Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Story of Chernabog and A Night on Bald Mountain - Part 2

It is generally assumed that the responsibility of identifying Disney’s monstrous entity with the ancient Slavic deity lies with Chernabog’s chief animator, Vladimir “Bill” Tytla. No name is given to the character in the film, and both production sketches and promotional materials of the time call him by all sorts of different, satanic names. Tytla, however, made use of the name “Chernobog” and was himself a Ukrainian-American who may have been familiar with the name through his ancestral roots. In his own words: "On all my animation I tried to do some research and look into the background of each character. But I could relate immediately to this character. Ukrainian folklore is based on Chernabog." Some linguists argue that the name of Chernabog is still in use, in a modified and nearly unrecognizable form, as a curse in Slavic tongues. While it’s not implausible that Tytla recalled his Ukrainian heritage, I think there is another very likely possibility: Chernabog is mentioned by name in the program of Night on Bald Mountain.

Bill Tytla and a maquette of Chernabog.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Story of Chernabog and A Night on Bald Mountain - Part 1

Walt Disney called him “Satan himself,” though perhaps that was a little heavy for what was nevertheless a Disney film in all that may imply. He is Chernabog, the Slavic “Black God” ruling high atop Bald Mountain in the climactic piece from the brilliant Fantasia. Chernabog is one of my favourite Disney character designs, in my favourite piece of Disney animation, in my favourite Disney film, which might be a little awkward if we took Uncle Walt’s word for it that this was the Devil. While he may have been utilized to that effect in Night on Bald Mountain, the history of Chernabog is far more interesting.

Character model sheet for Chernabog, by Kay Nielsen.

The first recorded mention of Chernabog (also variously called Chernobog, Czernobog, Crnobog, and Tchernobog) was from a 12th century account of Slavic culture written by the German Christian priest and historian Helmold of Boseau. Born in Lower Saxony around 1120 CE, Helmold became a priest in 1156, after which he was asked to write the Chronica Slavorum, a history of the conversion of the Slavic people of modern-day Poland. Though ostensibly meant to shed positive light on the time between the conquests of Charlemagne and his own time (the book closes at 1171 CE), Helmold was rather critical of the Holy Roman Empire’s actions against the Wends (another name for Polish Slavs).  He decried the Wendish Crusades of 1147 and their leader Duke Henry the Lion as interested in only money and violence. Scholars generally see the Chronica Slavorum as being of questionable historical value where it predates Helmold, but fairly reliable where he is writing about contemporary events.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

When music scholar and popularizer Deems Taylor (currently voiced by Corey Burton) introduced The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia, he observed its contrast with the more abstract and emotive pieces like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.  “And now we're going to hear a piece of music that tells a very definite story,” Taylor says. “As a matter of fact, in this case, the story came first and the composer wrote the music to go with it.” That is true, though he overshoots the age of the story as we know it by a little bit: “It's a very old story, one that goes back almost 2,000 years.”

Concept painting of The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
The version to which Taylor is possibly referring is the story Philopseudes by the Greek writer Lucian. Written in 150 CE, it tells the familiar story of the young Eucrates who eavesdrops on his friend, the Egyptian sorcerer and priest of Isis named Pancrates. Curious to try out what he overhears, Eucrates gives life to various household objects, including a broom and a pestle, only to have things spin out of his control.

'When I was a young man, I passed some time in Egypt, my father having sent me to that country for my education. I took it into my head to sail up the Nile to Coptus, and thence pay a visit to the statue of Memnon, and hear the curious sound that proceeds from it at sunrise. In this respect, I was more fortunate than most people, who hear nothing but an indistinct voice: Memnon actually opened his lips, and delivered me an oracle in seven hexameters; it is foreign to my present purpose, 34or I would quote you the very lines. Well now, one of my fellow passengers on the way up was a scribe of Memphis, an extraordinarily able man, versed in all the lore of the Egyptians. He was said to have passed twenty-three years of his life underground in the tombs, studying occult sciences under the instruction of Isis herself.' 'You must mean the divine Pancrates, my teacher,' exclaimed Arignotus; 'tall, clean-shaven, snub-nosed, protruding lips, rather thin in the legs; dresses entirely in linen, has a thoughtful expression, and speaks Greek with a slight accent?' 'Yes, it was Pancrates himself. I knew nothing about him at first, but whenever we anchored I used to see him doing the most marvellous things,--for instance, he would actually ride on the crocodiles' backs, and swim about among the brutes, and they would fawn upon him and wag their tails; and then I realized that he was no common man. I made some advances, and by imperceptible degrees came to be on quite a friendly footing with him, and was admitted to a share in his mysterious arts. The end of it was, that he prevailed on me to leave all my servants behind at Memphis, and accompany him alone; assuring me that we should not want for attendance. This plan we accordingly 35followed from that time onwards. Whenever we came to an inn, he used to take up the bar of the door, or a broom, or perhaps a pestle, dress it up in clothes, and utter a certain incantation; whereupon the thing would begin to walk about, so that every one took it for a man. It would go off and draw water, buy and cook provisions, and make itself generally useful. When we had no further occasion for its services, there was another incantation, after which the broom was a broom once more, or the pestle a pestle. I could never get him to teach me this incantation, though it was not for want of trying; open as he was about everything else, he guarded this one secret jealously. At last one day I hid in a dark corner, and overheard the magic syllables; they were three in number. The Egyptian gave the pestle its instructions, and then went off to the market. Well, next day he was again busy in the market: so I took the36 pestle, dressed it, pronounced the three syllables exactly as he had done, and ordered it to become a water-carrier. It brought me the pitcher full; and then I said: Stop: be water-carrier no longer, but pestle as heretofore. But the thing would take no notice of me: it went on drawing water the whole time, until at last the house was full of it. This was awkward: if Pancrates came back, he would be angry, I thought (and so indeed it turned out). I took an axe, and cut the pestle in two. The result was that both halves took pitchers and fetched water; I had two water-carriers instead of one. This was still going on, when Pancrates appeared. He saw how things stood, and turned the water-carriers back into wood; and then he withdrew himself from me, and went away, whither I knew not.'

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Fantasia - Live in Concert

Last night, Ashley and I had the opportunity to attend a performance of Fantasia - Live in Concert by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. After we attended their Disney in Concert performance last year, I remember thinking that it would be amazing to see the shorts from Fantasia with live accompaniment, given that Fantasia is my favourite Disney film and, I believe, one of the greatest films of all time. Columbia Artists Management Inc. must have read my mind, because they licence this ensemble of pieces from Fantasia  and  Fantasia 2000 out to orchestras around the world. Fantasia - Live in Concert has played everywhere from Royal Alberta Hall in London to the Hollywood Bowl.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Fantasia and Transcendental Art

Walt Disney's masterpiece Fantasia is not only a brilliant synthesis of music and animation, nor an ambitious (if failed) experiment in the moviegoing experience, nor a repository of classic images Disney has utilized for 70 years, but also carries a distinctive if difficult to define visual style. It is painterly, yet lends itself so well to the sleek affectations of Art Deco and Streamline style. For many it seems to stand on its own, but its roots can be found deep within a short-lived artistic movement of the early 20th century, known as Transcendental Art.

One of the easiest connections to make is to the Russian painter and spiritualist Nicholas Roerich. Born in 1872 in St. Petersburg, he graduated from both St. Petersburg University and the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1893, with degrees in both art and law. From 1906 to 1917 he served as the director of the school of the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. His most direct connection to Fantasia was his role as the original costume and set designer for Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913.

One of Roerich's backdrops for Rite of Spring. 1930.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Fantasia for Halloween

The fairies of autumn are beginning to turn leaves a golden hue and my thoughts turn to my favourite Halloween traditions. Unfortunately it is no longer possible to turn on Wonderful World of Disney and see Hans Conried as the Magic Mirror, exclaiming the virtues of Disney's villains. I can, however, pop in Fantasia to revel in The Rite of Spring, The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Night on Bald Mountain.

On account of that (and our attending Fantasia - Live in Concert with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra on October 10th), we're going to be spending October looking at Fantasia. Stay tuned each week for a new article on my favourite of all Disney films.