Bugs and Beethoven: How I Learned the Classics by Watching Cartoons

I recently read an excellent article on the WordPress blog ifmermaidsworesuspenders.com.  It is titled “How To Actually Enjoy Classical Music (For Book Lovers):  The Story I Imagined.”  The blogmaster, a classical pianist who is also a literary aficionado, suggests appreciating classical music by listening to compositions and thinking of story lines to go along with the music.  This sounds like an imaginative and fun way to learn the classics.

I myself was a music student, and I learned the classics by playing the piano, attending concerts and recitals, and listening to recordings.  But I first started appreciating classical music in childhood by watching animated shorts featuring a smart-alec rabbit named Bugs Bunny.

During the 1960’s, our entire family used to spend Saturday mornings in Mom and Dad’s bedroom, watching the Bugs Bunny show (1960-1975).  We all laughed at the antics of Bugs and his friends:  Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, etc.  Watching this show was a family activity that brought us together and gave us all much pleasure.  It also gave us a great education in classical music.

In these times of digitized sound sampling, I don’t think we always appreciate how challenging it was for past film composers to write, score, and conduct entire orchestral suites so that they were synchronized with filmed scenes right down to the millisecond.  This process was especially challenging for those who wrote and conducted music for animated shorts, where action, mood, tone, and scenery changed practically every second.

In writing music scores, animation composers often freely borrowed from the classics.  They likely did this for convenience, as many of the works from which they borrowed were in the public domain and not protected by copyright laws.  Here are some examples of classical music from Merry Melodies/Looney Tune shorts:

Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave) by Felix Mendelssohn.  The very first time I heard this dramatic, brooding piece was not during a concert.  Instead, as a child I saw a Warner Brothers cartoon called Inki and the Minah Bird (1943).  The short features an African pygmy hunter who is repeatedly outsmarted by his prey, a grim-faced mynah bird.  Everytime you see the mynah bird hop into the frame, you hear the main theme from Mendelssohn’s famous overtureThe droll, plodding nature of the mynah bird’s theme contrasts with the manic musical sequences underscoring the hunter’s own plight:  He’s being stalked by a very hungry lion!

The Raindrop Prelude in Db, by Frederic Chopin.  As an amateur pianist, I have over the years enjoyed playing this piece, one of the few Chopin preludes I can competently manage.  The middle section, which is meant to depict a gathering thunderstorm, has a dark feel to it and is used in Warner Brothers shorts when sinister things are developing.  One example is Birth of a Notion (1947), which pits Daffy Duck against a Peter Lorre-like mad scientist.  We hear the prelude as the scientist is reciting the ingredients he will need for his latest experiment:  “Salite manganese, hypophosphate corpuscle, the wishbone of a duck….H’mm, I’ll have to get a duck somewhere.”  Uh oh.  Look out, Daffy!

The Erlking, by Franz Schubert.  The opening section of this dramatic art song is typically used in Warner Brothers cartoons when a character is wandering through a thunderstorm or similar threatening situation.  It is also used as a theme song for villains.  For example, in Bugs Bunny Rides Again (1948), which pits the title character against his archenemy Yosemite Sam, we see the bow-legged Yosemite entering the “Gunshot Saloon” (the sign above the door spells out the caption, “Come in and get a slug”).  The ominous strains of the Schubert piece begin as our gun-totin’ bad guy bursts through the saloon door and announces, “Yeah, [I’m] Yosemite Sam, the roughest, toughest, he-man stuffest he man who’s ever crossed the Rio Grandy–and I ain’t no namby-pamby!”

Les Preludes, by Franz Liszt.  While listening to a recording of Liszt’s magnificent symphonic poem in my college music classes, I was delighted when I realized that I had already heard the piece as a child, in another Looney Tunes production.  14 Carrot Rabbit once again features Yosemite Sam (this time he’s Chilakoot Sam) as a claim jumper, chasing Bugs Bunny through the Klondike.  As the cartoon begins, we hear Les Preludes and see a caption reading:  “The Klondike:  Where Men are Men, and Women are Women:  Darn Good Arrangement!”

The Barber of Seville, opera by Gioachino Rossini.  In addition to classical music samplings, Warner Brothers animators sometimes produced shorts based strictly on works of specific classical composers.  One of the funniest is 1950’s The Rabbit of Seville, in which Bugs Bunny and nemesis Elmer Fudd scamper through an opera house to the overture from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.  The centerpiece of this cartoon is a routine where Bugs gives Elmer a haircut and shave synchronized to the overture’s main theme.  Watch it, and then look up a copy of 1940’s The Great Dictator, starring Charlie Chaplin.  You may be surprised to discover that the Bugs Bunny shave-and-a-haircut scene references a similar Chaplin routine set to Brahms.

I hope at this point that you are chuckling over the plot summaries and silly quotations that I have pulled from these cartoons.  Perhaps you have your own fond memories of Bugs and his friends.   My point in writing this article is that to truly enjoy classical music, or any other type of music for that matter, you need to have an emotional connection with it.  I found mine through the humor and good fun of the Warner Brothers Merrie Melody/Looney Tunes cartoons.  I also discovered that hearing the music while laughing at the cartoon silliness made the music less intimidating, and more accessible.  Again, that emotional connection.

So, why don’t you leave some comments about your favorite classic animation and the music that goes with it.  Are you a Looney Toons fan?  A Disney fan?  An anything fan?  Let’s hear about it!

And now……T-t-that’s all folks!

Sources:

Leaman, Aubrey.  “How To Actually Enjoy Classical Music (For Book Lovers):  The Story I imagined.”  https://ifmermaidsworesuspenders.com. WordPress.com.  June 5, 2016. Web. Accessed July 21, 2016

Schlesinger, Leon (Producer) Jones, Chuck (Director).  (1943).  Inki and the Minah Bird.  (Animated short).  Burbank California.  Warner Brothers (Merrie Melodies)

Selzer, Edward (Producer).  McKimson, Robert (Director).  (1947) Birth of a Notion.  (Animated short).  Burbank California.  Warner Brothers (Merrie Melodies).

Selzer, Edward (Producer).  Freleng, Friz (Director).  (1948) Bugs Bunny Rides Again.  (Animated short).  Burbank California.  Warner Brothers (Merrie Melodies).

Selzer, Edward (Producer).  Freleng, I. (Director).  (1952).  14 Carrot Rabbit.  (Animated short).  Burbank California.  Warner Brothers (Looney Tunes).

Selzer, Edward (Producer).  Jones, Chuck. (Director).  (1950).  The Rabbit of Seville.  (Animated Short).  Burbank California.  Warner Brothers (Looney Tunes).

Hebrides Overture:  Fingal’s Cave, Op. 26, by Felix Mendelssohn.  Concert overture.

Prelude Op. 28 No. 15, “Raindrop,” by Frederic Chopin.  Solo piano.

The Erlking, Opus 1 (D.328), by Franz Schubert.  Art song.

Les Preludes, S. 97, by Franz Liszt.  Symphonic poem.

The Barber of Seville, , by Gioachino Rossini.  Opera.

The Great Dictator,  Prod.  Charlie Chaplin.  Dir. Charlie Chaplin.  Perf. Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert.  Charles Chaplin Film Corporation, 1940.  Film

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 thought on “Bugs and Beethoven: How I Learned the Classics by Watching Cartoons”

  1. I love this article! I grew up with Looney Tunes as a kid, so I can totally relate to this. The Barber of Seville is one of my favorites hahaha. Great point about how hard it was to sync the music with the film! I got a little taste of that myself this past semester, actually. I created my own silent film based on Red Riding Hood to go along with a Haydn sonata I was learning! Super fun but I definitely have a new appreciation for syncing the music and plot together as it was not easy. I’m so glad you found my post inspiring, and again, great article!!

    Like

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