Russell Schroeder: Disney's Lost Chords - Volumes 1 and 2

Voigt, 2007 (312pp) and 2009 (384pp)

27 December 2009 5 stars

Disney's Lost Chords Volume 1No less than the Broadway musical, the films produced by the Walt Disney studio have become an increasingly-appreciated part of America's cultural heritage. And as musicology continues to widens its boundaries to include popular and world music, so too has the Disney songbook emerged as a source of interest for scholars and performers alike. Singers as diverse as Barbara Cook and Louis Armstrong, Phil Collins and Barbra Streisand, and Elton John and Peggy Lee have recorded these songs to great popular acclaim, and it's only a matter of time before the Disney scores become the subject of serious musical study.

In the meantime, we can enjoy and admire these two outstanding volumes put together and edited by Russell Schroeder. For twenty-nine years employed as an artist at the Disney Studios, Schroeder has a first-hand, insider knowledge of how the company works, and was present during the creation of a number of its biggest hits. Although he's now retired, he's spent the last ten years researching these two handsome volumes, which consist of cut songs from the entire Disney catalogue.

The result is a model of what this kind of book should be, but rarely is. Major publishers of songbooks hardly ever put time or money into putting together decent volumes with proper editorials and illustrations. Perhaps that's why Schroeder has had these volumes published independently. They're limited editions of only 1000 copies each, and they'll surely become collectors' items in the future.

The books are divided into two chronologically. The first takes us from the earliest days of Disney up to Walt's death. The second picks up the story with The Aristocats and Bedknobs and Broomsticks and takes us through to Hercules, filling up the volume with additional songs from classics like The Jungle Book and Dumbo that wouldn't fit into Volume 1. I spent a very happy afternoon playing through the two books and came away with a renewed admiration for Disney's work, as well as a better sense of his overall output. Schroeder's introductions to each group of songs are excellent: beautifully and elegantly written, they take us through the background to each film as well as describing the reasons why the songs were commissioned and then cut. Many of the Disney films have multiple composers, so we also learn how and why several teams worked on movies like Alice in Wonderland and The Aristocats.

Inevitably, given their origin, some of these songs are a little childish and not always top notch – they were cut, after all. But having said that, the fact that they were cut isn't necessarily an indication of quality: often, the songs were cut because the concept of the film was changed, rather than a perceived lack of quality in the music. At times, turning these pages was like turning the pages of the 'Great American Songbook': names like Gene de Paul (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), Sammy Fain (Calamity Jane) and Sammy Cahn (Thoroughly Modern Millie) are quite common amongst the Disney contingent, and it tends to be these guys who come up with the best material. De Paul's 'Beware the Jabberwock' from Alice in Wonderland, for instance, is a fine song with plenty of interior harmonic interest (which tends to be the quality that sorts the men from the boys as far as these songs are concerned), and the same composer's setting of Lewis Carroll's 'Beautiful Soup' from Alice is notably finer than Frank Churchill's earlier attempt at the same words. I also absolutely love Fain's song for the Cheshire Cat, 'I'm Odd', which has words by Bob Hilliard and is very cute.

Churchill was an important composer in Disney's early years, and it tends to be in the more finely-painted, innocent films such as Bambi where he's at home: from that movie, 'The Rain Song' is very attractive, and 'Twitterpated' has a touch of Irving Berlin about it. His song 'Tea-Time at Four O'Clock' from The Adventures of Mr Ichabod and Mr Toad is an amusing send-up of Noel Coward's 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen' – an extramusical connection that's typical of the invention here. Churchill's contrapuntal duet from Song of the South, 'Walkin'', is also imaginative, while an unused song by Charles Wolcott from 1945, 'Boogity Boy', has so much style that I'm surprised it wasn't recycled for use somewhere else, and I'm very much taken with the chordally complex lullaby 'Close Your Eyes' by Oliver Wallace from Fun and Fancy Free. Gene de Paul's 'Sing About Something' from Melody Time is likewise worthy of performance even today, as are most of the above songs.

Disney's Lost Chords Volume 2Still, if you're anything like me you'll be intrigued by the songs cut from the well-known movies. These are in abundance and are often fascinating. Ten songs from Alice in Wonderland and eight from Cinderella chart the development of these two projects, which took many years in both cases. Charles Wolcott's 'Sing A Little – Dream a Little' from the latter movie is a stylish swing number, while the duet for Cinderella and Prince Charming called 'Dancing on a Cloud' is real Broadway fare. It's intriguing to see the cut songs (eleven over the two books) from Sleeping Beauty, which of course used the music from Tchaikovsky's ballet as the basis of the cartoon's score. Originally, though, Sammy Fain and Jack Lawrence had been commissioned to write a conventional score for the movie, and a number of their songs are included in Lost Chords 2.

Seven songs from The Jungle Book show the two versions of the piece – one of which had music by Terry Gilkyson, the other of which had the familiar songs by the Sherman Brothers. Disney's Lost Chords 2 contains Gilkyson's earlier version of 'The Bare Necessities' (which was the only one of his songs to remain in the final movie), as well as a number of songs more directly inspired by the Rudyard Kipling stories than the completed film. Dumbo, Pinocchio and Peter Pan are also well represented, and it's great to have quite a lot of Sherman Brothers songs from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Aristocats and Mary Poppins. The latter is the climax of the first book and consists of six cut songs spread over twenty pages.

The second book contains an inspiring number of cut songs from fairly recent projects, and it's admirable to see the composers and lyricists have allowed them to be included. In addition to the already-familiar 'Proud of Your Boy', there's 'Humiliate the Boy' and the exquisite 'You Can Count on Me' from Aladdin; 'In the Middle of the River' from Pocahontas; 'Shooting Star' from Hercules; and three numbers from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Fans of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Stephen Schwartz won't want to be without these, though it's sad that nothing survives from Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

Also of enormous interest are songs from projects that never came to pass, such as Return to Oz, Chantecler and Hansel and Gretel. All of these are described in detail by Schroeder, and, as with the whole book, the scores and lyrics are reproduced with lucid detail and hardly any errors (though I did notice a handful, as well as some debateable realisations of piano parts from 'lead sheets' or bare melodic lines).

I could go on, but by now it will be clear that this is a very special and personal project that requires closer perusal to appreciate fully. The combination of generous quantities of music (312 pages/77 songs in Volume 1; 384 pages/64 songs in Volume 2), lavish illustrations, most of which haven't been seen before in print, and Schroeder's masterful narrative, make for a serious and significant contribution to popular music in print. And don't delay: this limited edition is selling well and will soon be unavailable. The volumes can be ordered direct from the author via his website or via mail order.

By Dominic McHugh

See the Disney's Lost Chords website here: http://www.skydebanen.net/~hp/LostChords/

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