Fantasia and the Swan of Tuonela

What has Jean Sibelius got to do with Walt Disney? It seems in December 1940, Disney approached Sibelius to propose featuring The Swan of Tuonela in the famous animated film Fantasia. Although by that time, Fantasia was already running in the theatres for a month, Disney already had plans to continually revise and improve the film – an approach that would surely have received more than a few approving nods from Sibelius!

Throughout 1941, story material was developed based on the addition or substition of new pieces of music, including Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries, Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee and Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

Disney acting out a scene in The Sorcerer's Apprentice for Taylor and Stokowski.
Disney acting out a scene in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice for Taylor and Stokowski. Picture from wikipedia.

On 9 December, 1940, a day after the composer’s 75th birthday, a letter arrived from the Walt Disney production company, bearing the Fantasia title decorated with cartoon characters. The message it carried was from John C. Rosen of Disney, who described Walt Disney as being a long-time admirer of Sibelius’s music. Although The Swan of Tuonela is not under copyright protection the United States, he added, Mr Disney did not want to proceed with using it in the film without the composer’s blessings.

Swan of Tuonela by American painter, Lorena Bowser
Swan of Tuonela by American painter, Lorena Bowser (Fine Art Studio 111)

Rosen explained the film’s intention to depict the “awe and reverence” for the souls of the departed on its journey through Tuonela, accompanied by the beautiful and majestic Swan. He assured the composer that each scene in the film would be as faithful to to the spirit of Finnish mythology, and will be accompanied by corresponding verses from the Finnish national epic, Kalevala.

The letter was accompanied by a note of support from the Finnish Ambassador to the US, Hjalmar Procopé , who said the project would be of great significance to the promotion of Finnish culture.

Sibelius’s interest in the matter is only known from the fact that he contacted his publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel, about it. I say “only” because – alas, in the end, nothing came of it. Perhaps the composer’s interest was piqued because of the involvement of Leopold Stokowski and the Philadephia Orchestra in Fantasia – the very same musicians who made the first recording of The Swan of Tuonela in 1929.

In any case, the proposal did not come to fruition. Any correspondence between Breitkopf & Härtel and the composer regarding the project has not survived, and thus we do not know exactly why it was rejected or not taken up.

Could it have been indeed a copyright issue? Considering the potentially huge earnings a film of Disney’s stature could earn, did Breitkopf & Härtel desire a cut … which Sibelius might have felt too awkward to ask of the Americans? Did Sibelius perhaps feel that a “cartoon” was not befitting his “serious” music? I speculate.

I leave you with this animation-style YouTube video of The Swan of Tuonela, featuring the classic Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.If it had been featured in Fantasia, it might have looked something close to this.

This article is adapted from “Sibelius ja Hollywood” by Sibelius scholar Glenda Dawn Goss.

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Leon

Leon is Singapore's resident champion of Jean Sibelius.

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