A Night at the Orchestra with Hegel and Mickey Mouse

Mickey Mouse

As I took my customary seat in the local symphony hall at my customary time of 7:58pm Friday evening, I noticed something seemed a bit different about the audience this time: It was younger. And I don’t just mean the 20- and 30-somethings such as myself whom the orchestra was trying so hard to attract with student discounts and themed after-parties, although two such people were sitting directly behind me and two more directly in front of me. But the first two audience members to my right were middle-school kids, and to the left were a woman and her son, who looked to be just seven or eight years old.

Glancing at the program, I realized why parents might have picked this night to bring their children to the symphony. The concert opener was Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, famous as a segment from the classic Disney movie Fantasia starring Mickey Mouse as the title character who conjures a magic broom to mop the floor for him. I remembered this piece mostly as the subject of a bizarrely pedantic dispute between two scholars I had to read in a music theory seminar over whether the presence—or lack thereof—of a complete tonic chord at the end of the piece implied an authorial voice narrating the action of the story.

But not surprisingly, it seemed that the concertgoers around me had very different associations with it. As soon as the first downbeat unleashed the ethereal chords representing the magic spell, the young boy to the left began talking excitedly to his mother, although thankfully softly enough to only be audible during the quiet moments in the music. At one point, I think I heard him squeal, “Is this the part where they fight?” (I’ve only watched the Fantasia short once—because of that same class—but I don’t remember any fighting in it…)

But it wasn’t just the kids who were enjoying Mickey’s music. The young woman in front of me seemed to be squirming with delight as she rocked back and forth in time with the magic broom’s comically grotesque melody. Perhaps she had grown up watching the cartoon too. I began to wonder whether Walt Disney had really succeeded in his attempt at bringing classical music into popular culture while actually making money in the process. The remaining pieces on the program—Chausson’s Poéme, Ravel’s Tzigane, and Stravinsky’s Petrushka—were all based on dramatic or narrative subtexts too and kept the audience well engaged, if not enthralled (although the young boy seemed to max out his attention span after about 15 minutes of Stravinsky). But, I wondered, how many of these people would have bought tickets to the symphony had The Sorcerer’s Apprentice not opened the program?

For a seminar I’m taking in aesthetics, I recently read an essay by the Enlightenment philosopher G. W. F. Hegel bearing the ungainly title “The Oldest System-Program of German Idealism.”[1] Hegel laments the difficulty of closing the gap between “enlightened” thinkers and the “unenlightened” masses. This gap, he says, manifests itself in religion (as reason versus faith), in art (as what we call the highbrow-versus-lowbrow divide), and in philosophy (as the difference between what Hegel sees as authentic philosophy and popular “mythology”). He then proposes

an idea which, as far as I know, has not occurred to anyone—we need a new mythology. However, this mythology must be at the service of the ideas; it must become a mythology of reason. Until we render the ideas aesthetic, that is, mythological, they will not be of any interest to the populace. … Mythology must become philosophical in order to make the people reasonable, and philosophy must turn mythological in order to make the philosophers sensuous. Then there prevails eternal unity among us![2]

Thus, Hegel wants to enlist the arts as a medium for his “program” of unifying humanity under enlightened ideas. He envisions them as not only a sort of marketing ploy to interest ordinary people in philosophy, but also a way of drawing the philosophers down from their rarefied abstract contemplations into the “sensuous” world inhabited by ordinary people. Out of the great cultural triad of art, religion, and philosophy, Hegel is obviously most concerned with advocating for the latter. But many artists of a religious persuasion would express a similar sentiment: art can not only be a means of embodying spiritual truths in a way that is relatable to embodied humans, but also of ensuring that spiritual people continue to enjoy the physical creation rather than all becoming ascetic hermits.

What Fantasia seems to have done, then, is to complete the triad, using art-as-mythology to further the cause of art-as-philosophy. It could be considered an attempt to convey supposedly higher-level values in simple, vivid images understandable to ordinary people, which Hegel calls “mythology,” although we might also speak of popular science, pop spirituality, or pop psychology alongside folktale and myth. But Disney has literally imported “mythological” characters in cartoon form into works of classical music, in hopes of achieving a rapprochement between, perhaps even a synthesis of, the two. Since the split of classical and popular music culture a century or so ago, numerous music organizations have attempted similar projects, with mixed results (as my local symphony can attest).

But ultimately, the goal is not merely tricking listeners into discovering art music with the promise of familiar movie themes. It’s equally about reminding jaded graduate students that good music can be enjoyed on a simple level too, just like a silly cartoon—without worrying about such minutiae as whether there’s a C in the last chord.

For the record, though, there isn’t.

[1] The essay is technically anonymous, and some scholars believe it to be the work of one of Hegel’s colleagues, such as the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, or a collaboration between Hegel, Hölderlin, and F. W. J. Schelling.

[2] Thomas Pfau, trans., Friedrich Hölderlin: Essays and letters on theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 155-156.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s