time drinking and chasing the female centaurs, which is pretty appropriate to his mythology.

Then the storm starts and Zeus and Hepaestus do their thing. Zeus has a fantastic expression on his face the whole time, sort of smug and lazy and intrigued and not interested all at once. The way he pelts Dionysus and the donkey with lightening bolts is fantastic. Allthe other characters run and hide in a cave, except the My Little Flying Horses, who go back to their nest. We even get to see the anthropomorphised winds briefly. All the wine caskets break and wine flows everywhere, which Dionysus and the donkey proceed to drink, a bit like the bit in A Tale of Two Cities where a wine barrel breaks and the desperate peasants drink it from the street. When Zeus has finished throwing lightening bolts at everyone, he goes to sleep in the clouds, using cloud as a blanket - when I was little, I got the vague impression that he must live somewhere near the Care Bears.

The final movement depicts the calm after the storm, and a rainbow (anthropomorphised, of course) is drawn over everyone while they play in the puddles. Finally, the sun sets and everyone waves goodbye to Apollo in his chariot before going to bed (in pairs. There are going to be a lot of My Little Baby Centaurs running around in a few months).

A lot of this sequence relies on the 'cuteness' factor, so how much you like it will depend on how you feel about 'cute' things, while the gender and racial aspects and distinctly disturbing. I still love it, though - it puts a sense of magic and wonder into Greek mythology that isn't always found, and the Greek pastoral motifs of Pan, satrys, pan pipes and the creatures of the countryside fit the Pastoral Symphony perfectly. And it was really good inspiration for My Little Pony games...


  1. We had a really nice, though brief, discussion of this piece at AncientWorlds a while ago. Alas, I can neither link to it nor mine it for comments here, because the site's datacenter can't handle the current deep freeze (in Florida!).

    I tend to think of our drunken godling with the (winged) donkey more as Bacchus than Dionysus. Of course, Bacchus was originally an aspect of Dionysus, but he got mixed up with and merged with Silenus (who also got confused first with fauns and then with Roman satyrs). In any case, that makes the donkey more appropriate. The zebras are more of a head-scratcher. Dionysus was connected with India, not Africa.

    What we really have here is the Disneyfication of the modern reception of the Romantic reception of the Roman reception of Greek mythology. That's a lot of filters. And yet, I think the Greeks would still recognize it somehow.

  2. Finally found that brief discussion I mentioned. It was longer ago than I thought. Anyway, the initial post is here. My reply is 2 posts later and reasonably detailed.

  3. This was always my favourite section, though I haven't seen it in years - in fact, I think I normally stopped watching after it, because I have no idea what follows.. (however, I do have vague memories of dancing and pretending to be a fairy during the 'flower' section.. happy times.)

    Happy New Year!

  4. Happy New Year!

    'Dance of the Hours' comes next, which is the one with the ballet-dancing ostriches, hippos and crocodiles - very funny! Then the last two are run together - Night on Bare Mountain, which is really creepy and scary and seems to have naked women in it, and Ave Maria, which is very beautiful but not so exciting when you're a little kid! My favourites were defeinitly the fairies in the Nutcracker and this one, though the dinosaurs were good too...

  5. Now this is definitely a delightful trip down memory lane! Both the My Little Pony reference (I have lovingly kept -tucked away- my favourites from my old collection) and for the wonderful Fantasia!

    We got the VHS as a Christmas present the year it came out and I have no idea how many times I've seen it. I've actually been wanting to see it again for some time now, but the VHS player is at my parents', and I never think of it when I"m over there and have the time. My favourite bit wasn't the Pastoral (although I enjoyed it), but also the Nutcracker (particularly the mushrooms!) and then the dancing hippos. :p

  6. The dancing hippos are fab too - my Mum's favourite bit is the dancing ostriches, because of the way their heads and feet move! I've just moved back in with my parents and recovered the VHS (I have a player, but most of the actual videos were at home) which is why I'm suddenly able to see all these old things again :)

  7. My little pony indeed. One little unicorn looks like Spyro The Dragon. I suppose that it is all relative after all?

  8. I'm loving your comments and memories here! Before I lose the link, this is what I'm watching: The musicians are so into the ballet of this music and the animation (well, maybe they're too young for that!). But I have SUCH powerful memories of seeing it for the first time in the late 50's, early 60's or so. I was about 12 or less and was devastated 'cause my dad wouldn't get me go with my friend to see Snow White. But he had it all planned out and this is where we went, and where I found so many anchors - music, dance (did and still do both of those, 50 years later). Thank you good folks! Keep on loving it, all of it!

    1. And to watch the conductor, Daniel Berrenboim, what a glorious treat, the way he draws out and then acknowledges the players!

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