It might just be another lockdown liability, but the pile of dishes in my sink never seems to get any smaller, the tumbleweed of dust forming on my floor only gets larger, and my abandoned mop stares at me even more pointedly each passing day. It seems only normal that the first bars of Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer's Apprentice would start playing in my mind over and over again. Where's Mickey Mouse and his magic hat when you need him? I am OK with a flooded apartment if that means I don't have to hoover it!

Mickey Mouse in the iconic <i>The Sorcerer's Apprentice</i> segment of Disney's film <i>Fantasia</i> © Disney | Source: Purchase DVD/Blu-ray FANTASIA
Mickey Mouse in the iconic The Sorcerer's Apprentice segment of Disney's film Fantasia
© Disney | Source: Purchase DVD/Blu-ray FANTASIA

The truth is that no matter what our background or our family's musical habits, classical music has wriggled its way into our subconscious. And the fact that animation has made such liberal use of it over the years – and still does today – is a major reason for it. 

On this very day in 1940, Disney first released the Academy Award-winning blockbuster Fantasia in the US to widespread acclaim, despite the challenges brought about by World War 2 and the technical hurdles due to the use of Fantasound, a pioneering sound system which needed to be specifically retrofitted for the splendid soundtrack to be fully enjoyed. And Disney's third full-length animated feature film, an unprecedented project and the first commercial film shown in stereophonic sound, has remained one of the House of Mouse's most beloved masterpieces for the past 80 years, even granting a sequel in 1999.

The original film is set to eight iconic pieces of classical music – from the aforementioned Dukas to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Beethoven's Pastoral and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, just to mention a few – performed by an orchestra especially selected by English conductor Leopold Stokowski. Chief conductor of The Philadelphia Orchestra at the time, he was reportedly so enthusiastic about the project that he agreed to work for free. The strong connection between The Philadelphia Orchestra and this film was confirmed five years ago, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary, when a limited theatrical re-release featured an introduction and performance by the present-day ensemble and its conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Walt Disney had been pairing pieces of orchestral music and jazz with animation from as early as 1928 in his Silly Symphonies series, but he reportedly wanted to make a leap in quality. Disney is quoted saying: "Fantasia to me is a whole new opportunity. For my medium, it opens up unlimited possibilities." And it did. His namesake company has since made high quality musical animation a trademark of its productions. 

But examples of the undeniable chemistry between animation and classical music are so many that it becomes hard to pick favourites. 

Popular TV show The Simpsons has tapped into the classical repertoire often and with relentless snark. In the episode The Seven-Beer Snitch, none other than archistar Frank Gehry designs a $30 million concert hall for Springfield, just for the audience to walk out on opening night after hearing the first bars of Beethoven's Fifth. "The rest is just filling," says police Chief Wiggum. "Sounds better on my cellphone!" chimes in local drunkard Lenny. And when Marge tries to stop the crowd from leaving by announcing that the next piece will be an atonal medley by Philip Glass, even the orchestra decides it's time to abandon ship.

And speaking of Philip Glass, his unique sound signature proved to be the perfect accompaniment for Geometry of Circles, a series of four short abstract animations celebrating the beauty of visual thinking. A commission from animator Cathryn Aison, who created these artful pieces for educational show Sesame Street, these hypnotic animation gems have also been featured in several museum and design exhibitions, including at the New York Museum of Modern Art. 

The famous aria "Vesti la giubba" from Pagliacci can be found very often in animation, from The Simpsons to Hey Arnold, but Pavarotti's casually belting it out in a scene from The Two Faces of Squidward episode of Spongebob has become a favourite among the show's fandom, as its highly dramatic content helps narrate the grumpy squid's fall from grace when his face goes back to its normal features after being temporarily beautified. This award-winning animated show regularly features classical pieces to add pathos to its episodes – the overtures of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and Rossini's La gazza ladra and Strauss' The Blue Danube are only a few – and the show's creators even commissioned an original piece, The Suction Cup Symphony, from Emmy nominated composer Gary Stockdale.

One cannot write a piece about classical music and animation without mentioning Tom and Jerry. My favourite must be the iconic Cat Concerto, featuring Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 as a soundtrack for an epic battle of wits between the two longstanding frenemies. 

But this Academy Award-winning animation came with its own set of controversy: the same year that MGM released its cat and mouse short, rival studio Warner Bros published a very similar piece, Rhapsody Rabbit, featuring Bugs Bunny warring with an unknown mouse over the same soundtrack. It was never made clear who plagiarised whom, or if the ideas were accidentally leaked, but considering that today Warner Bros owns the rights to both, the matter can be considered archived and we won't complain for the chance to enjoy both of these great pieces of humorous animation.

The cheeky rabbit was drawn very often alongside classical music pieces, as comedy series Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies featured everything from opera to waltzes and symphonies. They even parodied Fantasia with a piece called A Corny Concerto: live from Corny-gie Hall, Bugs Bunny's nemesis Elmer Fudd, playing the part of an ill-equipped musicologist, introduces a series of their trademark visual gags set to two of Strauss' waltzes, Tales from the Vienna Woods and The Blue Danube.

The piano is also the chosen instrument for Woody Woodpecker, the star of his own show produced by Universal Studios, where he and his gang cause chaos in a small rural town. In this tribute to Chopin, Woody is intrigued by Andy Panda's playing and decides to join him at the keys. The concerto continues despite increasingly chaotic disturbances from the audience, and not even a fire can distract the virtuoso bird from his performance. 

Another irreverent cartoon character, the Pink Panther, is featured trying to "play his way to riches and fame" by learning the violin. While going to perform at a concert venue that looks suspiciously similar to the Royal Albert Hall in London, he ends up completely wrecking havoc on a performance of Beethoven's Fifth instead.

These are only a few examples of the love affair between classical music and animation aimed at audiences of all ages, and this relationship does not seem to be ending any time soon. This past October has seen the world premiere of the first Belgian animated opera short, Fidelio, a work commissioned by OperaVision and the Belgian artist collective WALPURGIS to celebrate the Beethoven anniversary and World Opera Day. In this gorgeous 15-minutes animation, Florestan is a young graffiti artist dreaming of a more eco-sustainable and accepting world. Once he is imprisoned by evil Pizarro, it's down to his lover Leonore to save him. You can watch the full piece on Bachtrack until April 2021.  

Fidelio: the animated version © Roman Klochkov
Fidelio: the animated version
© Roman Klochkov

One thing is for sure: classical music is not something that was ever meant to be locked into a concert hall behind a wall of stuffed coattails and shiny opera glasses. At a time when life seems to be challenging us more and more to think outside of a box we are unwillingly stuck inside, animation can be a wonderful medium to bring joy to music lovers of all ages and walks of life. 

So here's to today's 80th anniversary of one of the most iconic classical music and animation features ever created, and to all the many others that followed ever since.