• Music written for the organ by German composer Johann Sebastian Bach in the 1700s.
  • Animation directed by Samuel Armstrong.

The segment that opens Fantasia begins with Leopold Stokowski in silhouette conducting the piece atop his podium as images of the orchestra (in silhouette and shadow) are flashed onto the screen in bold Technicolor and lighting, soon leading to abstract images of shapes in the sky resembling violin bows, strings, chords, rolling hills, sparkling confetti, shafts of light and cathedrals in the clouds. There is neither a narrative nor any characters in this first segment as it serves purely as a showcase for the skills of the musicians and the animators who put to the screen their interpretation of what one might picture while listening to an orchestra.

The images of an orchestra playing Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” in the film’s opening scene were lit in creative and colorful ways that were striking at a time when most films were still in black & white. Even the way that the musicians were shown playing their instruments served as a showcase for the stereo effect of Fantasound. It was essentially a sneak preview for what the rest of the film would be like when the animators took over.

Leopold Stokowski and Deems Taylor had told Walt Disney that there are three different kinds of music: music that tells a story, music that paints a picture and music that exists for its own sake. That last kind is the version that went against Walt’s instincts as a storyteller the most. In fact, until the Toccata and Fugue segment was created for Fantasia, Disney had never made an abstract art film before. Although Walt had shown interest in abstract films since the 1930s when he first saw Len Lye’s film Colour Box.

Lye was an Englishman who painted directly onto the film itself to create his art, and because Bach’s composition neither sought to tell a story nor paint a picture but was instead just absolute music, Walt chose it to accompany his first foray into abstract animation.

Disney effects animators like Cy Young, who had animated on many of Disney’s Silly Symphonies before being hired to animate the effects in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, had experimented with abstract animation before Walt had even met Stokowski and so Walt put Young in charge of the effects animation in Toccata and Fugue. Cy Young would later go on to work on the effects in the Disney films Dumbo, Bambi and Make Mine Music.

The German abstract artist Oskar Fischinger who had previously worked on some early sci-fi films with Fritz Lang before arriving in Hollywood was a huge inspiration on this segment and Walt had actually hired Fischinger to work on it between 1938 and 1939, but Fischinger left the production because he was not used to having to compromise with his art, which was something he had to do when working for a visionary like Walt Disney, and so he ended up being uncredited. Still if you look at Fischinger’s art, you can see the similarities to the art style of Fantasia‘s first segment.

Not only was Toccata and Fugue Disney’s first abstract animation. It was also the first use of abstract animation in a mainstream Hollywood film. Plus it predated films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Koyaanisqatsi in its use of music and imagery to convey drama rather than narrative and dialogue. The entire segment is nothing short of mesmerizing and it contains animation that stands out among the entire Walt Disney Animation Studios catalog.